UPDATE: On Friday, February 26, the Mayor removed the ill-conceived Transportation 2030 from the June ballot! Thank you, Mayor Lee!
ORIGINAL POST: Mayor Lee: it’s not too late. Please take this measure off the ballot, and let’s all work together on a real transportation funding ballot measure for November.
On the same day that Mayor Ed Lee vetoed the Bike Yield ordinance, he announced a ballot measure for the June 2016 election about transportation funding called “Transportation 2030: Smart Investments for a Better Future" (PDF). It’s less than three pages double-spaced, but it manages to be simultaneously meaningless, hypocritical, and divisive. Here’s the tl;dr version:
- It’s meaningless. It’s a non-binding declaration of policy.
- It’s hypocritical. It purports to implement the “recommendations of the “Transportation 2030” Task Force, but the Mayor already fell two years and $140 million behind on implementing those recommendations when he blocked attempts to put the Vehicle License Fee restoration on the ballot in 2014!
- And it’s divisive. It says no new transportation revenues should be used for Muni’s operating expenses for the next fifteen years! Why? Because the Mayor wants more leverage to push back in labor negotiations with MTA workers. This artificial separation of the MTA’s capital and operating budgets also threatens to pit Muni advocates (that require both capital and operational money) against bike and pedestrian advocates (mostly capital expenses).
Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
1. It’s Meaningless
The Mayor’s proposed “Transportation 2030” ballot measure is a “Declaration of Policy,” which means it’s not legally binding. If it’s placed on the ballot (which we really hope it isn’t) it will be the last letter on the ballot after all of the ballot measures that have the force of law.
We’re not categorically opposed to symbolic votes. Sometimes we think they’re appropriate to conduct what is essentially an official opinion poll of San Francisco voters — particularly about things beyond our control like the war in Iraq or corporate personhood. They also make for interesting history lessons. Did you know San Francisco twice voted on if the U.S. should get out of Vietnam? The results are pretty surprising.
But one thing we can’t stand is politicians pushing symbolic votes about issues they actually have jurisdiction over. And the Mayor definitely has the power to propose new revenues for transportation! He regularly tells the MTA what to do about revenue measures.
But instead of actually proposing one of the many revenue measures the Task Force considered, this measure makes this “bold,” nonbinding statement:
It shall be the official policy of the City and County of San Francisco that proceeds from any revenue measure passed by the voters between 2016 and the year 2030 that the City decides to spend on transportation should be directed towards San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency infrastructure and vehicles, road repaving and pothole repair through San Francisco Public Works, “Vision Zero” safety projects and other bicycle and pedestrian safety infrastructure projects, and investment in regional transportation infrastructure improvements and vehicles that serve San Franciscans such as BART and Caltrain and/or a second Transbay train tunnel….
So the question Ed Lee wants to put the voters is if we pass new revenue measures sometime in the future, and if the City decides to spend those revenues on transportation, they should spend that money on Muni, streets, bike and pedestrian projects, and regional transportation infrastructure?
Really? No duh! Do we really need a ballot measure to set that policy?!? What else would you spend transportation funding on? (Hint, see point #3.)
2. It’s Hypocritical
The measure purports to implement the recommendations of the “Transportation 2030” Task Force, which sounds great. (The Mayor likes to form task forces and working groups. Unfortunately they usually try to exclude dissenting views, operate behind close doors, and instead of trying to incorporate competing ideas, their reports typically just confirm — and attempt to legitimize — the Mayor’s original position.)
But to the Transportation 2030 Task Force’s credit, their report does an excellent job of cataloging the dire state of the City’s transportation network, and all of their presentations, agendas, and other resources are posted online.
The Task Force recommended four ballot measures to generate $3 billion by 2030:
- 2014: $500 million General Obligation Bond
- 2014: Vehicle License Fee (VLF) ($73 million a year)
- 2016: 0.5% Sales Tax increase ($69 million a year)
- 2024: $500 million General Obligation Bond
Thankfully voters passed the first G.O. bond in 2014, but Mayor Lee pressured his allies on the Board of Supervisors to abandon putting the VLF on the ballot in 2014, which has already cost us $146 million in lost transportation revenue! Adding insult to injury, the Mayor had previously pressured the MTA Board into rescinding Sunday Parking Meters, arguing that gift to drivers would build support among motorists for the VLF, which is costing the MTA another $11 million a year. ARGH!!
