Popular payroll tax and other surprises in San Mateo County transportation tax poll

Several months ago, San Mateo County supervisors reviewed the results of a poll they commissioned regarding a potential transportation tax.

The poll included some results that go against local conventional wisdom – including strong results for a potential payroll tax.  The poll data also included some results that differed strongly from the results of polls in the previous year for Santa Clara’s successful 2016 transportation ballot measure.

Counter to conventional wisdom from previous initiatives in the region that were funded and crafted by business leaders, the poll showed stronger results for a potential 1/4% payroll-based business license tax generating $47million per year than for a 1/2 percent sales tax generating $80 million per year, with payroll tax results coming in higher than the needed 2/3 threshold, and sales tax results coming in below the threshold.


Despite these results, the County Supervisors and SamTrans have agreed to partner on a sales tax measure.  We don’t have direct causal evidence, but in the region, business groups have traditionally funded transportation tax campaigns, and payroll taxes have been less popular among business groups.

Spending priority surprises and wording sensitivity

With regard to potential spending priorities, the poll not surprisingly showed favorable results for pothole repair and street maintenance, reducing highway 101 congestion, and modernizing Caltrain to nearly double capacity.

Also not surprisingly, but perhaps unfortunately, poll results were quite favorable to expanding Highway 101.  Voters may not know, and the poll did not provide supporting information showing whether expanding the highway would be likely to attract additional drivers, resulting in renewed congestion. We wonder how voters would respond if that information were provided.

Surprisingly compared to earlier Santa Clara County results, the San Mateo County poll showed much lower support for senior transit and bike lanes, although these also polled favorably.

Category details for San Mateo transportation tax poll

Category details for San Mateo transportation tax poll


In the Santa Clara County poll commissioned by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, transit for senior, disabled, and low-income residents; and bike/pedestrian safety near schools polled extremely favorably, very close to potholes and BART.

It is possible that the responses to the the polls are sensitive to wording. The Santa Clara County poll language described transit funding for several vulnerable groups with transportation needs – “senior, disabled, and low-income residents.”  Similarly, the question about bicycle funding was worded in terms of support for the most sympathetic and vulnerable bike users, seeking funding to improve “bike and pedestrian safety near schools”.

By contrast, the San Mateo County poll  base wording (see below), primed participants by describing bike lanes and senior transit as “alternative transportation”, implying that these modes are outside the mainstream.

2015 Santa Clara County poll results

  • 88% support filling potholes; maintaining city streets
  • 86% support BART to Santa Clara
  • 85% support improving transit for seniors, disabled and low-income residents
  • 84% support bike and pedestrian safety near schools
  • 80% support improving all eight expressways
  • 73% support improving Caltrain from Gilroy to Palo Alto

San Mateo County Poll main question

The poll’s main question was asked voters if they support a tax to reduce traffic in San Mateo County by:


  • expanding Interstate 101 from Whipple Road to Highway 380, and Highway 92 from Interstate 101 to the San Mateo Bridge;
  • repairing potholes and maintaining streets;
  • extending Caltrain/light rail from Redwood City to Union City;
  • modernizing Caltrain to nearly double capacity, reducing car trips;
  • funding alternative transportation including bike lanes and senior transit;
  • maintaining Caltrain and SamTrans transit systems

The poll also asked about voters’ tolerance for approving more than one related tax on the same ballot.  It’s not clear from the truncated wording on the slides whether the poll described the Regional Measure 3 bridge toll, a dedicated Caltrain sales tax, or some other related measure; but results showed that voters would be less likely to approve this measure if there were another related measure on the ballot, even if they were described as complementary.

Your blogger will go back and try to listen to the Board of Supervisors meeting audio to see if the presentation shared more information about this question; readers who know more details feel free to leave information in comments or to friends@friendsofcaltrain.com


The poll was a random-sample scientific survey conducted by Godbe, one of the region’s well-known political polling firms. The slides contain methodology information about respondents and margin of error.

Looking at these poll results, what do you think?  Feel free to share your thoughts in comments.