A new sales tax to improve the South Bay's transportation woes won't go to voters until the end of the year, but officials from Mountain View and a coalition of other West Valley cities, including Palo Alto, are notching up the pressure for how those dollars should be spent.
Expected to generate at least $6 billion over a 30-year span, the Santa Clara County sales tax has become the centerpiece of countywide efforts to address the traffic nightmare growing along with the Silicon Valley economy. The prospect of a new tax measure has bolstered a political faction among Mountain View and eight other cities, mostly along the Highway 85 corridor.
Over the course of eight meetings throughout 2015, officials from this coalition brainstormed priorities and co-authored letters to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Strategically, this group worked under the quid-pro-quo logic that VTA would be more receptive to their concerns since their support could make the difference at the ballot box.
At the Mountain View City Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 19, elected leaders for the first time reviewed the coalition's most definitive product to date: a breakdown for how the sum total of the $6 billion should be spent. Among its budgeting, this "draft allocation" capped BART spending at 20 percent of the total, and budgeted about $1 billion for bike pathways, congestion relief and efforts to get drivers into more efficient modes of transportation. The breakdown doesn't delve into specific projects, like which streets or locations should receive improvements.
The list represents a "preferred" way to spend the money, explained Mountain View transportation manager Linda Forsberg.
"It's difficult to develop an allocation scenario that meets the specific needs and priorities of the cities involved," Forsberg said. "This proposed allocation represents a consensus position developed among the North County and West Valley cities that can serve serves as basis for cities to advocate collectively as the tax discussion continues."
The cities in the coalition include Mountain View, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Campbell, Saratoga and Los Gatos.
The cities' proposed budget generated a little bit of head-scratching from VTA officials, who were not present at the Mountain View meeting. Transit officials say they've performed extensive outreach to cities in recent months to determine future transportation needs and priorities. In the months to come, transit officials plan to start screening that list of "hundreds" of ideas to determine which should receive top priority, VTA spokeswoman Stacey Hendler Ross said. She expressed doubt that the cities' effort to draft a budget would actually influence the transit agency's decisions.
"We appreciate their involvement, but there's more work to do than to come up with one list," Ross said.
Councilman John McAlister, who represented Mountain View in the discussions, said the general theme of the proposed budget is to "attack" traffic congestion from different angles. The cities want the VTA to take action regardless of whether the sales tax measure passed, he said.
As the Mountain View council began examining the list, elected leaders asked whether they could fiddle with the numbers. City Manager Dan Rich gave a diplomatic response.
"You're the council, you're free to do as you wish -- however it is a fragile coalition," Rich said. "All the cities agreed to take this list as it is back to their (councils). It'd be a very big challenge if each city began moving the numbers around."
Nevertheless, council members nitpicked at some aspects of the plan. Councilman Mike Kasperzak said he was disappointed that more money wasn't being proposed for alternative modes of transportation. Echoing comments from the public, council members faulted the breakdown for putting $1.5 billion toward expressways and highways, which they worried could go toward widening roads, compounding the number of solo drivers. Rather than tweak the numbers, they urged the city's representatives to remain flexible while advocating these priorities.
Dissenting from his colleagues, Councilman John Inks questioned the larger purpose of a new sales tax measure as a solution to the area's traffic troubles. He pointed out that the VTA already receives an ongoing half-cent sales tax and voters in recent years had already backed two additional long-term transit surcharges.
Among those taxes, the half-cent Measure A is due to sunset in 2036, while the one-eighth-cent Measure B for BART operations will run through 2042. If the upcoming sales tax measure -- also expected to run for 30 years -- is approved, voters would be paying about 40 percent more on top of what they're already paying for transportation, he said.
"Can I tell voters this is a good deal?" he said. "I think this sales-tax method is a distraction from where this money should really come from: the users, and that's the automobile drivers."
The Mountain View City Council voted 6-1, with Inks opposed, to formally endorse the sales tax draft allocation.