This article is republished in the interest of voters seeking more information on the extension of Measure A.
On July 14th, I was invited to join several board members of the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, “CO$T,” and other concerned citizens, to meet with Dianne Steinhauser, the executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin (“TAM”). The purpose of the meeting was to review and comment on the upcoming ballot measure asking to extend the current Measure A sales tax for the next 30 years.
Ms. Steinhauser gave a presentation about the rationale for the tax measure and the proposed expenditures that it will cover. These included the operations of Marin Transit and ongoing programs such as Safe Routes to School and the yellow bus program, and major highway improvement projects that will be undertaken in the coming years. Those major projects, such as the widening of the off ramp from Highway 101 northbound at Bellam to Highway 580, going toward the Richmond Bridge, were her biggest justification for the tax extension.
Dianne’s presentation also included a general overview of TAM’s operating income and expenses and how these might be impacted by the success or failure of the Measure A extension (Ms. Steinhauser threatened that Safe Routes to School and the school bus program would be curtailed without the tax).
The wide-ranging discussion lasted almost two hours and included a good deal of back and forth conversation. The members of CO$T are the experts in interpreting the facts and figures that were presented and I’ll defer to their future analysis. But, as a casual observer, I left feeling that some of the information presented remained too opaque and I had a number of lingering questions.
For example, although there was a clear consensus in the room -- and pretty much every day in the press -- that local highway and roadway improvements that would decrease traffic and commute times (e.g., road maintenance and obvious minor improvements to existing intersections) are of the highest priority for residents, it was surprising to find that other than setting aside tax revenues toward the major projects noted above and public transportation services, it does not appear that TAM is prioritizing those kinds of local traffic congestion or roadway improvements with Measure A funds.
More curious to learn, was that when TAM grants funding to Marin cities, it does so without enforcing any priorities about how those funds are spent. TAM apparently leaves spending priorities up to each city. In other words, if a city comes to TAM for funds for a relatively low priority project in a town, where there are well-known roadway improvements that are critically needed, TAM does not require those known public safety or traffic alleviating projects be undertaken first, or even at all, with funds granted. The cities appear to decide the projects for which they want to apply for grants funding, regardless of what might be best for all Measure A taxpayers. The only input a town’s residents might have would be the one vote of their one member of the TAM Executive Committee.
Obviously, there are significant problems with this arrangement. The first being that many Marin voters will probably support Measure A thinking that the funds will go toward local traffic congestion situations that they want fixed. They will be wrong to believe so, because TAM has no real mechanism in place to make that happen. If the local city council doesn’t care about local roadways in need of repair, it won’t apply for funds and Measure A taxes will do nothing to fix those problems.
A perfect example of this has been unfolding in Mill Valley. For decades, we have suffered from that fact that Blithedale Avenue narrows from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction for less than 1/5 of a mile as it goes past the Whole Foods shopping center. Most times of day this narrowing backs up outbound traffic, leaving town, often to a dead stop. During rush hours and when school is in session, traffic it can back up for almost a mile.
Of greater concern is that Mill Valley is a box canyon with only two means of egress (Miller Avenue and Blithedale Avenue) and both narrow to only one lane. If (when) we have an earthquake or a canyon fire, requiring a mass evacuation, this daily annoyance will suddenly become a serious public safety issue. This fact makes adequate emergency egress, without exaggeration, a matter of life and death.
There is no physical reason why Blithedale Avenue could not be widened to two lanes each way for the entire distance from Lomita Drive to Highway 101. The plat maps show that the public right of way is adequate without significant eminent domain acquisitions – even if bike lanes are created. Yet, in spite of residents bringing this to the attention of City Council for more than 20 years, no council has ever discussed it much less prioritized it over roadway beautification projects, bike path improvements, the Miller Avenue Plan, parking re-striping and everything else, all of which are frankly of a much lower public safety priority.
The fact is our city council just doesn’t care. One council member even told me, “It’s a long project that will cost a lot of money and I’ll be long out of office by the time it happens. So, it’s not my problem.”
What a visionary.
However, it’s not just local challenges that continue to go unaddressed under TAM’s hands-off management of Measure A and other funding in its budget. Without the needs of the majority of the Marin residents (who are paying the Measure A tax) being prioritized by TAM, countywide coordination is impossible.
An example of this is the road and bike lane improvements recently made on Camino Alto Avenue, going from Mill Valley to Corte Madera. On the Mill Valley side there is a new bike lane that has solved an endless number of traffic and biking safety issues. But the minute the road crosses over the hilltop, the bike lane vanishes. This is because only one city decided to prioritize this bike and auto safety solution.
