Santa Clara County voters may be asked in November to support a sales-tax increase that would fund more than $3 billion in transportation projects, ranging from pothole patches and bike improvements to an extension of BART.
But to get Palo Alto's support, the measure should make clear provisions for improving Caltrain and address its growing ridership, members of the City Council argued on Monday night after hearing a pitch for the new tax.
The council heard Monday from Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is spearheading the tax measure. He said that recent surveys of the organization's member companies have shown that with the economy growing, traffic is once again emerging as a top priority. He noted that the federal highway trust is nearing bankruptcy and pointed to a $198 billion funding gap in the state's highway system.
Though he said that it's better to have more traffic because of economic growth than no traffic because of a recession, the growing number of commuters is also creating new challenges. The proposal his group is advocating for would raise between $3.2 billion and $3.75 billion over 30 years, with the funds divided into six categories -- three focusing on road improvements (potholes, bike projects and expressway enhancements) and three on transit. The transit projects include extending BART to San Jose; making transit improvements for senior citizens, the poor and the disabled; and improving Caltrain, he said.
The drive for the tax increase is off to a promising start, Guardino said, with a recent poll showing 73 percent of respondents supporting such a measure. Yet the council was more cautious Monday, with one member after another arguing that Caltrain should not take a back seat to BART when it comes to transportation improvements. Currently, the plan is to spend roughly a seventh of the funds from the tax (or about $500 million) on Caltrain improvements.
"One-seventh isn't even that much in that I think they are equal systems, really, in terms of the benefit they provide," Councilman Greg Scharff said Monday. "The costs to make Caltrain really work are so much less than what it takes to do BART."
His colleagues agreed, with Councilwoman Karen Holman saying "nothing is more critical" than Caltrain and urging that grade separations be explored as part of the conversation. Councilman Pat Burt also stressed the importance of Caltrain, and noted that support for Caltrain is stronger in Palo Alto than for BART.
"For Silicon Valley, Caltrain is more important than BART and its capital needs are less," Burt said. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't fund both."
Councilman Larry Klein agreed and told Guardino that there is a perception in Palo Alto that the city hasn't gotten its share of the money from prior transportation measures. BART may be laudable, he said, but very few Palo Alto voters use it.
"Sometimes things have been transferred out of things (that we) originally thought would be spent in the area," Klein said. "The perception is that BART is great but so are a lot of other things that don't come to Palo Alto. You can cite all the statistics you want about how good BART is, (but) it's not necessarily going to persuade the people in Palo Alto."
Speakers from the public by and large supported this position. Adina Levin, co-founder of the group Friends of Caltrain, cited frustrations within her group about the commuter system losing out on funds from prior measures.
"The thing I keep hearing from people in the Friends of Caltrain community, from (the) 2000 ballot measure, they're quite concerned that they voted for other things (such as Caltrain electrification) and the money was utilized for other purposes," Levin said.
But Omar Chatty, a frequent critic of Caltrain, took the opposite stance and suggested that Caltrain will merely be a "shill for high-speed-rail" and that the city will "lose control" if it supports improvements to the system. He called for more clarity in how the funds would be spent.
That question, Guardino said, is still being explored. There are four different working groups, including transportation officials from various cities and major businesses, now meeting to consider the details for such a measure. The Leadership Group, he said, also plans to conduct more polling before making a final decision about going to the voters in November.
"There is no ballot measure yet," Guardino said. "There is no level of specificity because we haven't decided to go forward. If we do decide to go forward, there will be that level of specificity."
The council ultimately voted unanimously to have its Policy and Services Committee further explore the proposed tax measure and then issue a recommendation to the full council. The committee is scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday night.