Vehicle license fee may come back in 2016, finds support in new poll

Traffic backs up at 5th and Market streets on Tuesday, Oct. 27. A new poll suggests San Franciscans are not entirely opposed to a vehicle license fee if it would help fund The City's public transportation improvement efforts. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

A new poll released by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority on Tuesday shows San Franciscans overwhelmingly feel The City, and the Bay Area, needs to reinvest in public transportation.

The poll also finds growing support for a new vehicle license fee — but with a caveat.

Only two in five voters back a vehicle license fee when asked about it with no context, but that support jumps when voters are told the money would go to prevent breakdowns in the ailing BART and Muni systems, and repair roads.

When the money is promised for infrastructure repair, 54 percent of voters support a vehicle license fee, while 40 percent are opposed.

That’s good news for those who like to ride a Muni that actually works, supporters say.

Federal and state funding is key to most transportation projects in San Francisco, and in cities throughout the country. But as the federal government remains gridlocked, those dollars are increasingly tough to come by.

That’s why politicians are increasingly calling for local investment, including a new vehicle license fee potentially set at 1.5 percent of a vehicle’s value, which has been heavily backed by Supervisor Scott Wiener.

“These results are definitely encouraging,” Wiener said at the authority’s meeting Tuesday.

“The federal government’s commitment to transportation has been gradually collapsing,” Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner. “Although hope springs eternal in terms of improving funding from the federal government, for now we need to assume we have to do a lot more locally.”

Wiener is also chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. Staff from SFCTA presented the findings at their regular public meeting Tuesday.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled back the statewide vehicle license fee when he was elected in 2003. State coffers immediately lost billions of dollars which were used for road upkeep, among other things, detractors say.

Since then multiple efforts to increase the vehicle license fee failed. In 2014 Supervisor Wiener intended to put a vehicle license fee on the ballot, but that effort failed when Mayor Ed Lee dropped his support for the measure.

Now this poll may signal a revival of the VLF in 2016, just as Wiener and Supervisor Jane Kim are vying for state senate.

Wiener and Lee earlier indicated the VLF may be revived in 2016. That promise was followed by a high-profile spat over transportation funding months later between Wiener and Lee which resulted in the passage of Proposition B, which tied some Muni funding to population growth.

“This poll shows strong support to go forward with both the VLF and the sales tax,” Wiener said, and he added the VLF will likely move forward in 2016.

The survey interviewed 801 likely voters Oct. 2 to Oct. 10. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese and on landline and cell phones, according to the SFCTA. It was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates.

Most of those voters drive and 76 percent own a car, while 8 percent have access to a car. They also regularly ride transit: 59 percent ride Muni, 43 percent ride BART and 20 percent ride Caltrain.

The poll also found nearly three-quarters of San Francisco voters support a $4 billion BART bond measure, though BART has not yet settled on a final number for its bond.

The poll also found a half-cent transportation sales tax has more support than a Vehicle License Fee, with 65 percent of voters supporting a new sales tax.

Tilly Chang, executive director of the Transportation Authority, said new local dollars are vital to funding transportation in the Bay Area, and San Francisco.

“Congress is still working on a consensus transportation bill,” Chang told the Examiner, “but the proposals only achieve a three year funding level. We need to look ahead and count on funding for projects that require multi-year commitments.”

“This hampers not just our ability to fund projects, but other regions to plan and deliver infrastructure projects,” she said.

And as San Francisco looks to build more subways, and BART considers a new transbay tube, experts point to that local funding as more crucial than ever.

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