Surprise Vote by Pro-Transit Supes Against Vehicle License Fee Measure

traffic_pic.jpgPhoto: Bringo.

The Board of Supervisors, acting as directors of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), voted 8-3 yesterday to put a $10 vehicle registration fee increase on the November ballot, a measure that would raise $5 million yearly for congestion mitigation, street and road resurfacing, pedestrian safety and improved transit.

The fee increase was made possible when the governor signed SB 83 (Hancock) in late October, which has compelled county congestion management agencies to debate the merits of an increase. According to SB 83, any county could raise the vehicle registration fee by $10 dollars, so long as the money was spent on programs for congestion and pollution mitigation. The SFCTA’s expenditure plan would allocate the $5 million to street resurfacing (50 percent), pedestrian safety (25 percent) and transit technology improvements (25 percent).

Surprisingly, the three "no" votes were from supervisors traditionally very supportive of transit: David Chiu, John Avalos and Eric Mar. Those supervisors raised numerous concerns about the measure, most notably that it would not raise much money and that it would compete with other significant tax measures that might be on the ballot. $5 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s more than $700 million annual budget, they argued, and would amount to few improvements on the street.

"I personally think this is the wrong time to do it," said Chiu. "We only have a few shots at new revenue. I think if
we’re going to place anything on the ballot, we have to put on tax
measures that result in real revenues for the general fund needs, not a
measure that will provide us pennies on the dollar for congestion and
pollution mitigation projects."

Chiu said the ballot was already crowded and adding another tax measure with limited impact could make it harder to pass the other measures, such as his small business payroll tax initiative. Chiu also pointed to a bill State Senator Mark Leno is pushing in Sacramento that would raise the vehicle licensing fee to 2 percent and would likely bring in an excess of $30 million per year to San Francisco coffers starting in 2012.

John Avalos concurred with Chiu’s policy analysis and said this fee increase could poison the well for the other measures, including his property transfer tax initiative. "It seems like a little bit of money that could sour the greater need to have other sources of revenue pass on the ballot," he said. "If we have five tax measures there’s a chance they may all go down."

A portion of the anger expressed by the dissenting supervisors likely had to do with how the SFCTA staff had proceeded with a poll to gauge public support for the measure, which showed a 62 percent favorable rating. Supervisor Chiu was angry the poll, conducted by EMC Research, compared the registration fee to his measure and the other potential measures and, in his estimation, asked slanted questions.

"I think most of these questions are incredibly biased," said Chiu. "The poll was frankly looking for
results before they got them."

"It’s clear this was an instrument that had a
specific design in mind and I don’t think it furthers what we want to
further in the city," he added.

Jose Luis Moscovich defended the SFCTA’s approach and said similar polls in the other eight Bay Area counties considering a vehicle registration fee compared the fee measure against other potential ballot initiatives. SFCTA’s legal council also put to rest the contention that polling with public money was illegal, saying instead the action had distinct legal precedence.

Moscovich said Napa County was the only Bay Area county to opt out of considering the measure, but the unified focus from the other county congestion management agencies was significant. Moscovich noted that Santa Clara, Alameda, Marin and San Mateo counties had already voted to put the measure on the ballot and Contra Costa County would be voting on it next week.

"The benefit of having the transportation community focused on this in this manner and in a joint effort is that it takes away any consideration of competitive advantage from one county to another for not having this thing permanently imposed," he said. "The other big benefit is that there would be an awareness around the region about this being the first transportation revenue source authorized by the state in almost 20 years."

Supervisor Bevan Dufty gave a ringing endorsement of the fee increase and focused his comments on the impacts of poor paving on the city’s bottom line. "We know that every year our city pays enormous claims to people who are injured because of the conditions on our streets and roadways, bicyclists and others who are injured because the state has taken away so much of the resources that we have traditionally had to improve our roadways," he said.

"This is the first time in a decade we’ve had an opportunity to dedicate a funding source for the programs we work so hard and our staff works so hard to implement and oversee."

  • Thanks Matthew for looking into this.

    I still think it is a good thing that this is on the ballot and the dissenting supes just come off as sounding selfish. “I don’t want to risk the success of my ballot measure.”

    Yes, it is a small increase, but it is an increase none-the-less. And until the true cost of car ownership is achieved, we have to keep taking small steps.

    And I take it there are about 500,000 registered vehicles in SF? And that’s for 800,000 or so people? 7 mi x 7mi? Some lazy folks in these here parts.

  • Jesus, talk about being out of touch with the reality … our friends Chiu, Avalos, and Mar need to step out of the political consultant echo chamber and breathe in some fresh air.

