Every time transportation sales-tax measures have appeared on Santa Clara County ballots since 1961, Palo Alto voters have joined with those in other cities to approve them, creating billions of dollars for county transit projects.
These measures have been essential to developing and maintaining the network of highways, expressways and a light rail system aimed at serving a growing valley. The region would have undoubtedly suffered serious economic consequences from a gridlocked transportation system without them.
But with each new effort to raise taxes, usually promoted by political and business interests centered in San Jose, the issue of regional equity becomes a bigger and bigger hot potato.
Most local voters don't realize that only a small fraction of the money generated through our sales tax payments finds its way to projects directly benefitting north county residents.
In fact, of the $4.6 billion in tax revenues collected through two sales tax measures since 2000, almost 80 percent has gone to solely to extending BART from Fremont to San Jose (and ultimately to Santa Clara.)
The current sales tax rate in Santa Clara County is now 8.75 percent, among the highest in California. Voter-approved measures passed in 2000 (half-cent) and 2008 (one-eighth cent) mean that 0.625 percent of all taxable purchases made in Santa Clara County go to transportation projects. While revenues from the half-cent tax passed in 2000 (and in effect until 2030) are not restricted, all of the funds generated by the 2008 tax are committed to BART operations and maintenance through its expiration in 2038.
A plan to put another transportation measure on the ballot was floated last year by the business-supported Silicon Valley Leadership Group but was put on hold after getting an icy reception. The Palo Alto City Council appropriately pressed for answers on the imbalance between BART funding and support for other important transit systems and projects, especially Caltrain, and Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino was surprisingly unprepared for the push-back.
But with the tech-dominated Silicon Valley economy simmering along and roads again becoming clogged, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the county Valley Transportation Authority are figuring the time is right to bring a new tax measure forward in 2016.
In preparation for the inevitable questioning and skepticism from north and west county cities about the past funding inequities, VTA is asking all cities in the county to submit transportation projects and priorities so they can be reflected in an updated long range plan.
This is, of course, the sensible political move, but in order to ensure voter support from throughout the county, a new tax proposal will likely attempt to spread around transportation goodies rather than remedy the current funding inequities relating to the BART extension. And it is likely to suck continued large amounts for completion of the BART extension and connections with the airport and Caltrain.
On Monday, the Palo Alto City Council will consider how to influence this process to benefit north county, and the staff has prepared a laundry list of more than 50 projects it considers candidates for funding. These include everything from an expanded city shuttle system to improved bikeways, bike bridges and tunnels and upgrades to the 101/Embarcadero Road/Oregon Expressway interchange.
The elephant in the room, however, with a price tag of up to a billion dollars, is to eliminate some or all of the four at-grade crossings of the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto. Submerging the tracks under just the East Meadow and Charleston crossings would cut the costs almost in half, according to an analysis completed last year.
While these are staggering numbers, Santa Clara County should have a goal of eliminating all Caltrain grade crossings in order to maximize the effectiveness of both the growing and soon-to-be electrified Caltrain service and to ease cross-town traffic congestion caused by trains blocking passage.
Credit to county Supervisor Joe Simitian for asking staff to prepare the analysis of where transit tax monies have been spent and how much has been contributed by north county cities, in both tax payments and votes cast in support of past measures. It paints a stark picture of how north and west county residents have seen their sales tax dollars siphoned off for BART for the last 15 years.
Now is the time for some strong political pressure to ensure that any 2016 tax measure commits the county to significant funding for eliminating grade crossings and other north county projects. It may be a long time before we have more leverage than we do now, and the city should take full advantage.