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Even as transit funds from Regional Measure 3 remain tied up in court, a far larger new tax proposal to overhaul Bay Area transportation faces a critical go or no-go decision if it is to appear on the November ballot next year.

The so-called Mega Measure, also known as FASTER Bay Area, would raise more than $100 billion for transportation improvements over the next 40 years.

To do that, proponents want a 1-cent sales tax hike for the nine-county Bay Area, a measure that voters would be asked to approve in November 2020.

That’s a very tight timeframe in which to craft the measure and build a successful campaign around it. But supporters of the new tax say time is of the essence because voters in Los Angeles have already approved comparable funding measures, which potentially gives the southern California city a big advantage in obtaining federal matching funds.

“It’s kind of a fast timeline,” WETA Vice Chair Jim Wunderman said in an interview. “But it’s essential because we’re way behind LA, so we are working very hard to get this done.”

FASTER is the brainchild of three civic organizations with strong business ties: the Bay Area Council, whose president is also Wunderman; SPUR, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. 

In a presentation to WETA’s September board meeting, Bay Area Council Chief Operating Officer John Grubb said the tripartite group has conducted extensive research, including polling and focus groups, and found the measure has slightly more than 67% public support. A two-thirds vote would be required by the legislature to put the tax hike proposal on the ballot, and voters would then need to approve it by two-thirds, as well.

“We think we’re in the ballpark,” Grubb said.

Planners say a key goal of the measure would be to upgrade transportation so that any trip within the nine-county area would take no more than 60 minutes. And no trip would take more than 90 minutes within the “mega region,” an amorphous term but one that typically expands the San Francisco Bay Area to include at least the Sacramento area and northern San Joaquin Valley.

This would be accomplished, Grubb said, “by sweeping investments in transit.” Some have suggested that FASTER could invest in freeway express lanes for buses, building a second trans-bay tunnel for BART, building the long-discussed “Southern Crossing” bridge across the bay, and bringing CalTrain and high-speed rail into downtown San Francisco, although no final expenditure plan has been established.

Equally important would be developing a true regional transit system, with synchronized schedules and fares coordinated between different transit agencies. Right now, there is minimal coordination between, say, BART, WETA, Caltrain, SamTrans and SMART.

And there would also be funds for ferries.

Kevin Connolly, WETA’s planning and development manager, told the board that FASTER monies would fund new markets and terminals, enhanced service to existing terminals and modernized boats with a goal of zero emissions.

And unlike Regional Measure 3, which raises tolls on eight Bay Area bridges but not the Golden Gate Bridge, hence excluding Golden Gate Transit from the proceeds, FASTER funds would go to both WETA and Golden Gate ferries. 

(Asked whether any thought has been given to merging the Golden Gate and WETA ferry systems, Connolly said, “Yes, there has been thought, but there is a long way to go.”)

No one would argue that Bay Area transportation isn’t in need of help, but a 1-cent sales tax increase is no sure thing.

For starters, 67 percent approval is a high bar. RM3 was approved in 2018 by a mere 53 percent of those voting. And while 72 percent of Los Angeles voters approved transit-funding Measure M in 2016, a parcel tax to fund public schools was resoundingly defeated in the same city this past summer.

Anti-tax activists, who have blocked disbursement of RM3 monies so far, are sure to fight FASTER on the grounds that Californians are already overtaxed.

And state residents do pay high taxes -- income taxes, sales tax and a smorgasbord of special assessments. Combined state and local sales taxes in the Bay Area already range from 8.25% in Walnut Creek to 8.5% in San Francisco to 9% in Santa Rosa and 9.25% in San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland.

“People are getting tax tired,” WETA Chair Jody Breckenridge said following Grubb’s presentation to the board.

Critics of the measure are also sure to argue that a sales tax increase is regressive, because low-income people are taxed as the same rate as the wealthy.

But Grubb said the tax’s nature is trumped by how the money will be used.

“It’s a regressive tax, but for a progressive purpose.”

Added Wunderman: “Yes, we are highly taxed. But this is to pay for something very specific, something that tends consistently to be at the top of people’s wishlists.”

This article was originally published in Waterfront Briefing, a regular executive report of issues and events related to San Francisco Bay transit.

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