Soon, the threshold for passing local transportation bonds in California could be far lower, unlocking funding for countless transit needs across the Golden State.
A new transbay tube. Caltrain electrification. Miles of new subways in cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
State Sen. Scott Wiener’s newly introduced state constitutional amendment would make funding projects like those far easier, by lowering the threshold to pass transportation bonds from a two-thirds voter majority to 55 percent.
That threshold is determined by the California constitution. The state constitutional amendment, which Wiener plans to introduce Monday, is still in its infancy. But if it succeeds, its effects could be far reaching.
“We have massive unfunded transportation needs on public transportation, roads and bridges,” Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner. “We need to empower local communities to fund these needs.”
Those needs include more than $59 billion in deferred transportation maintenance statewide, according to draft background language of the bill. Those needs are in the Bay Area, too.
Though voters approved a $3.5 billion bond for BART last November, planning documents show BART’s capital needs hover around $10 billion, and there’s no funding yet in sight for $4.8 billion for those needs. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency isn’t faring much better. Planning documents show more than $3 billion in future capital needs where no source of funding has been identified, just to keep the system in a state of good repair.
One BART board director, Nick Josefowitz, said local funding of transportation infrastructure is especially key in the era of President Donald Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal dollars that are the backbone of transportation projects at agencies like BART.
“If we’re going to be able to make sure the Trump administration yanking federal support doesn’t have a huge effect on our riders, we’re going to have to count on raising money locally,” Josefowitz said.
Though transportation funding is needed in San Francisco, Stuart Cohen, executive director of the transportation advocacy group TransForm, said the need is highest where transportation is less developed.
“Most of the places that have trouble passing these are not San Francisco and L.A.,” he said. “It’s the more suburban areas like Sacramento.”
Research from Wiener’s office shows in November 2016, fifteen local governments in California tried to raise their sales taxes to pay for transportation, while others authorized bonds and raised local property taxes in other areas.
Controversially, a measure in Contra Costa County to raise $2.9 billion in sales taxes garnered 62 percent voter approval but did not pass because it did not meet the two-thirds threshold. Under Wiener’s amendment, the measure would have passed.
Cohen said the measure is welcome, but he hopes it doesn’t become a “blank check” for pricey projects while basic good repair is neglected — like the BART to Oakland Airport extension, for example, which has struggled with ridership figures.
Wiener should aim his measure at core transportation aid, Cohen said, “we have to make sure it’s done right.”
Transportation bonds have come under some scrutiny recently in San Francisco, as Board of Supervisors London Breed last week called out the SFMTA for only spending $12 million of a $500 million transportation bond passed in 2014.
Wiener acknowledged the SFMTA has been slow to use some bond money due to its attentive neighborhood feedback processes, but said that did not detract from the overall need to fund transportation.
“MTA has a long history of not moving quickly enough on important capital projects. That’s been a frustration for many of us for years,” Weiner said.
Still, he noted, federal investment in transportation has been “deteriorating” for years, too.
“San Francisco’s unfunded transportation needs are billions and billions of dollars,” he said, “This money is absolutely needed.”