Poll Shows Voters Support Transit Tax, but Two-thirds Threshold May Be Elusive

San Franciscans want more subways, according to poll. Photo: SFMTA
San Franciscans want more subways, according to poll. Photo: SFMTA

More than seven in ten likely voters in San Francisco said there was a “great need” or “some need” for transportation improvements, according to a new poll commissioned by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The survey involved just over 1,000 interviews conducted by phone and online earlier this month.

“The survey also gauged voter support for additional revenue sources to help pay for these improvements,” wrote a spokesman for the SFCTA about the results. And that means tax increases. When it came to actually funding a transportation measure, voters in the survey were significantly less enthusiastic:

SFCTA
Some possible scenarios–and relative support for them–to raise funds for transportation improvements. SFCTA

Here is a breakdown of the conclusions of the study, which was conducted by Fairbank Maslin Maullin-Associates, a market researcher in Oakland:

  • San Francisco voters see a need for additional funding for public transportation and a majority are willing to support a funding measure to provide additional funding for public transportation and traffic improvements.
  • Among the potential funding mechanisms, a sales tax and a business tax on commercial rents receive the strongest initial support.
  • However, after balanced pro and con arguments describing each funding mechanism, the proposed service intermediary tax and commercial rental property tax are seen as most acceptable to voters.
  • Voters view repairing streets and investing in public transit, including BART, Muni, and Caltrain, as the most important spending areas for the measure.

Of course, being that this is California, with Prop. 13’s two-thirds voter threshold for new taxes to support initiatives, having majority support is just the start of the fight. Last year, lawmakers attempted to circumvent this requirement through Props J &K. K was to increase the city’s sales tax rate from 8.75 to 9.25 percent and raise $154 million a year. Proposition J was to ensure that those funds were dedicated exclusively to fighting homelessness and fixing the transportation systems. The results: Prop J won by 66 percent, while Proposition K failed with only 35 percent voting “yes.” That was the same election where the BART bond passed comfortably.

Last year, during a post-election analysis session at SPUR, political consultant David Latterman said it shows the SF electorate is “…willing to pay for our infrastructure, to make this a good livable city,” but he added that “general sales taxes often don’t pass.”

Or, as some advocates concluded, voters are willing to pay for good, well-explained, and important projects such as repairing BART. But a generalized increase in taxes doesn’t work. Not too long after K failed, Thea Selby, Board Chair of the San Francisco Transit Riders, said to Streetsblog, “I look at Seattle and L.A., which passed Measure M for $40 billion. We can do better than that! K was embarrassing.”

And that’s what this polling data is about–attempting to gauge what the voters can digest and accept as most important to improving their commutes. The next step for the committee and the advocates who work with it will be to translate that data into something that, through education and persuasion, can either legally fly with a simple majority, or will get enough voters past that two-thirds threshold.

“We would be supportive of the measure that would be most viable in passing, and have the least impact on people of lower incomes,” said Transform’s Joel Ramos. “We will be supportive of whatever polls best and are thankful for the effort to gauge what the electorate will be most supportive of.”

Highlights of the poll were presented to the SF Transportation 2045 Task Force meeting on Monday. The task force, convened by the late Mayor Lee and Supervisor London Breed, is a who’s-who of transit professionals, politicians, and advocates and is charged with looking for local revenue sources for transit projects.

The full results of the survey will be available in January, but Streetsblog readers can have a look at more of the results now.

  • davistrain

    We managed to pass two sales tax measures here in LA County, the first just “sqeaked by” with 67%. the second was close to 70%. One cynic commented, “Of course they passed. A lot of the voters probably thought, ‘Good! Let all those other folks ride the new trains. That will leave more room on the freeway for me!”

  • crazyvag

    Maybe we should use other cities as an example when explaining these? London bought new trains with full walkthrough gangways because handing the large loads was more important than making short and long trains like Bart prioritizes. They bought new train control system to run 36 trains an hour. They paid for it with congestion pricing.
    Now they are building underground commuter lines.

    Maybe we’re thinking too small? What if instead of asking .5% sales tax for Muni, we go big and ask for 1% for both Muni and 2nd Bart tube and train control system like London? Let’s model ourselves after city that’s successful.

  • mx

    As I see it, Measure K failed because transportation officials asked for a blank check. Increase the sales tax, and if J passed too, it would go into the city budget black holes of transportation and homeless services, two areas where we continue to spend billions with little to no accountability.

    Frankly, I’m a daily transit rider, and I desperately want better transit, but I don’t trust the city with more money like this. I hate to sound curmudgeony, but unless they can point to specific things that will result in measurable improvements that they can achieve with the funds that they couldn’t otherwise, they’re just asking for another blank check. You really want to sell this thing? Explain that, say, the funds will allow the 22-Fillmore to now come every X minutes and take no more than Y minutes end-to-end, and here’s the person who will show up at the Board of Supervisors meeting in a year to explain whether they achieved that goal. If they did, let’s celebrate and promote that: it will help get more people riding transit and show the money was well spent.

    Many of the transit improvements that would improve my day-to-day experience getting around the city cost very little. Transit signal priority on major routes is a no-brainer, should have been done years ago project, costs in the low tens of millions per SFMTA’s budget, and they’re just getting around to it on the T, maybe some other lines someday. Some stuff is essentially free, like making sure operators are in position and rapidly turn around metro trains at Embarcadero so they don’t sit blocking the track, worsening a “subway traffic” problem. Safe-hit posts and green and red thermoplastic to create dedicated lanes aren’t anywhere as simple as they sound once the design work and community wrangling is factored in, but they’re still not expensive projects. Getting the existing SFPD and DPT forces to crack down on double-parking would downright make money for the city. Having the political will to say “no, we’re not going to have ineffective projects like the L-Taravel pilot; we’ll do it right the first time” would save time, money, and lives.

    It’s also interesting to note the survey had 75% of likely voters owning a car (11% more with access to one), when the citywide figure is far less. Between response bias and differences between the voter population and the city population, the poll, and those voting on the measure, are only so representative of the city as a whole. And 42% of likely voters using a ridehail service regularly is an amazing figure.

  • Then put it on the ballot by a petition drive, where it’ll only need a simple majority to pass. Or at least that’s the implication from a ruling out of the State Supreme Court back in September.

  • Spam Us

    Agree. If you’re going to ask for a tax increase voters need to see the big projects moving forward. Only problem would that even 1% might not be enough for a very large scale plan.

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