VTA Sales Tax With Massive Highway Expansion Program on November Ballot

The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) hopes to use $350 million in new sales tax revenue to widen Highway 85 with new express lanes, free for buses and carpools but charge a toll to solo drivers. Image: VTA

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)’s half-cent “Envision Silicon Valley” transportation sales tax is now headed to the November 8 general election ballot in the county, after receiving the unanimous approval of the transit agency’s Board of Directors on June 2.

The new sales tax would fund a massive highway expansion program, spending $1.85 billion on expressway and highway projects over the next 30 years, along with $1.5 billion to extend BART to Santa Clara, $1.2 billion to repave streets, $1 billion for Caltrain upgrades, $500 million for VTA bus and light rail operations, and $250 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements.

“I love driving my car, and I think 97 percent of our population does as well,” said VTA Board and San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis at the June 2 meeting. “More than 52 percent of this budget is dedicated to transit and less than 48 percent is dedicated to roads. In the meantime, 97 percent of population uses roads, whether you’re on the bus, or a car, whether it’s hybrid or electric, or on a bicycle, you need a road. We don’t float on air.”

$750 million would fund the “Tier 1” highest-priority projects [PDF] in the Santa Clara County’s $3 billion Expressway Plan 2040, including $540 million to depress Lawrence Expressway under four intersections. Another $750 million would be spent on traffic expansions of interchanges along Highways 101, 280, 85, 237, 680, 87, and 17.

The VTA sales tax includes $440 million to depress just one-mile of Lawrence Expressway under three intersections in north Sunnyvale. Photo: Andrew Boone
The VTA sales tax includes $440 million to depress just one-mile of Lawrence Expressway under three intersections in north Sunnyvale. Photo: Andrew Boone

The sales tax includes another $350 million to pay for VTA’s State Route 85 Express Lanes Project, which would convert 24 miles of existing carpool lanes to express lane and widen the highway with new express lanes in the median. Express lanes are free for buses and carpools but charge a toll to solo drivers.

“Go back to 2000 and look at that a transit-focused [tax measure] will not only win, it will succeed,” objected transit advocate Scott Lane at the June 2 meeting. “What you’re trying to do here, whether it’s Lawrence Expressway, four intersections for $400 million, it’s going to create induced demand.”

VTA’s 2000 Measure A half-cent sales tax, which funds only transit projects and will expire in 2036, passed with 70 percent voter approval. Voters then passed Measure B in 2008, another Santa Clara County sales tax that funds only BART.

The $1.85 billion in highway and expressway project represents 28 percent of the total $6.3 billion VTA expects the half-cent sales tax to generate over the next 30 years. While $2.5 billion (40 percent of revenues) would go to BART and Caltrain, just $500 million (8 percent of revenues) would pay for expanded bus and light rail service. In contrast, Alameda County’s 2014 Measure BB half-cent sales tax will spend only 9 percent of revenues on highways and 20 percent on bus operations [PDF].

VTA officials insist that widening some highway segments with more traffic lanes, reconstructing bigger highway interchanges, depressing expressways under major intersections will alleviate rush-hour traffic jams. But even Caltrans now quietly admits that such traffic expansions routinely fail to reduce traffic congestion because they induce higher traffic volumes – along with more local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Mercury News reported in April that VTA's transit ridership has dropped 23 percent over the past 15 years. Image: The Mercury News
The Mercury News reported in April that VTA’s transit ridership has dropped 23 percent over the past 15 years. Image: The Mercury News

Santa Clara County officials who lobbied for $1 billion in VTA sales tax revenues to be spent on Expressways projects claim the opposite – that rush-hour traffic expansions will clear the air.

“We have plenty of studies that demonstrate that when you have stop and go traffic, it puts out a lot of pollution, a lot more than when the traffic can flow smoothly,” stated Roads and Airports Department Deputy Director of Infrastructure Development Dawn Cameron to the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission in June of last year.

The $500 million VTA has allocated for bus and light rail operations represents a mere seven percent boost from today’s bus service levels, according to transit advocacy group TransForm. The group published a study of alternatives [PDF] that would invest more in bus and light rail service, and no longer supports the overall sales tax measure.

“The expressway and highway spending will negate the [Vehicle Miles Traveled] and pollution reduction benefits we gain from BART and bike spending in the measure,” said Chris Lepe, Silicon Valley Senior Community Planner for TransForm.

Only $250 million, or 4 percent of revenues, is programmed for pedestrian and bicycling safety improvements. Despite the meager funding, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) praised the tax plan.

“We’re so happy to be here tonight to see this measure come to reality,” said SVBC Deputy Director Colin Heyne. “The proposed measure is going to provide ways to make our transportation system accommodate options other than the private car.”

  • RichLL

    Presumably the good people of Milbrae and its environs wanted that. But KJ’s point that BART is somehow car-centric and CalTrain is not seems well wide of the mark. Both serve suburban commuter areas where cars have a 90% saturation.

  • JustJake

    Maybe. Or maybe we just let progressive liberals and regulators completely take over, and impose someone’s vision of a greater good on the populace, whether they like it or not? Oh wait, we’re already doing that.

  • RichLL

    I understand BART’s non-standard engineering adds constraints and costs, but the benefits of consolidating on a single local rail system may out-weigh that.

