Regional transportation/housing ballot measure drama at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission

As part of its annual workshop, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission was scheduled to hold a discussion about a potential regional transportation funding ballot measure on Thursday in Pleasanton, and an agenda item on Friday in Dublin about a housing funding bond measure, with the ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments.

The big news on Thursday was a bombshell dropped by the FASTER business alliance (led by Bay Area Council, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and SPUR), with a proposal for a combined transportation and housing ballot measure funded by a 1 cent sales tax – combining initiatives to take on the region’s two major challenges.

At the meeting, Voices for Public Transportation, a coalition of labor, community, and transit/active transportation groups expressed support for a large regional transportation funding measure, but wanted to see a less regressive type of tax (see study of options), and mentioned upcoming polling for options including a business tax and a “millionaire’s tax.”  Voices also wanted to make sure that there was plentiful funding to run, improve, and maintain service, in addition to building more transit infrastructure.

At the meeting, Commissioners discussed and questioned the business group’s idea to require companies to provide employee transportation benefits, in addition to the sales tax.  This sounds potentially good, but q&a seemed to show that this mandate would give credit to the largest companies for the private transit that they already provide; could fund the creation of new private transportation rather than public transportation; and wouldn’t be required to serve people who work for small companies, nor the 70-80% of trips that are not commute trips.

During Thursday’s discussion about a transportation+housing measure, the leaders of the housing bond initiative weren’t in the room. The next day on Friday, during the regularly scheduled discussion of the potential housing bond, the leaders of the housing initiative (Nonprofit Housing and Enterprise) said that they would continue to support their initial housing-focused bond proposal, though they would follow up to discuss the mixed proposal. 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who’d been an assertive proponent of “housing funding first” was excited about the combo measure, and the Commission was overall positive about it.  

But the timeline is challenging. SB278, the bill authored by Senator Beall for transportation, passed the Senate last week still in placeholder form. Substantive bill language describing the funding measure isn’t expected to surface until March. A supermajority vote will be needed because the bill is slated to go into takes effect the same year it’s signed, rather than January 1 of the following year, and such require a supermajority to pass (edited to correct the reason that the bill needs a supermajority). 

Transit advocates, including your blogger, urged the MTC to take a public agency leadership role in convening a discussion about the options and issues to craft a ballot measure that would gain support from many groups.   For example, in the process that created San Mateo County’s successful Measure W, SamTrans and the County of San Mateo convened a process with many stakeholders including business, labor, equity, environment, and transit groups to hash out the details of a measure that got broad support, and then the many different groups worked together to get the measure successfully passed.

Meanwhile, on the Caltrain corridor, preparation is happening behind the scenes. If a regional transportation measure moves forward in 2020, Caltrain funding is expected to be included; if a regional transportation measure does not move forward in 2020, then the Caltrain board and its county partners are strongly considering putting a Caltrain-specific measure on the ballot, according to discussion at Caltrain board meetings late last year.