How is that good planning or a thoughtful expenditure of taxpayer funds?
So, the question to the TAM board is, why isn’t TAM prioritizing Measure A and other funds toward alleviating local traffic congestion and improving dysfunctional intersections – which is, frankly, what most people think they are voting to fund?
But, there are even bigger questions
The justification being given for asking the public to extend the ½% Measure A sales tax for a term of 30 years makes questionable sense.
At the meeting, I asked Ms. Steinhauser, why 30 more years and not 20 years or some other time frame. After all, 30 years is a very long time and these days most businesses have a hard time planning for the next five years, much less 30 years.
The response we got, as I understood it, was that TAM needs a 30 year plan so it can pledge 7% of the Measure A revenues collected over the next 30 years to act as equity collateral for the funding it will either borrow or seek grants for, for its major highway projects. But, let’s examine that explanation.
At any given time, money is available in our financial markets for a variety of durations and rates. TAM is essentially just like a person seeking a home mortgage. At any given time there is 15-year money, 30-year money, and so forth. Now, regarding debt to equity, there is no difference between pledging 7% from 30 years of revenue or 14% from 15 years of revenue, except that the rate of 15-year money is typically lower and therefore the cost to taxpayers would be lower. But, the total equity amount pledged is the same.
So, again, why 30 years? My guess is that the answer is not about the 7% vs. 14%, but rather the 93% or 86% of the money remaining for other things under the 30-year financial proforma. So, where does the rest of the Measure A tax revenue go?
From what we were presented, aside from the funds going to collateralize major highway projects and a larger percentage going to Marin Transit and other public transportation services (shuttles, special services, etc.), and lesser amounts to programs such as Safe Routes to School and the Yellow bus program, the rest appears to go directly to cities, as noted above.
So, it appears to me that the TAM board members are saying that they just want more money and that no one wants to give up anything. And, even that might make sense from a public policy standpoint, except for a few things.
My general impression is that no one in government, local or state, wants to cut back on anything, ever. And, if forced to, they always claim it is the taxpayer’s fault for not ponying up. Politicians create wish lists that inevitably preserve existing jobs and typically create more and more jobs, regardless of the fiscal practicality. No one ever talks about cutting operating costs to increase efficiency. It's not even allowed in the dialog. But, in the real world, success if often about implementing technology and finding operating efficiencies in order to be able to provide higher pay to fewer workers, because of increased productivity.
I didn’t hear a word about that.
TAM said it is allocating ½ of 1% of Measure A funds to “innovation.” Not only is that far too little, but most of that will probably end up going to pay for consultant’s studies. To their credit, TAM is going to try to test a “transit on demand” system and even mentioned being in talks with Lyft – something I applaud and encourage (and recommended in my book in 2012) – but innovation is also about changing corporate culture and turning the mirror around and asking yourself, how can we do more with less?
I didn’t hear anything even remotely like that in the responses we received to our questions And, when I commented about the absurdity of people retiring with pensions and benefits at 50 or 55 years old, in this day and age, the tone turned decidedly hostile. The whole topic was just off the table, to even ask the question was verboten.
Doing more with more
Admittedly, TAM’s challenges raising money are formidable and I don’t envy Ms. Steinhauser’s job. But, from what we saw, the County is not helping as much as they could. We were shown a chart of how revenues from all sources had changed over the past 15 years or so. The charts also compared TAM’s overall revenues to other County’s revenue sources, such as real estate tax revenues.
While most revenues climbed slowly and steadily, real estate tax revenues have skyrocketed in comparison. Yet, the percentage of funds going to Marin Transit, from real estate taxes, is only 15% of the overall Marin Transit budget.
Why? If anything, we need as much public transportation as possible. What is the County doing with all that increased revenue? And, how much of it is being consumed by absurd 8% raises to all employees, and the resultant increased pension benefits to county employees?
That appears to be another question we’re not supposed to ask.
Dreaming about limitless expansion of programs and bike lanes everywhere is not going to solve our everyday transit challenges. Meanwhile, traffic congestion gets worse and worse, because dated and dysfunctional roadway designs are not improved. But, why set priorities or seek efficiencies if you know that you can always go back and hold the public hostage and raise taxes and fees, regardless.
The tax and fee burdens in California are unsustainable. Our whole tax and spend mantra and allowing limitless indebtedness cannot end well.
I reminded Ms. Steinhauser that the business cycle has not been repealed and we are due for a recession in the coming years. I also commented that in my opinion, none of our government agencies are prepared for this and the inevitable decreases in tax revenues, when that happens.
I felt like my comments fell on deaf ears.
Silvestri is the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a
501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals
in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.