BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
You’ve got to hand it to the people at SamTrans. They have a lot of chutzpah.
They’re asking people to approve Measure W, and last week, just before the election, they announced that they bought some expensive, all-electric buses. They cost $270,000 a piece, about $70,000 more than regular buses.
Some of the money comes from grants, but if they’ve got that kind of cash to throw around, they shouldn’t be asking people for a sales tax increase — particularly one that disproportionately hurts poor and middle-income residents.
In your Voter Guide, you’ll see that a bunch of activists and politicians have signed an argument in favor of Measure W that states unequivocally that this tax hike will reduce traffic.
“Measure W will help you and your family spend less time stuck in traffic so you can get to work, school and home faster,” the argument states.
Yet SamTrans gets half of the money the tax will raise. The rest goes for pork-barrel local projects SamTrans handed out to city leaders to get their support for Measure W. You want a road diet to eliminate traffic lanes on your favorite street, pass Measure W, and your city will be able to fund it. SamTrans will get about $40 million a year from Measure W.
If SamTrans was going to reduce traffic, it would have happened already.
Instead, SamTrans’ ridership has been falling. It’s gone from 36,051 riders a day in fiscal year 2015 to 31,322 in 2017 — a 13.1% decrease. (And those numbers are inflated since people are counted when they board the bus in the morning and again in the afternoon, so we’re really talking about 15,661 people a day.)
More empty public buses rumbling around on our streets isn’t a 21st century approach. Even if they’re gold-plated, all-electric buses.
SamTrans spent $1 million on the Measure W campaign before it hit the ballot, which is legal in California, though it isn’t fair to finance a political campaign with taxpayer dollars. SamTrans will tell you that the $1 million was used to find out what things people wanted in this measure. But they did it with a bunch of ads that looked a lot like campaign commercials.
If SamTrans was serious about traffic, they’d look ahead a few years and consider the congestion that will be occurring at the 32 Caltrain crossings in the county that don’t have bridges.
Because Caltrain is switching from diesel to electric power, trains will fly through these crossings more frequently every hour. That will cause traffic backups in areas that are already well congested.
Separating the tracks from the street requires bridges, tunnels or trenches — expensive undertakings. More than $100 million a crossing, or what the insiders call a “grade separation.”
How much does Measure W allocate for these crossings? A measly $2 million a year for the entire county.
More tax hikes ahead
Measure W’s backers say that the $2 million is meant for planning the grade separations and applying for grants. But state and federal funding for these bridges appears unlikely. My guess is that there will be another ballot measure in a couple of years to make you pay for grade separations. And, once again, its backers will promise that it will reduce traffic congestion — just like all of the other transportation measures and toll increases in the past.
One thing we can all agree upon, however, is that Measure W will keep the SamTrans bureaucracy well fed. Jim Hartnett, who heads SamTrans, Caltrain and the county Transit Authority, got $516,568 in total pay and benefits in 2016, the most recent figure available from Transparent California.
Think about that before you vote for Measure W.
Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.