For Better Muni and Safer Streets, Mayor Lee Must Back Vehicle License Fee

Mayor Ed Lee has an opportunity to champion one of the smartest proposals to come out under his administration: A ballot measure to restore SF’s vehicle license fee to its longtime level of 2 percent. The measure would raise crucially needed revenue that would boost transit and make San Francisco’s streets safer.

Mayor Ed Lee speaking with Supervisor Scott Wiener behind at the Bike to Work Day press conference. Photo: Aaron Bialick

But the mayor has recently appeared reticent about supporting the measure, especially since a poll showed early this month that only 44 percent of respondents said they would vote for it — even after hearing that it would raise roughly $1 billion over the next 15 years for pedestrian safety projects, bike infrastructure, transit improvements, and road re-paving.

The VLF increase was proposed by the Mayor’s T2030 Transportation Task Force, along with two $500 million general obligation bonds and a half-cent sales tax increase that would go to voters in 2016. Restoring the VLF to 2 percent, from the 0.65 percent level in place since Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed it in 2004, is the only measure in the set that specifically asks drivers to pay more towards maintaining and upgrading the entire transportation system.

Yet despite the mayor’s successful campaign to repeal Sunday parking metering, which he claimed would garner motorist support for the ballot measures, Mayor Lee might abandon the VLF measure anyway. That scenario worries Supervisor Scott Wiener enough that he introduced a backup plan last week, in the form of a charter amendment tying general fund spending for Muni to population growth.

But rather than taking precious funds from other crucial city services to subsidize the costs of driving, restoring the VLF instead would help recoup the devastating loss of transportation revenue caused by Schwarzenegger’s move, without actually increasing the fee beyond its historic levels.

“It’s what everybody paid for 50 years. 1948 is when it started, at 2 percent,” SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin told Streetsblog.

The lion’s share of local street and transportation spending comes from taxes levied on the general public, both now and assuming all of the proposed measures pass. A 2 percent VLF represents a meager step towards ensuring that drivers pay for the disproportionate costs they incur to the street network, through wear and tear on roads, traffic congestion, air and water pollution, and crashes.

“Ultimately, it’s the right revenue source. It’s absolutely needed,” said Reiskin, noting that VLF revenue would mostly go towards road re-paving, though it would also fund improvements for Muni, walking, and biking. Since VLF revenue traditionally goes to the general fund, a separate proposed ballot measure would “encourage” the new funds to be spent on transportation.

A lot of work has already gone just into putting this measure on the ballot. In 2012, the California legislature passed a bill to specifically allow San Francisco to raise its local VLF beyond 2004′s statewide limit, pending voter approval. The VLF was originally supposed to hit the ballot last November, but it was delayed by a year.

Building support among voters to restore the VLF will be a challenge, but it’s one that can’t be overcome without the mayor’s political support. And it’s the best way for Lee to demonstrate his true commitment to Vision Zero — ending traffic fatalities within ten years — and to a more reliable Muni system.

“Our office is working hard with the MTA to make sure that we invest properly in our city,” Mayor Lee told the crowd at the Bike to Work Day press conference at City Hall on May 8. “In November, we have a huge opportunity for the public to join us, by investing in a $500 million bond and a vehicle license fee increase, that all goes to safer, better, and efficient streets.”

“We need everybody’s cooperation here. It’s not easy to say yes, and do hard work to get good things done,” Lee said, noting that there’s no “better reason” than to make streets safer for kids biking. “It’s easier to say no, but we say yes in this city.”