    I posit that this is the ONLY City revenue measure that will pass in November specifically because voters can vote on it and know where the money will go … improving transit, pedestrian, and bicycle modes of transportation. I think they’re kidding themselves to believe San Franciscans are going to pass other revenue/fee measures with no specific uses for those increases. I’m guessing that those revenue/fee measures without specific uses will go down in flames this November.

    Voters are fed up paying more taxes and fees in return for less services from the City of San Francisco (not to mention the packed buses drive right by many handicapped and senior person, and you better believe they vote) … and unless we pass Jeff Adachi’s sustainable pension reform measure (assuming it gets approved to appear on the ballot in the next couple of weeks by the Elections Department), we’re going to see even more service cuts, higher fees, and San Francisco step closer to Vallejo-like bankruptcy.

    This car fee will easily pass, as it should, because it has specific uses … any other revenue measure without specific uses will likely get bounced by voters because they don’t want to pay more for less services because our political leaders botched Prop. D so badly that the original sponsor (Elsbernd) took his name off the measure.

  • patrick

    Agree 100% with mikesonn & jamie.

    I will be voting for the VLF, and would be voting against the two taxes mentioned above no matter what, because those groups are already taxed more than they should be. I don’t own property, or a business, but small businesses drive our economy and we should be encouraging them, not making it more difficult for them to function. And property owners already pay ridiculous transfer taxes.

    The VLF fee is a step in the right direction, the other options are two steps backwards.

  • These guys really are amateurs. They don’t seem to understand what’s important and what’s not, and we are now faced with a ballot that’s jammed with measures, most of which won’t run a real campaign to get passed because progressives are terrible at getting organized….watch some good ideas get killed by the mess of bad ones.

  • Mikesonn, according to the November 2009 SFMTA Transportation Fact Sheet, there are 470,333 vehicles registered to San Francisco residents, 9,932 vehicles per square mile, 0.58 vehicles per capita.

  • Eli

    Since we are all on the same side here, it might be helpful to clarify how the small business payroll tax initiative (Chiu’s proposal) and the property transfer tax initiative (Avalos’ proposal) will work.

    Chiu’s proposal would lower the payroll tax for employees making under $85,000/year and impose a commercial rents tax only on large businesses (not on small business). It will broaden the tax base by reaching large companies (like banks and insurance companies) that are immune from the payroll tax under state law. According to the City Controller, it will create jobs.

    Similarly, Avalos’ proposal would only affect property that sells for over $5 million.

    I don’t know if that effects people’s perception of the initiatives, but I think it is worth stressing that they will not harm small businesses or the vast majority of property owners. And because the money will go into the general fund, they can help shore up vital social programs for seniors, adults with disabilities, youth, etc.

    I think they are smart progressive proposals personally.

  • patrick

    While that’s better still seems anti business and anti-property owner.

    Especially the commercial rents tax. It seems likely to give companies a reason to leave SF, or not move here. Plus, from my understanding the rent tax is based on the annual rent of the building, and there are lots of small businesses that lease space in large buildings. In fact I think most commercial buildings in this city would wind up qualifying for the tax. You can be certain the landlords will pass the tax on to the businesses.

    Lastly, from my understanding it’s based on gross receipts, so it could potentially drive a business under if they have a thin margin, meaning business that serve the poorer elements of our city will likely be the most impacted.

    Generally I’m opposed to any tax on businesses in SF, unless there is a really good case for it, SF is pretty unfriendly to business already.

    Likewise, I’m pretty opposed to any additional taxes on property owners, unless there is a really good case.

    To me general revenue is nowhere near good enough a reason to increase taxes. On the other hand the VLF is a good reason, the money goes right back in to improving our crumbling infrastructure. I wish it were a higher increase, and since I own a car the VLF would have the most direct impact on me.

  • marcos

    The GR tax is tiered by business type as measured by margin.

    It largely replaces the payroll tax which discourages job creation and retention.

    In the ecommerce world businesses expects local Infrastructure to appear out of nowhere as a gift provided by a grateful populace. The populace has other ideas.

    US infrastructure was built under a regime of 70% marginal tax rates. Time to go back to the 1950s, fiscally.

    Did they axe the MTA measure? If so, we’re toast.

  • I would say quite the opposite of what Chiu and Avalos are arguing: if people see a measure that they can easily understand will cost them probably either $10 or $0 and go to programs that are identified and legitimately needed, they will be more inclined to consider revenue measures on the ballot in general. A ballot full of more complicated measures is far more likely to result in people not taking the time to understand them and checking No every time they see the word tax!

