STREET FIGHT The coming year will be a critical one for shaping transportation in San Francisco. Mayor Ed Lee’s Transportation Task Force, comprised of SPUR, city agencies, and labor and transportation organizations, is floating a package of proposals to finance transportation infrastructure that includes a general obligation bond, fees on cars, and a sales tax increase. Some permutation of the elements in the package will ultimately go in front of voters by November 2014.
It’s important to take a look at what’s being proposed and what’s at stake, right now, because whatever goes forward to the November ballot must be certified by June 2014. In the next six months, progressives have an opportunity to offer better ways to shape the city’s transportation future. Here are some things to consider.
First, whatever one thinks of this decidedly development-oriented mayor and his policies, the Transportation Task Force Report, issued to the public last month, makes a clear case for raising the $10 billion we need for transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. Proclaimed as the “first of many steps,” it can be considered a conversation starter that is open for modification and amendment.
The report points out the need to replace all of Muni’s 1,050 buses and trains by 2030 (costing $228 million in local matching funds) and implement the Transit Effectiveness Project ($282 million required), while also showing that Muni needs over $800 million in order to avert transit crowding as the city approaches a population of 1 million.
It considers the costs of implementing a citywide bicycle network ($108 million to get to 10 percent mode share for bicycling, or $215 million to approach 20 percent). It envisions making 70 miles of streets safer for pedestrians, and it shows what it will take to make Market Street a signature transit-bike street.
Mayor Lee’s plan includes a progressive funding proposal: A citywide vehicle license fee. The VLF, which needs majority approval by voters, would repair the past damage wrought by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Republicans, who gutted state education, transportation, and social funding by slashing the fee in 2004.
State legislation last year enabled San Francisco to re-establish the fee for local transportation needs. Collecting 1.35 percent of the market value of registered vehicles in the city can raise $73 million annually for transportation programs. Since it’s based on the value of the vehicle, luxury car owners pay more. Progressives should rally around this proposal.
While the VLF is promising, the other two funding schemes proposed by the task force are dubious. Increasing citywide sales taxes by a half-cent, proposed for the November 2016 ballot, is regressive. Based on taxes as a share of household income, low-income households pay a disproportionately higher portion of their income in sales taxes relative to wealthier people.
Innocuous on the surface, the use of a sales tax to spread the burden reflects a neoliberal tactic to divert attention from more equitable taxation such as increasing annual assessments on commercial property owners who are reaping huge windfalls from the real estate boom. This takes us to the General Obligation Bond (GO Bond) proposal.
GO Bonds are a long-term debt financing tool whereby the city borrows to build transportation infrastructure and future property tax revenue repays the debt. Rather than raising property taxes, the scheme proposed by the task force ensures that tax rates remain below 2006 levels and the city would only issue new debt as other debt is retired.
Progressives should look carefully at this. While this scheme would effectively create a dedicated fund for Muni (a good thing), by locking-in this revenue source, there may be negative impacts on future social, education, or housing funding. And the GO Bond will only raise $55 million annually. (Raising property taxes, which no one is talking about as a mechanism to finance Muni, could yield much more.)
Bonding is also a boon to bankers, and ultimately uses already scarce transportation funds to pay interest on debt. Moreover, none of the proposals address Muni’s operating cost, which is $861 million today but must expand with additional capacity and operators.
Nobody knows better than downtown land owners that public transit is the keystone for making San Francisco functional and profitable. In the 2.5-square-mile downtown area, half of workers — 170,000 — take public transportation, more than those who drive alone. Every day, 200,000 riders use surface transit on Market and another 350,000 pass through the four downtown BART/Muni Metro stations.
Hundreds of thousands of workers use transit to access one of the densest concentrations of office, hotels, and retail space in the country. Transit is what makes this density work and what generates value and profit to real estate investors. It’s why Twitter and others choose to be downtown.
Almost 20 years ago, a coalition of progressives advocated for the creation of a downtown transit assessment district (TAD), an annual property assessment on downtown commercial property, excluding retail and hotels, that would provide revenue for Muni operations. Had it been established, it would have generated up to $54 million its first year. In today’s dollars, this would amount to over $85 million. Considering the new developments since the 1990s, by now TAD revenue could have likely approached $100 million annually. For comparison, the Task Force suggests a general obligation bond would raise $54 million, a sales tax increase $69 million, and a vehicle license fee $73 million annually (these can only be used for infrastructure and not operations).
But a transit assessment district has been all but erased from the menu of possibilities for funding Muni. For the past 20 years, neoliberal developers and real estate speculators have captured the discourse of how transit can be financed, and have instead offered lucrative tax breaks to new tech firms such as Twitter, raised Muni fares, and allowed destructive deferred maintenance of the fleet. In this latest round of funding proposals, the assessment district remains off the table, while a regressive sales tax and a paltry GO Bond are promoted.
Meanwhile, Sup. John Avalos and his progressive cohort (Sups. David Campos, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, and Norman Yee) have offered a “Transit Equity” amendment. But it only nibbles at the edges. Their proposal limits future Muni fare increases and future transit impact fees on low-income social service providers receiving public money. This is commendable and should be adopted by the board.
Yet while progressives are spot-on to emphasize equity, they’ve not offered a financing scheme such as a transit assessment on the tech boom. Avalos’s plan to direct $70 million of the city’s general fund to low-income transit riders looks good on paper, but as proposed it might actually siphon funds from one funding pot to another. Like the GO Bond, this may have implications for other important social programs progressives care about.
This will be a critical year for setting the trajectory of transportation finance for a generation. Progressives should direct the legislative analyst to analyze the nexus between downtown real estate value and Muni capacity in order to better inform the debates. We have six months to illuminate a more equitable path that asks more from the tech boom and real estate speculators.
PARKING METER CIRCUS
If the recent debacle over parking meters is any indication, progressives will start 2014 on a clunky, disjointed, and rudderless transportation platform.
In the case of parking meters, last month progressives joined the bandwagon of pandering to motorists and voted to block the expansion of parking meters, a proven source of revenue that could help avert future fare hikes or service cuts. It is also a key to managing the public right-of-way as Muni seeks to implement important improvements. What seems to be happening now is that the supervisors are taking transit riders for granted while pandering to a conservative ideology of unfettered free parking.
It’s no surprise that conservative-leaning supervisors such as Mark Farrell oppose the expansion of parking meters. Conservative ideology holds that the government accommodates unfettered, cheap automobility at all costs, and Farrell said bluntly that he does not like paying for parking.
The impacts on Muni, on pedestrians, on bicyclists, and on the planetary environment are secondary to free parking. But progressives are becoming increasingly disoriented on this issue. While they decry parking meters, they haven’t offered a way to better manage streets so that we can improve Muni, bicycling, and walking.
Maybe it’s time to champion a citywide, omnibus residential parking permit strategy in all neighborhoods (as Sup. Kim hinted). Or are supervisors willing to champion the better alternative: just take away parking without a management strategy? Perhaps even better, can they champion the removal of travel lanes now open to private cars and keep the unmetered curbside parking? These options won’t bring in revenue (except maybe more tickets) but would certainly make space for a reliable Muni and a citywide cycletrack network, both progressive goals.
Speaking of parking, there’s rumors that the two-acre Plumber’s Union Hall on Market Street might be developed. Hey Building and Trades Unions, how about a car-free, family-oriented affordable housing development smack dab in the middle of the city so some of your members don’t have to commute from Tracy?
Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University.