Tax measure for ailing Bay Area transit system advances, with caveat

Bonds

A tax measure to shore up funding for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit district approved by the California Senate Friday could be derailed by local opposition before it hits the 2026 ballot.

Senate Bill 1031, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Aisha Wahab, D-Hayward, passed the Senate Friday on a 26-10 vote and now heads to the Assembly.

It would authorize a ballot measure in the nine-county Bay Area to generate funds for the BART system, which is hurting financially after commuter ridership to central San Francisco did not bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, called the bill “a work in progress” before it was approved in a 26-10 vote on Friday.

Sen. Scott Wiener’s Office

Wiener vowed to keep working in the Assembly with regional stakeholders “to craft a measure we can all get behind,” in a string of posts Tuesday defending the measure on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. The bill provides operating and capital funding for transit and requires modernization and better integration of these systems, Weiner said.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, state Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez are planning to form a political action committee to stop the tax proposal that could draw about one-third of its money from the South Bay area, according to the Mercury News. They contend the proposal would tax their constituents to support transit agencies that primarily serve other regions.

Mahan could not be immediately reached for further comment.

The complex bill would empower the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional transportation planning agency, to choose a half-cent sales tax, payroll tax, regional vehicle surcharge or a combination of tax methods to raise $1.5 billion in a tax set to expire in 30 years and place the measure on the ballot.

The regional tax measure is BART’s plan to avert annual operating deficits expected to reach $385 million by 2027.

Before the pandemic, BART, which runs 131 miles of rail service touching five counties, relied on farebox revenue for a substantial share of funding. With ridership still down substantially, it faces a looming fiscal crisis when federal COVID relief funds run out.

In April, according to data published by BART, total ridership was 42% of pre-COVID expectations, with weekday ridership at 40% of pre-COVID expectations, Saturday ridership at 58% of pre-pandemic expectations and Sunday at 72%. 

The measure would also require the state to complete by December 2025 a study of the Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies and recommend potential mergers or enhanced coordination measures to be completed the following year.

Some opposition stems from the consolidation study requirement, but most comes from how the funding would be dispersed to agencies.

Cortese called the measure “an existential threat” to the Valley Transportation Authority, Santa Clara County’s local transit agency, because the transit agency would have to seek approval from MTC to ask voters for future sales tax increases.

The VTA is funded with revenue from four different voter-approved sales tax measures, including a 2008 measure dedicated to funding a BART extension to San Jose.

The VCA board voted to oppose the proposed MTC measure in early May, saying it would compete with a $900 million measure they were contemplating placing on the ballot.

The latest version of SB 1031 would require that counties keep 70% of the money they raise through the measure to benefit their own transit agencies, with the threshold rising to 90% in the sixth year.

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