    More broadly, it’s ridiculous that this city still has a payroll tax in the fist place. We’ve seen the amazing job creation in Mission Bay after the city created a payroll tax exclusion zone, and even Newsom is saying he understands the benefits of extending it citywide. How do you justify a city payroll tax with close to 10% unemployment? Chiu’s measure at least has the noble goal of reducing the burden it places on small businesses, but isn’t the more obvious step just to eliminate it for any and all businesses which are creating jobs?

    Likewise the City Controller’s impact report released last week on Avalos’s measure tells you all you need to know about it: the estimated impact is an average gain of $35M city revenue, but at the expense of a average decrease in city GDP of $30M and average loss of 180 jobs. Additionally, increasing the top brackets on what is already the city’s most volatile and unreliable revenue source is only going to worsen the cycle of windfall and shortfall. Unless you really trust city hall to cut costs and seriously fund rainy day accounts rather than their pet projects during the next boom, this measure won’t help much.

    The vehicle license fee increase and parking tax increase are much more the kind of revenue stream that’s needed: reliable, periodic income which doesn’t disincentivize anything other than private vehicle trips!

  • Nick

    Excuse me, $5 million is hardly a “drop in the bucket” for pedestrian and bicycle safety measures.

    The Traffic Calming program could tame 10 miles of roadway each year with $5 million. Currently installng a few speed humps is considered the best they can afford.

    The entire Bike Plan is $14 million to build out. Right now, they aren’t too sure where that money is going to come from.

    The point is dedicated funding is very, very good.

  • patrick

    I’m skeptical that it will promote business, I find it hard to see how raising taxes on business by $30-$40 million will help business.

    I also don’t like overly complex legislation. What is the purpose? Is it to make taxes more progressive? Is it to help small business? Is to reduce payroll tax? Is it to more fairly tax the various businesses of the city? Or is it really just increasing revenue? The supporters claim is does all of the former, but I suspect the latter, since all of the other goals can be achieved in a revenue neutral manner.

    We can argue the specifics of the taxes, but like I said, I’m pretty much opposed to any tax that goes into the general fund. The budget this year was $6.5 billion, that’s over $8,000 per person, which I believe is one of the highest per-capita budgets in the country, well over New York’s. We have plenty of revenue, it’s just very poorly managed, we should be getting a lot more for our money than we are.

    If it were a tax that directed funds directly to transit, infrastructure, or education, I’d be more open minded.

  • Alex

    New York City budget $64,884,000,000
    New York City population 8,363,710
    Per person is thus $7751.80

    SF Budget: $6.48b
    SF Population: 808,977
    Per person $8009.92

    Or roughly 1% more than New York, so, no, not well over what New York is spending. Keep in mind, however, that San Francisco is both a city and county, and thus provides services that other large cities may not have to handle themselves.

  • Alex

    Here is a good discussion of city/county budget size:

  • patrick

    My bad, I was looking at revenue from NY vs budget for SF, although I don’t think it really changes my argument if SF is about the same as NY per capita or higher, as both cities are pretty much at the top of the range for large cities in the U.S. We don’t have a revenue problem, but a spending problem.

  • Alex

    Hence the link to the other thread about budgets. SF’s budget includes things that are often not included such as schools and Hetch Hetchy. Chicago, for instance, looks to have a rather light budget. Factor in their schools (which would add another 50%) and you’re at about half of what SF pays per capita. But, Chicago doesn’t operate two law enforcement agencies (sheriff and city police), nor do they operate a huge dam (and distribution infrastructure). Unsure if Chicago’s budget includes funding for airport services (SF’s does).

    Point being, it’s very misleading (or difficult) to make straight comparisons between cities like New York and San Francisco and cities like Phoenix or Chicago.

  • patrick

    Actually I’d already seen the link, that’s part of where I got my initial number from.

    I wasn’t comparing any particular cities, just pointing out that we are not in trouble revenue-wise, and at, or very near the top in per-capita budget.

    I understand that some states / cities (SF & NY for example) are donors to federal income and other are donees, and I understand some cities provide more services than others. Of course there are differences between cities, NY is 5 counties, Chicago & NY have fully functioning heavy rail commuter and/or subways, but it’s not useful to point to specific differences, as SF will have it’s own as well. As far as Chicago goes, half of SF is quite a big difference, and I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough money spent on the SF County expenses to make up for the difference.

    I don’t really care about that, or whether SF is the highest per capita or just in the top 5%, as it’s really irrelevant to my point. It still shows we have more than ample revenue.

