CA: Marin transit agencies monitor regional transportation tax pitch

Dec. 11, 2023
Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has a particular interest, given that its sales tax expires in 2029, and officials will need to seek a renewal to keep the rail line afloat. MTC is planning to submit its measure to voters in 2026.

Dec. 10—A proposal for a Bay Area regional transportation measure seeking to collect about $1 billion annually could come with a bundle of transit reforms, including a consolidation of transit operators and coordinated fares and schedules.

An update on the proposal was presented Friday to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission- Association of Bay Area Governments Joint Legislative Committee. Details of the plan haven't come into clear focus, but Marin transit managers are keeping a close eye on the conversation.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has a particular interest, given that its sales tax expires in 2029, and officials will need to seek a renewal to keep the rail line afloat. MTC is planning to submit its measure to voters in 2026.

"The facts are, there is still a lot to be worked out with the regional measure," said Eddy Cumins, general manager of SMART. "We're watching it as it develops and we'll see how it all comes together."

Cumins said SMART officials haven't decided when they will seek a tax renewal.

"We know we have to go back to the voters, but what we're focused on is meeting the needs of the community and making our service as best as we can, making sure we're offering a great service," he said.

The goal of MTC's measure is to protect and enhance transit service by creating a reliable, long-term regional source of operating revenue. It also aims to make transit safer and faster. The plan would involve safety and access improvements for cyclists and pedestrians, including signal timing and pothole repairs.

Bay Area voters say a regional transportation measure should prioritize reforms, including better transit oversight and accountability, according to recent polling by MTC.

"I think the support for reforms is generally saying, 'I want improvements,'" said Ruth Bernstein, a consultant who performed the surveying. "I believe what Bay Area residents want is better, more reliable, more convenient."

The most recent polling was conducted from Oct. 16 through Oct. 31, netting 2,700 responses.

Overall, 78% of respondents said public transit is important for the Bay Area.

For those who said they were weekly riders, 72% said they had a favorable opinion of transit. That compares to a favorable rating of 41% from those who said they are non-riders.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they believe there is a need for transit funding.

The surveyors did a split sample to see what type of tax measure would be more favorable: a half-cent sales tax, a 0.17% income tax or a 0.36% income tax, each for 30 years. The sales and payroll tax netted 55% support while the income tax garnered 51% support.

Overall, 50% of Marin and Sonoma County respondents said they would support a tax measure. That compares to 58% yes in Alameda and San Mateo counties and 57% in San Francisco County.

Based on the polling, and past studies, MTC staff asked for the committee's feedback on whether the measure should include strengthened authority around network management for MTC and reforms such as consolidation.

One of the more controversial proposals is a merger of Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, and Caltrain into an integrated rail system. Other proposals included merging bus transit operators in Sonoma and Marin counties.

In Sonoma, there is work already happening to have Sonoma County Transit, Petaluma Transit and Santa Rosa CityBus work together.

Andrew Fremier, executive director of MTC, said efforts to engage the North Bay transit agencies will begin to ramp up.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt serves on the MTC committee as well as the SMART and Golden Gate Bridge district boards, among others.

"I think what resonates with me is we have to seize the moment," Rabbitt said.

Rabbitt said the polling, along with the pandemic and the shift to working from home, show that reforms are wanted and needed.

"I think everything should be on the table because we should always be striving for constant improvement," Rabbitt said. "I think the operators are trying to have constant improvement, but it just needs to be a coordinated effort."

Marin County Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters, a member of the MTC committee and the Transportation Authority of Marin board, said she moved to the Bay Area because BART was a model public transportation system.

She said she believes MTC needs to do better on storytelling, featuring anecdotes of transit riders to help showcase the benefits of public transportation.

"I agree we need to move forward," Moulton-Peters said. "We have a lot of small agencies in all our counties and small cities and we have to look at consolidation."

Mimi Willard, president of the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, a Marin watchdog group, said she's worried about the tsunami of taxes headed to Marin.

"The state is facing a record deficit, and in response to inflation, local agencies and districts are awarding pay and benefit and pension increases that they can't fully fund," Willard said. "All this is putting a lot of pressure on every entity to fend for itself."

Willard also worried that SMART needs to seek a tax renewal, probably around the same time as MTC's initiative.

"Two competing transportation measures in a compressed time frame could ding one, the other, or both," she said.

Nancy Whelan, general manager of Marin Transit, said the agency has not been approached about a consolidation, but it already is the county's sole bus service providing local routes.

"Certainly, more resources for transit would be a good thing, but I think there is still a lot of detail to be worked out," Whelan said. "We'll stay tuned, there will be more to come."

Travel is still down in the Golden Gate corridor, said Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. The district provides regional bus and ferry service.

"We are glad to see that our customers are returning slowly, but as demand grows, it will take additional funding to provide more transit service in the community," he said. "We support the concept of generating new funds so that Bay Area transit not only survives but thrives, and look forward to seeing more details emerge from this effort."

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is expected to receive an update at its Dec. 20 meeting. Staff expect to pitch a proposal for approval in January.

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