Close toll-hike vote sig­nals Bay Area strug­gles ahead

The Mercury News Weekend - - OPINION - Daniel Boren­stein Daniel Boren­stein is the East Bay Times Ed­i­to­rial Page Ed­i­tor. Reach him at dboren­stein@ba­yare­anews­group.com.

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.

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