    And as I mentioned before, I’m not even against raising revenue or taxes in principle, just raising them for the general fund in SF as I believe that money is poorly managed. I mentioned I would be open minded if they were simpler, or more targeted, I also said I’d support a higher VLF.

    So I don’t find it misleading to compare cities per capita budgets when the differences are so large.

  • marcos

    NYC also has five boroughs that serve county functions, always difficult to know if a figure includes boroughs.

    If memory serves, like 80% of the SF budget is locked in, only $1b +/- change, probably less by now, is discretionary. The sum total jumped by a chunk in the early 2000s when the capital budget was added to the operating budget. Longitudinal analysis is difficult.

    The GR tax extends to fitms which have escaped contributing for various reasons. We are going to have a biz tax, so it should apply to all non-small biz fairly and equitably.

    SF is a business magnet, every boom cycle sees spikes in prices for everythinhlg. If you want cheap, there’s always Houston.

    There is no free lunch, SF is an expensive place to do business for reasons other than the fiscal regime. It is expensive for city workers to live here and raise families.

    std iphone disclaimer here

  • Alex

    I think that a VLF increase is fine and dandy. I won’t vote for it until the MTA undergoes significant reforms. No way am I going to vote for a tax to fund over the top pensions, ridiculous overtime rules, piss poor planning, and a complete unwillingness to engage both riders (service cuts) and residents (Geary corridor). It’s just not going to happen.

    That said, what the city budget is going to is extremely relevant. $8k a year is quite a bit of money if you’ve got a city that doesn’t have a lot of municipal services, or has a lot of services provided by the county. Likewise with the schooling. If San Francisco is expected to cover big budget items, $8,000 per resident may not be enough.

  • marcos

    Given that the 80% of the budget is funded by state and federal sources, the more appropriate measure is what our local tax burden is per capita for the 20%.

    Most city pensions are not exorbitant. Some unions have sweet deals. At $26/hr TWU is neither highly paid nor on deck for prime pensions. Fringe benefit of gym membership seems reasonable to me.


  • Alex

    Marcos, labor costs are eating up an increasing portion of the MTA budget. So merely throwing more money at the MTA means that more money will go to assuage the labor costs without providing any increase in service. Sure, it’s not just the TWU, but the TWU is the only union to not negotiate any sort of concessions. $26/hr is fine. $26/hr plus some money because someone else on the same route is out sick, some extra money because you’re working after 5pm, some extra money for filling in for a different route, etc… is less fine. Work rules that encourage an excess of workers on standby is not fine (e.x.: by not allowing PT employees to fill in for sick FTers). In fact, look at the fare cops. They have a flex time program set up. That *saves* money.

    Until the SF MTA can get its costs (labor and otherwise) closer in line to other major cities, why should we throw more money at it? More money will just feed the horrible inefficiency beast without giving the residents of San Francisco anything to benefit from (e.x.: increased or more reliable service).

    Given that California contributes so heavily to the federal budget, I’d say that lumping federal funds in with state and local is just fine. Likewise with SF contributing to the state’s general fund.

  • marcos

    Alex, it is very expensive to live here, very expensive to commute here. Hence, salaries are going to be higher here to reflect that economic reality. Work rule changes? Sure. Might there have been ways to address that other than throwing wages open to collective bargaining? That’s a q for a labor lawyer. But the q is moot as the elsbernd CA will dispose.

    Newsom has used the MTA as an ATM for his favored constituencies, and that has sucked well into nine figures out of the agency during newsom’s regime.

    We’ve got to avoid this right wing ideology that there is some kind of tax exempt free lunch all day, every day and just grow up and pay for common systems equitably.


  • patrick


    “I think that a VLF increase is fine and dandy. I won’t vote for it until the MTA undergoes significant reforms.”

    That’s cool, I certainly understand that, MTA management is incompetent and needs a major overhaul.

    Personally I plan to vote for it because it achieves 2 of my goals: increased costs for private auto ownership, and a very targeted & hard to abuse stream of revenue for infrastructure improvements that I believe will increase MUNI performance & pedestrian safety. I do understand that the pols will probably find a way to redirect some or all of the funds to the general fund by reducing existing general fund contributions, but I feel they would do that anyways, so it’s still a win in my opinion.

    “No way am I going to vote for a tax to fund over the top pensions, ridiculous overtime rules, piss poor planning, and a complete unwillingness to engage…”

    Definitely agree with that as well. That’s why I’m voting for Elsbernd’s prop as well, I believe it will correct a number of those issues, and also take the TWU excuse away from MTA management.

