LOS ANGELES — Four transportation agencies in California's three largest metropolitan areas have placed tax measures on November's ballot.
Three are proposing sales tax increases. The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority is seeking approval for a $3.5 billion general obligation bond issue, which would be supported by a property tax increase.
Those measures will join other local measures from school districts and other smaller governments, as well as 17 statewide measures on the November ballot.
So-called voter ballot fatigue from the many statewide measures is unlikely to impact local transportation measures.
"It is quite possible that voters will suffer ballot fatigue as they go through the 17 statewide measures, but people tend to be more in touch with what is going on their own community," said Michael Coleman, principal fiscal policy advisor both to the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers and the League of California Cities. "Voters tend to differentiate between state and local measures; at least, that is what our polling shows."
It is a bigger risk for local transportation measures when they are competing with other local measures like a city tax or school bond, Coleman said.
November's ballot will have a plethora of local measures. The June primary saw 89 general purpose local tax measures in California; Coleman said there will be almost three times that number on November ballots.
In addition to the BART bond measure, the San Diego Association of Governments, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority are proposing sales tax measures.
The three are already among the 20 self-described "self-help counties" that have persuaded voters, in two-thirds supermajorities, to approve transportation sales taxes to pay for projects and programs for which state and federal funds are lacking.
The sales taxes are typically used to support bond issues or low-interest federal loans.
"The needs depend on local circumstances," Coleman said.
In order to qualify for matching federal funds and fulfill their long-range transportation plans, the agencies say they need to increase revenues from local sources.
SANDAG, the San Diego region's primary transportation agency, voted July 8 to put a half-cent sales tax extending 40 years on the San Diego County ballot. LA Metro's board voted June 23 to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot. Santa Clara County's VTA also is seeking a half-cent countywide sales tax to fund up to $6.5 billion of transportation projects over the next 30 years, including an extension of BART into San Jose.
Santa Clara County isn't among the three counties in the BART district.
In those three counties, where voters will be asked to support the bond measure, BART officials cited a need to rebuild core parts of the 46-year-old rail system that serves Northern California's largest population centers. BART officials say the plan consists 90% of safety and reliability-oriented repairs with the remainder for improving accessibility and relieving congestion. The plan is to repair decades-old track, and upgrade the infrastructure that powers trains on those tracks.
Some $335 million would be used to improve parking options and to replace public announcement speakers, guardrails, and handrails to improve access for the disabled.
"We have received modest sums from local transportation sales tax initiatives, but much of the funding has been restricted to specific projects and programs not directly linked to renovation," Gregg Marrama, BART's manager of capital development, said in an emailed response.
SANDAG and LA Metro's sales taxes would help complete existing projects, but also to fund new ones.
L.A. Metro ramped up efforts to build out its county-wide rail network in 2008 with the passage of Measure R, which is expected to bring $40 billion over 30 years. The measure also pays for highway projects and contributes to local projects such as pothole and street repairs in the 88 cities of Los Angeles County.
After a failed attempt at a half-cent sales tax in Measure J in 2012, which drew more than 66% of the vote but fell a half-percent short of the needed two-thirds supermajority, County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who chaired the Metro Board, said a new approach was needed and spearheaded an effort to prioritize projects in the agency's long-range plan through community outreach, said Jerard Wright, a policy analyst with Move LA, a business-labor-environmental coalition formed in 2008 to advocate for the region's transportation projects.
"It was a win to get a lot of voter support and hear what people are saying to make sure the projects are in line with priorities," Wright said. "This was a thoughtful approach to defining the projects and they match what is in LA Metro's long-range plan."
The result is the current half-cent sales tax proposal, but LA Metro's measure has a different wrinkle: the new tax would continue indefinitely, rather than expiring after four decades. Some officials, including County Supervisor Don Knabe, have come out in opposition to having a measure that extends into perpetuity.
The original plan, floated early in the year, would have raised about $120 billion over 40 years to fund nearly two dozen mass transit lines and extensions and 14 highway projects. But in June, after looking at what a tax that extended 40, 45, or 50 years could fund, officials proposed the existing measure without an expiration date.
"We showed the board what would be delivered based on those projections, and in what timeframes," said Pauletta Tonilas, an LA Metro spokeswoman.
Stakeholders wanted more projects delivered sooner.
In addition to adding a new permanent half-cent tax, this November's ballot measure will also ask voters for a permanent extension of the half-cent Measure R sales tax when it expires in 2039, creating a one-cent sales tax without an expiration date.
The extra bonding capacity from a sales tax with no sunset would enable LA Metro to speed up 12 projects. It would enable Metro to build nine major projects faster and add two more projects to the list, including a second extension of the Gold Line through East Los Angeles and a possible highway through the North County.
The initial community outreach efforts resulted in projects totaling $273 billion, so LA Metro officials sent local stakeholders back to the drawing board to prioritize.
Los Angeles County is expected to grow by another 3 million to 4 million people from its current population of 10 million people over the next 20 years, Tonilas said.
"We gave them the best and more optimal targets and asked them to pare down based on the targets," Tonilas said. "They did all that and came back with their lists."
LA Metro then ranked the projects based on five criteria including improving safety, mobility, accessibility and quality of life. They also looked at what the cost would be to maintain the infrastructure once it was built.
"All this together has become the expenditure plan that our board approved," Tonilas said.
Transportation officials have worked hard to ensure, as much as possible, that projects are accelerated across the region as equitably as possible, but there are still detractors.
"We were able to accelerate the schedule on this some, but everything cannot be done in the first 10 years," Tonilas said. "When people hear that, they look at us and nod as if they have never heard that before."
Nevertheless, polls have shown that 70% of voters would support the tax. It needs a two-thirds supermajority.
SANDAG officials will also be lobbying hard to get voter support for their measure.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer sided with environmentalists in opposing the measure. Environmentalists argue SANDAG's long-range plan focuses too much on highway projects over transit, but SANDAG officials beg to differ. San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria, who heads the Council's transportation committee, has come out in support of the ballot measure.
San Diegans will also be faced with two separate hotel taxes to pay for the convention center and a new football stadium for the National Football League's San Diego Chargers.
The half-cent sales tax would be expected to generate $18 billion over its 40-year life. It also requires a two-thirds supermajority vote.
"If we are going to prosper as a region and maintain our quality of life, we need to invest in our infrastructure, our mobility, and our environment with a dedicated source of local revenue – money that Sacramento can't take away," said SANDAG Chair and County Board of Supervisors Chair Ron Roberts in a statement following the board's July 7 vote to add the measure to the ballot.
SANDAG's proposal would pay for $4.3 billion for local infrastructure projects in 18 cities and unincorporated communities, such as fixing potholes and building streets, sidewalks and bike paths. It would include $2.6 billion for highway projects including managed lanes; and $7.5 billion to build and operate transit including a new trolley line from San Ysidro to Kearny Mesa and more than a dozen new rapid bus routes.