It remains unclear if the Mayor will support the VLF, a sales tax measure, or any other actual revenue measure this November. But now the Mayor wants us to vote for a non-binding measure expressing our support for the recommendations of the Transportation 2030 Task Force that he already blew off??
3. It’s Divisive
So what the hell is this measure really about? Our first clue is in this line in the ballot measure that’s really baffling at first glance:
The Task Force further concluded that . . . any future transportation revenues that are diverted to operations would hamper the City’s ability to adequately maintain our current assets, and would make enhancements or expansions fiscally irresponsible.
Really? That’s funny, because we can't find any statements like that in the Task Force’s report (PDF)! The report never says that spending money on operations would be “hampering the City’s ability to adequately maintain our current assets” because that's silly. Don’t you need to hire people to do the actual maintenance?
In fact on page 35, the report acknowledges that expanding our transit system will increase overall operating costs:
The Task Force’s main focus is to address urgent capital needs; this report does not take into account a number of factors that will impact future transportation costs such as operating deficits, other deferrals, and potential increases in overall operating costs associated with new investments.
But for some reason, the MTA’s operating budget was explicitly excluded from the report. At the Task Force’s first meeting on April 9, 2013, the MTA’s presentation (PDF) included a description of the $70 million structural deficit in their operating budget (see slides 9–12)! Curiously, that gaping hole in the MTA’s budget was never mentioned again.
Now getting back to the ballot measure, it concludes with this statement:
Any revenue measure passed by the voters between 2016 and the year 2030 that the City decides to spend on transportation . . . shall not be directed to general administrative and personnel costs other than what is necessary to implement the aforementioned capital projects.
That’s really a baffling statement. The Mayor thinks that for the next fifteen years, any new revenue for transportation should not be spent on actually operating Muni! No new money for Muni drivers, mechanics, or line supervisors? No new money for crews that maintain the overhead lines or fill potholes or stripe bike lanes? Don’t we need people to drive and maintain all of those new buses we need to buy?? The MTA has a $70 million deficit on operating our current transit system, but we’re not going to give them any more money for that? What the hell’s going on out here?!?
This is where we see the fingerprints of Steve Kawa, the Shadow Mayor (Chief of Staff to Mayors Lee, Newsom, and Brown). Considering how Muni’s massive backlog of unfunded maintenance has built up while Kawa has been running the City, he doesn’t seem to give a shit about Muni. What does he give a shit about? Negotiating labor contracts with City worker unions. And this year the City is renegotiating contracts with the MTA’s labor unions.
Putting restrictions on using revenue for operating expenses helps the Mayor and Kawa ‘plead poverty’ when unions ask for better wages and benefits. Considering new Muni operators are earning $37,000 a year before benefits and union dues, that seems pretty sucky.
Even worse, creating an artificial firewall between the MTA’s operating and capital budget threatens to drive a wedge between the City’s tenuous coalition of pro-transit advocates.
Keeping Muni running requires both operating and capital expenses, but pedestrian and bicycle improvements are mostly only capital expenses. We’re worried this “capital only” approach to transportation funding could pit bike/pedestrian advocates against Muni advocates. Thankfully, so far neither Walk SF nor the Bike Coalition have signed on to the Mayor’s Transportation 2030 measure. We hope they don’t fall for it!
Mayor Lee: Please Take This Off the Ballot!
In summary, the Transportation 2030 ballot measure is a nothing-burger that could lead to a needlessly distracting and divisive fight on the June ballot. We urge the Mayor to drop this and instead work with the Board of Supervisors to develop real consensus for a measure for the November ballot that will actually generate revenue for transit. It’s not too late: he has until March 4th to remove it from the ballot!