A long-planned sales tax measure is set to go on the November ballot now that the Valley Transportation Authority board of directors gave it the green light. The half-cent, 30-year tax is expected to raise up to $6.5 billion to fund a BART extension to San Jose, as well as a host of other transit upgrades throughout the South Bay.
Among the listed projects, the measure would provide $700 million for Caltrain grade-separation projects throughout Santa Clara County. These costly projects will become crucial in the coming years as the rail corridor is electrified and upgraded to accommodate trains from the California High Speed Rail project. The proposed measure would also fund $314 million for increased Caltrain service, station improvements and extended station platforms.
About $350 million from the measure would go toward creating two express lanes on Highway 85, one in each direction, and opening up the 46-foot median that spans the West Valley for a new transit lane. Meanwhile, county expressways would also get $750 million in upgrades designed to improve congestion and safety.
The largest single project listed in the measure is the BART extension from the Berryessa Station in San Jose to Santa Clara. The project is expected to cost $1.5 billion and will include stations at San Jose Diridon and downtown San Jose. Unlike other expenditures listed in the resolution, funding for the BART extension is capped at 25 percent of the sales tax revenue. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who is not on the VTA board, originally proposed the cap last year, calling it an important step to making sure sales tax money provides meaningful congestion relief throughout the county.
At the June 2 board meeting, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo clarified that the cap does not prevent VTA from finishing the BART extension project, and that it's his goal to make sure the transit line makes it all the way to Santa Clara.
"I will be adamant in my advocacy that we build all four stations from Alum Rock all the way to Santa Clara, or this BART project will not be a success," Liccardo said.
Business leaders showed up in full force at the Thursday board meeting to show their support. Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, along with representatives from Apple, Lockheed Martin, Silicon Valley Bank and a myriad of other South Bay companies said they whole-heartedly supported the proposed sales tax.
Former Mountain View City Council member Margaret Abe-Koga, speaking on behalf of Synopsys, commended VTA for its extensive outreach and "collaborative style" for coming up with a comprehensive plan for spending the money, and for listening to the concerns of residents throughout the county.
"We'd like to thank you for listening to the cities in the north and west parts of the county," Abe-Koga said.
The measure also calls for $250 million to go towards bike and pedestrian improvements, including filling gaps in existing bike and pedestrian networks, and making safety improvements. Additionally, many of the planned expenditures to highways and local streets and roads explicitly state that the projects will meet Complete Streets requirements in order to maximize bike and pedestrian access. Colin Heyne, the deputy director for the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, told the board that the proposed measure will provide a way to "mend" the transportation system in Santa Clara County.
Not everyone was thrilled with the language of the resolution. David Coale, a member of Carbon Free Palo Alto, said the measure doesn't do enough to enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and the tax measure is "out of step" with the goals of cities, Santa Clara County and California.
"We can hardly afford to have a 30-year tax plan that does not address greenhouse gas reductions as front and center," Coale said.
VTA board member Johnny Khamis, who is a city council member in San Jose, voted for the resolution, but not before voicing his concerns that the project breakdown doesn't do enough to fix and maintain existing roadways. He said the board had to authorize an extra $1 million at the same meeting to replace vehicle parts on buses that are wearing out faster than expected because the roads are "dilapidated," and the existing gas tax revenue is dwindling too fast to be reliable. Despite the concerns, Khamis said he would vote in favor of the measure rather than trying to alter the language so late in the game and risk losing the near-unanimous support.
"If we start messing with the language up here, trying to make sausage, we could fall apart," he said.
The idea of a new ballot measure for transportation improvement has been discussed by county leaders for more than a year, and it generated a fair share of controversy. North County officials, including Simitian, publicly warned VTA board members that they would not support the tax measure if it primarily was used to fund a BART extension to benefit San Jose. Late last year, Mountain View, Palo Alto and a coalition of West Valley and North County cities presented VTA with their own proposal on how to spend the money.
The county currently has two transportation-linked taxes that are active. The half-cent Measure A, which benefits a wide array of transit projects, is due to end in 2036. Meanwhile the one-eighth-cent Measure B, which funds BART extensions and operations, is set to run through 2042.