    But my point was simply to outline why the South Bay is excited to jump on board with BART rather than put all their eggs in the Caltrain basket. In the end, CalTrain is a single line and route, while BART is a true network

  • RichLL

    If you oppose BART extending into remote sparsely populated areas of the East Bay, then you should surely support instead a focus on the much more densely populated south part of the peninsula?

    Rehashing the benefits of the Central Subway is moot at this point since it’s happening. But one definite problem right now is that the “last mile” from the 4th Street terminus to Union Square is a ponderous trip or a long fairly unpleasant walk.

  • jonobate

    No, we’re really not saying the same thing. Don’t try to pretend that we are.

  • RichLL

    Incorrect. We are disagreeing over exactly who is more biased than whom. But we are both advocating that blatantly biased sources should be discounted.

    Murph is saying that biased sources should still be considered and refuted. Big difference.

    FWIW I consider Cato and UC Berkeley “action groups” to be similarly biased.

  • murphstahoe

    Caltrain’s mode share for station arrival by car is 20%.
    BART’s is 39%

  • murphstahoe

    the Central Subway will obviously compete with the 30 bus, which can as a result be scaled back

    Take THAT – Marina yuppie scum!

  • jonobate

    If I say I don’t agree with you, I don’t agree with you. Don’t try to tell me what I think.

  • RichLL

    We both said that biased sources can be discounted. Therefore we agree. If you cannot see that or if it bothers you that we agree, then that sounds more like something you need to deal with.

  • RichLL

    Because CalTrain operates entirely in a densely populated area whereas BART extends into less dense more car-centric suburbs. I don’t see many BART car parks in the downtown SF and Oakland stations.

    Either way I suspect that the operators are simply responding to customer demand. If a transit system doesn’t respond to demand, then failure is more likely.

  • Estelle Hughes
  • jonobate

    The fact that you want to twist what I’m saying to be something favorable to yourself does not mean that I need to ‘deal with’ anything.

    This is why people think you’re a troll; you intentionally misinterpret other people’s statements in order to provoke a reaction.

  • RichLL

    Jonobate, you very clearly stated that biased sources should be ignored. Then when I happened to say the exact same thing, you back-peddled furiously.

    Apparently you’d rather be seen as someone with no conviction than risk agreeing with someone you have a personal issue with for some weird reason.

    You also don’t understand what a troll is. I am always on-topic here, always have facts and figures to back up my arguments, and perform research if I am not sure, and as a result you struggle to refute me. That’s not trolling – it’s effective debating.

    You then turn snarky and personal indicating that you are the real troll. If you cannot engage in a civil manner, better to not engage at all. I genuinely do not mind if you wish to ignore my contributions, but I will slap you down when you try and make it personal

  • Andy Chow

    1. BART existed before Amtrak (as we know it today)
    2. Amtrak runs on existing freight tracks, so the money involved was minimal.
    3. Amtrak and BART have different markets.
    4. BART and Amtrak are not side by side station to station like what has proposed for BART.

  • Charlie

    “I love driving my car, and I think 97 percent of our population does as well,” said VTA Board and San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis…

    This type of statement drives me crazy. His role is not to impose his own views on everyone else. It’s to represent the desires of the people fairly. I also highly doubt his claim is true. Maybe Massachusetts drivers are different, but when asked the question “what should we invest our transportation dollars in?” the most common answer FROM DRIVERS was “better transit.” Most drivers said that they only drove to work because they had no other choice, not because they enjoyed it.

  • murphstahoe

    I want a webcam inside Mr Khamis’ car as he sits in gridlock on US-101 so we can see exactly how much he’s loving it

  • RichLL

    Come on, a lot of people love cars and driving. There are entire TV shows devoted to that – ever seen Top Gear or Jay Leno’s garage? While Formula One and NASCAR are immensely popular.

    Commuting on a freeway can suck but what does it say about how bad transit is if people do it anyway? And a nice car with leather seats, good sound system, good aircon and soundproofing etc. makes commuting much more pleasant.

    The sin Khamis committed was more one of exaggeration. He cited a 97% figure when the car ownership and use rates in Santa Clara are about 90%.

  • “The Mercury News reported in April that VTA’s transit ridership has dropped 23 percent over the past 15 years. Image: The Mercury News”

    That sadly is not surprising. To build their light rail showpieces, VTA cannibalized some very effective express commuter bus routes. These commuter buses with their bus and HOV lanes actually provided commuters with a faster way to get to work than driving alone!

    But now, the commuter who used to take a single express bus from his residence area to his workplace and back, now has to take a bus to the rail to another bus from his residence area to his workplace and back. Which is now a longer commute than driving alone.

  • Don’t worry JustJake. Political leaders like that and their minions will kill off the growth soon enough. What they leave behind might be a place you don’t want to live in anymore, but hey, they can’t take away the nice weather, no matter how much they claim they can.

  • keenplanner

    Federal law requires HOV lane person minimums to be raised (from 2+ to 3+) if lane doesn’t flow at least 45 MPH. Caltrans is also authorized to ban “clean air” sticker vehicles if congestion remains problematic.
    So why hasn’t VTA raised the Carpool lane minimums? Look at who the executive director is and some of his shortsighted comments.

  • keenplanner

    Really! Who hired this dweeb?

  • keenplanner

    Really not. The central subway is regarded by many as a boondoggle that doesn’t need to be built.

  • Wouter Dito

    Con job. The VTA operates for the benefit its employees and contractors. Transit is just a sideline.

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