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Building a Better “Faster Bay Area” w/ Margarita Parra Cobaleda and Shiloh Ballard

After months of laying the groundwork, the coalition behind the proposed “Faster Bay Area” (FASTER) ballot measure decided in March to postpone their efforts in light of the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

As FASTER regroups for 2021 or 2022, Streetsblog decided to reach out to experts who bring different lenses to ballot measures, a mix of local advocates, national analysts, and veterans of ballot measure campaigns from other parts of the country, for their thoughts. Our first interview was with Steven Higashide, the Director of Research at Transit Center and author of Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit.

For our second interview, we spoke with Jeffrey Buchanan, the director of public policy for Working Partnerships USA.

Our third interview was with Angie Schmitt, a past editor with Streetsblog USA and author of the upcoming book, “Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America

Today we close out the series with a dual interview with Shiloh Ballard, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, and Margarita Parra Cobaleda, a director with I ebike and board member of SVBC.

Damien Newton (SBSF): Thank you both for joining us.

In the other three interviews in this series, our guests have repeated a couple of ideas that should be followed when putting together a large ballot proposition such as Faster Bay Area: building a large coalition early, making sure there is funding for operations, and thinking beyond the project list to building an integrated transportation network.

What do you think should be the top priority today when building a ballot measure for the future?

Shiloh Ballard and Margarita
Shiloh Ballard and Margarita Parra Cobaleda
Shiloh Ballard and Margarita

Shiloh Ballard (Shiloh): This is not unique to Faster, but this is how a lot of ballot measures and policy making happens: In the absence of those who are closest to the problems.

We need to shift how we measure community voice in these processes. Actually, it’s not how we center community voice, but decide to center community voice.

Usually the way things are done is the powers that be get together, they identify a problem, and then they decide how to solve it. Usually these powers tend to be connected to money and wealth and exclude those that are most negatively connected

At this point in time, that’s become super apparent and people are more sensitive to it.

It’s hard. In order to bring a measure to voters, you need to fund a measure. To fund a measure you need the support of people that mostly look and feel the same way.

All of that needs to change.

Related to that, and this came up with the Caltrain measure recently because we were all freaking out that it wouldn’t go on the ballot or if it would that it won’t pass.

The real question is, “how do we fund public goods” and “what does that mean?” Historically, we’ve gone to voters to vote on a sales tax measure, but more and more people are saying, “no more.”

We have a lot of wealth in Silicon Valley, a lot of companies that have a lot of wealth. Let’s think about how we fund public goods in a different way.

There are different powerful entities that have been driving these processes: you have the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, you have the Bay Area Council and you have SPUR. They came together on the Caltrain measure and they come together on other ballot measures. And they should, they are good organizations doing good work.

But they represent business interests. That means you have business interests driving the conversation and driving the solutions so you have a conflict.

The leadership group got new leadership recently. SPUR got new leadership last year. That represents a new opportunity. And I’m not denigrating the business community. These companies are mostly good actors in our community and if engaged in a conversation on how we fund public goods, and perhaps pushed a little, they might view their responsibility in a different light.

Margarita Parra Cobaleda (Margarita:) I am a recent US citizen even though I’ve been in this country for fifteen years. It’s crazy to me how public policy is done and funded here.

I think of going back to the voters again and again, it’s all patchwork and not a systemic solution. We do 1% here, and 1% here and 1% here. So it’s not just about “how do we pass a measure?” but how do we pass something that has resiliency and affordability in something that is a public good.

As it is, the existing funding mechanisms for public transit are not resilient and not affordable and not sustainable. Public transit is not meeting the needs of communities. We have a Bay Area that is still over-dependent on cars. The people that use transit are commuters who want to go to San Francisco or San Jose or local low income communities that have no other choice but to use the bus service. To me, those are separate audiences. There are people that talk about the service on BART or Caltrain, but there is nobody talking about the bus service that people with low income have to take to work or go to a community college.