    “That said, what the city budget is going to is extremely relevant. $8k a year is quite a bit of money if you’ve got a city that doesn’t have a lot of municipal services, or has a lot of services provided by the county. Likewise with the schooling. If San Francisco is expected to cover big budget items, $8,000 per resident may not be enough.”

    I’m not opposed the the amount we spend, or that we spend at the top range per person. If we were providing top notch services I’d be fine, and if we were providing high quality services I’d be fine with increasing our spending, but on the other hand, we wouldn’t need to increase it, as we’d already be doing quite well.

    From what I can see, most of the services we provide are done in a piss poor manner: MUNI sucks and is getting worse, our streets are crumbling and getting worse, our crime solve rate is poor and now we have the crime lab issue, we spend boat loads of money on homeless with almost no tangible improvements, our schools are not well regarded. Perhaps I’ve been mislead, but I haven’t seen much to say we are getting a whole lot for the money we spend.

    But ultimately I definitely understand your opposition to giving any more money to the MTA until they get their act together.

  • “Mikesonn, according to the November 2009 SFMTA Transportation Fact Sheet, there are 470,333 vehicles registered to San Francisco residents, 9,932 vehicles per square mile, 0.58 vehicles per capita.”

    Here’s a link that provides the number of registered vehicles in SF:

    The city’s Transportation Fact Sheet is always a year behind with those numbers. And you have to subtract the number of trailers from the total. They’re registered by the DMV, but that number doesn’t tell you much about how many motor vehicles city residents own, though if the $10 fee is applied to trailers, too, including them in the vehicle total makes sense.

    The latest numbers: 381,737 cars; 59,751 trucks; and 20,339 motorcycles/motorscooters, for a total of 461,827 motor vehicles registered in SF.

  • Thanks, Rob, for the more recent numbers. If anyone is also interested in trends from the distant past, the MTC has some of these at

  • Thanks Rob. The most up to date numbers are always nice to have on hand.

  • Alex

    @Marcos bargaining for the wages works for every other San Francisco city union. Hell, this works for AC Transit too. AC Transit’s local ATU is staging a sickout. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the absentee rates for AC Transit during the sickout pale in comparison to what MUNI sees on a daily basis (18% vs 20-25% in SF). Base pay is of minimal concern to me at this point. $26/hr is hardly exorbitant, it’s everything else that’s piled on top that end up being “hidden expenses” that’s too much. San Francisco is expensive, but so is Marin County, but GGT drivers are paid quite a bit less than the MTA pays their drivers. The TWU has “negotiated” a contract that goes above and beyond what other Bay Area agencies provide, and we get shit on by the drivers in return (am I angry at that toolbag who ran the stop sign in an effort to avoid picking up passengers about 30 minutes ago, sure).

    Your point about Newsom’s work orders is spot on. However, you cannot let one problem (be it work rules, work orders, poor planning, or whatever) detract from the significance of the other problems. Just as with the work rules, if you don’t reform the interagency money sucking, throwing another $10/car at the MTA will do bupkis. The money will continue to cover lavish overtime and asinine work orders.

    Hell, you want $5 mil for the MTA? Would you settle for $3? Maybe you should lobby to reinstate street cleaning! My guess is that you’d see even less resistance from the driving population than for the VLF increase. Street cleaning tickets are among the easiest for the MTA to issue and thus the single biggest source of ticket revenue. But, of course, DPW has more clout than the MTA so it’s better for the DPW to save a mil or so and eat about $4 out of the MTA’s budget.

    But none of this means that you should ignore the other issues in play. Exceedingly generous overtime is just that: exceedingly generous. High levels of drivers on standby is wasteful. Throwing money at the problem *WILL NOT WORK*. Hell, look at Prop A. That threw a bunch of money at the MTA, and most of it got disbursed elsewhere.

  • marcos

    I agree that one contributing issue can’t detract from others, and, like I posted earlier, salary floors are an endangered species. Muni is a much more stressful job than AC Transit or Golden Gate. I am ambivalent on Elsbernd and wish that the TWU was not a zombie union but here we are.

    A governance structure that gives a shit is apparently nowhere on the horizon but is what is most needed. If Brinkman is the best deal we’ve got going for us, along with vague promises from Newsom that he’ll honor the spirit of reform (newsom and honor in the same sentence, yuk yuk, I know) Muni is toast.

    Even with locking down work rules through collective bargaining, nobody has explained to me how Muni will perform up to the Gold Standard of the DPW or what kind of savings to expect.

    Like I said, we’re toast without structural governance reform.



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