Close toll-hike vote signals Bay Area struggles ahead
The margin of victory for a $3 bridge toll hike on Tuesday’s ballot shows just how hard it will be for Bay Area leaders to solve the region’s transportation and housing crisis.
Win or lose, backers of Regional Measure 3 were clear from the onset: This was just a small down payment on the Bay Area’s traffic woes. There’s much more work to do and money to raise.
A toll hike was supposed to be an easy electoral lift. It required just a simple majority approval from the voters in the nine Bay Area counties — a huge political advantage over other taxing options that would have needed two-thirds voter approval.
Moreover, most voters wouldn’t have to pay except for, perhaps, the occasional recreational trip on the weekend. It was mostly a disproportionate tax of daily bridge commuters for the benefit of the whole region.
Even still, the toll hike measure garnered only 54 percent support. Contra Costa and Solano, two counties with more bridge commuters, solidly rejected the measure, but they were outweighed by voters from larger counties like Santa Clara, with its minimal number who depend on the spans to get to work.
More importantly for the future, none of the nine counties provided two-thirds support to the measure, indicating that other types of regional transportation taxes will probably struggle at the polls.
That means a solution won’t happen unless leaders of businesses that are driving the region’s unprecedented economic boom — and, in turn, its traffic and housing woes — step up financially.
Any solution also will require regional transportation officials, who are struggling to keep up with the Bay Area’s rapid growth, provide a desperately needed overarching plan.
If they fail, the inadequacy of the current piecemeal planning will literally chase off the workers needed to sustain the region’s surging economy.
The extent of the rapidly rising concern about housing, traffic and homelessness was made clear this week when the Bay Area Council released a poll of the region’s registered voters.
Only 25 percent believe we’re headed in the right direction, while 55 percent say we’re on the wrong track. That’s almost an exact reversal of the numbers from four years ago, when the numbers were 57 percent and 27 percent, respectively. So, what’s next? Except for the bridge toll, the revenue-raising options are generally sales taxes, which disproportionately affect lower-income households, and property taxes, which only serve to exacerbate the housing affordability crisis.
Little wonder that 46 percent of the people surveyed in the Bay Area Council poll said they are likely to move out of the nine- county region in the next few years. We don’t know whether they will actually make good on the threat, but the frustration is unmistakable.
It helps explain why cities like Cupertino ( home of Apple) and Mountain View (think Google) are considering taxing large companies by the number of their employees to help offset their cumulative impact on traffic congestion and housing shortage.
These city-by- city piecemeal solutions will probably do little to address the bigger regional problem. But it’s hard to blame local officials when regional transportation and planning leaders offer only incremental, stopgap measures of their own, like the toll-hike measure.
The lack of a cohesive transportation plan was the complaint of key opponents to the toll hike like David Schonbrunn, president of TRANSDEF, a nonprofit transit group, and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D- Concord.
The reality is that we can’t tax our way out of this mess. Most people simply can’t afford it. Transportation leaders must start thinking more creatively about, for example, how they can provide more public transportation at a cheaper cost.
And the size of the problem is so big that no meaningful solution is possible without those business leaders taking a bigger financial role in solving the congestion and housing crisis they’re creating.
They can’t just hide behind those Google buses and claim they’ve done their part. It will take a lot more.