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Faster Bay Area

A penny for your thoughts and $100 billion for us - the Faster Bay Area ballot measure

Once upon a time, our local and state government agencies would be the ones who proposed public works projects based on their own assessments of need and the comments, suggestions, and data received from the general public, business interests, and other stakeholders. Those projects would be conceptualized and reviewed publicly, vetted by various impacted agencies, designed with public input, and their costs would be estimated before moving forward. If general funds were insufficient to undertake the project and public financing was required, government agencies would make that determination and propose how to close the gap.

At the local level, this generally remains the case. But in the San Francisco Bay Area, we now have a new form of government, run by and for unelected, private corporate interests. They call themselves “stakeholders” but, more and more, operate under the banner of “regional government.” This new iteration on tax and spend government is a for-profit version of regional planning, at the taxpayer’s expense.

We should note that regional government is a term without a legal definition. It does not exist anywhere in state law. But this hasn’t deterred regional government advocates from assuming it does.

Under this new quasi-regional governmental system, heavily promoted by unelected state agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), instead of plan first and figure out how to fund it, the new method is to raise funds first and ask questions later.

This new system has brought us things like Plan Bay Area 2050. And since this new way of doing business has no real accountability to voters, it basically eliminates the problem of cost overruns because the whole thing is, essentially, a cost overrun.

A recent article in the San Jose Spotlight was entitled, “Silicon Valley Leadership Group appeals to business leaders on $100 billion transit ballot measure.” The title got my attention. $100 billion?!

The article describes this scheme as follows,

“The [ballot] measure, called FASTER Bay Area, is backed by The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Bay Area Council, and nonprofit urban planning think tank SPUR, and would increase sales taxes in the nine county Bay Area by 1 percent to raise $100 billion over 40 years for transportation projects.”

The article’s title would have us believe that a proposal is being made to Bay Area “business leaders” by proponents of the idea, and that those business leaders still need to be convinced. However, the truth is that the organizations promoting this new tax scheme are funded by the same major Bay Area “business leaders” they are pitching it to.

The members of the Silicon Valley Group, for example, are the who’s who of major San Francisco Bay Area corporations. Ditto for the Bay Area Council. And the same for SPUR, albeit that their funding stream comes in the form of nonprofit grants through the corporate and private foundations of those same stakeholders.

In other words, this is all a charade to appear to have “community” support for their proposals.

So, just what is the proposal? According to Wikipedia (updated Dec. 15, 2019),

“Proponents of Faster Bay Area have provided few details on which projects the tax increase would actually fund, though high-cost highway and rail transit expansions have been the most frequently cited. The only "project list" so far provided at any public meeting is in fact a short list of project categories, presented by Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Policy & Community Relations Manager Scott Haywood at the June 21 VTA Board of Directors. That list envisions $36 billion, mostly highway traffic capacity expansion projects, for Santa Clara County, and does not consider any projects in other Bay Area counties.”

The website provides nothing but a colorful, conceptual Powerpoint slide show and a two-page marketing brochure to describe the "plan."

Put simply, the idea is to get Bay Area taxpayers to pay for a variety of public transportation schemes (none of which will apparently be defined until after the ballot measure is passed and the taxes are assessed) that will primarily benefit those proposing it. It is nothing but corporate welfare at the public’s expense.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for the concept of having great end-to-end public transportation systems. But not this way, not led by these organizations and rubber stamped by unelected agencies and headline seeking politicians. Left in their hands, it will not only end up costing ten times as much, but we'll probably end up with a system based on favoring where certain corporations want their employees to live or serving where they want to locate their new headquarters.

We need a truly egalitarian approach. We have enough corporate socialism as it is.

We need this effort to be led by a joint task force comprised only of representatives from the planning agencies of every city and county in the San Francisco Bay Area, all equally represented, to study and assess needs and strategies, and to come up with a conceptual plan first, then determine how it should be funding second.

The "Faster" plan is an outrageous taxpayer giveaway to special interests: 100% marketing hype and B.S. and 0% substance

Under the “Faster” plan, corporate “stakeholders” can continue to grow without having to pay the cost of the infrastructure they desperately need to do so. Worse, there is no lack of elected representatives willing to enable this Ponzi scheme: this corporatization of public planning and finance, in exchange for handsome contributions to their own re-election funds.

As the article notes, Gladwyn D’Souza, a spokesperson for No Mega Tax, which opposes this scheme, states,

“The businesses that are putting these projects together are the cause of the problem. They are the ones attracting the jobs in this area, driving the price of housing up so people have to move to Tracy and commute here. Then they are trying to put together this grab bag of projects so the public takes on the problem of trying to fix this mess.”

The promoters of this corporate-benefit-at-the-public’s-expense scheme counter allegations like this by promising to pitch in and create things called “transportation demand management” plans and other nondescript “contributions” to the cause. But the proponents are long on grand visions and short on details and they make no firm commitments, whatsoever, about anything.

The SPUR website proudly proclaims,

“The measure will enable massive investments in regional rail and express bus, along with key policy changes to ensure that this transformed network connects seamlessly, is affordable to our most vulnerable riders, and can be delivered quickly and inexpensively.”

Wow, that sounds wonderful and it’s great how they included key buzzwords like “vulnerable riders.” Will it cure the common cold, too? And, of course, like every other tax and fee scheme proposed these days, this one will also be wrapped in the banner of “fighting climate change,” albeit without any facts or data, whatsoever, to support the claim.

The Faster Bay Area promoters provide no specifics, no details, no concrete proposals, no cost breakdowns, nothing! And what was that about “key policy changes?” Are these corporately funded, private, advocacy organizations now writing government public policy (which indentured politicians will be happy to sign off on)?

The chutzpah of all this astounds me.

Who will control the $100 billion purse and who will decide what it’s spent on? It appears that it will be MTC, under proposed SB-278, but the proposal doesn't explicitly say that. Will everyone in the Bay Area benefit equally? If so, how and who decides that? And who will be responsible for designing, engineering, cost estimating, and “coordinating” this new, and at this point totally conceptual and undefined, “public transportation network?”

Even the voting process being proposed is unclear and potentially disastrous for some communities and local businesses.

From what I can discern, this ballot measure would require residents in all the nine counties to approve it by a two-thirds majority. But what does that mean? If one county’s residents voted overwhelmingly for the measure, but another county’s residents voted overwhelmingly against the measure, based on their respective populations, if added together, it would mean the measure would pass by the 2/3rds needed. So then one county’s residents would be subjected to the 1% sales tax that their majority voted against, to pay for projects in other parts of the Bay Area?

Once again, regional government does not exist. “Faster Bay Area” ballot measure promoters, who describe themselves as a “brain trust” and “thought leaders,” like to compare it to similar measures passed in Los Angeles. But Los Angeles is both a city and a county (not a "region"), with one board of supervisor and one mayor, not nine different counties and 105 cities.

If Plan Bay Area 2050 is any indication of how regionalism works, democratic representation in deciding how the money is divided up has been reduced to occasional dog and pony shows.

It’s time for sleepy towns in Marin and other small cities to wake up. Under the unsanctioned banner of “regional transportation planning,” we are turning over decisions about how taxpayer money is spent to private, for-profit corporate interests and so-called “nonprofit advocacy” groups funded by those same private, for-profit, corporate interests.

We are not just letting the fox guard the hen-house, we’re paying them to do it.

A worthy footnote: Cal Matters reports that California tax revenues are running $2 billion-plus more than the 2018-19 budget had originally forecast. It’s also a whopping 71.5% more than the state was collecting a decade ago, far outpacing both population growth and inflation. So when is enough, enough?

Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and 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. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of Marin residents.