The experience is very different in the United States. I don’t know any other country that funds their public transportation through sales taxes. Most of the time its general taxes, property taxes or even corporate taxes. This area is so wealthy with corporate money but they aren’t paying their fare share in terms of public goods. They have their own public transportation systems…well, I guess they aren’t public but are really private transit, that are carrying people. That has caused traffic congestion.

I know there was an effort with Foundations: San Francisco Foundation,  Hewlett and Packard Foundations, together with Facebook, to sit down and think about the governance of these public goods. How should they be governed and funded and starting from scratch instead of trying to get the current system to work better.

The effort resulted in an initiative about affordable housing.

SBSF: A lot of the discussions that have taken place have been assuming a sales tax, but what you both are saying that the funding mechanism needs to be on the table too. Maybe, even if a sales tax has the best chance of passing, that it’s not the way to do it.

Shiloh: Yeah. It’s regressive. This was a sticking point with Faster.

But this time, it was done just a little differently. The Community Foundation funded some non-profits to provide them with the capacity to push back a little bit on some of the business interests that come forward and do polling.

Here’s how it has worked. You have a funded interest, the business community, that has the funding and the resources to do polling. They determine what funding mechanisms to look at when doing the polling. Those polls then show what can pass and what can’t.

If you’re the business community, you’re not going to propose taxing the business community to see how that flies. I mean who would? We’re all going to do what’s in our interest.

The community foundation funded non-profits to do their own polling so we weren’t reliant on the business community’s polling.

And that’s a good first step. To fund the average person, through a local non-profit, to be able to go toe to toe with well funded interests to be able to say, “you’re doing your research, but we’re doing our research too. You’re telling us the only mechanism that will pass is a sales tax, but our research shows that there are more ways forward.”

Every time there’s been a measure, it’s been put together by the well funded interests.

SBSF: Well, that’s not unique to the Bay Area or the Silicon Valley It’s what we see everywhere. Margarita, do you have a thought on what a better funding source might be based on what’s worked in other countries?

Margarita: In Europe, it all comes from general taxes that either cities or the countries receive so it’s all part of the general public good. As we all pay income taxes and property taxes and we all pitch in.

I know that won’t happen here. I mean, we can’t even properly fund our schools…

SBSF: Well, we have a different tax, a change to our property tax laws on the ballot this year to try and address that. Schools and Communities First. And while that’s not a sales tax, it is a separate tax. And down where I live in LA County, that isn’t even the only school tax on the ballot this year.

Margarita: So generally what happens in other advanced countries is that it all comes out of the general taxes, the same tax pool. When we build aqueducts or water services, it all comes out of the general fund that the city manages.

One of the things that is kind of crazy is that we all know that public transportation isn’t sustainable. The fare does not sustain the service. What other agencies are doing is that other services that get value from public transportation, businesses that are serviced by routes, receive more income because of this service. So there is a real estate fee to help pay for the public transportation.

This conversation in the United States is so difficult because its about “where do we get this money?” But for me it’s identifying who isn’t paying their fare share, which is mostly corporate, and coming up with something that is a more permanent solution.

Because not only is a sales tax regressive, it’s also not resilient. Take right now for example. With COVID the sales tax revenue is down. There will be other recessions and the sales tax will be down again.

SBSF: For a podcast in LA County, I was talking to the editor of Streetsblog USA we were talking about how transit agencies are dealing with the double hit of the pandemic. Needing to spend more to keep riders safe and having lower revenue to do it. There aren’t any cute answers: you either need to cut service or increase funding. One or the other. That’s it.

But changing gears, I’m wondering if you’d like to share any thoughts now what you think should be in a ballot measure. What kind of projects? else needs to be funded?

With the Faster Bay Area that was pulled in the Spring, much of the language was focused on the big shiny projects that are in the center of pr campaigns and get voters to vote for it. But was there anything missing? What should we be funding?

Shiloh: I’ll keep it high level. There was a letter from the bike coalitions that spelled it out for the last measure. This is what we want to see (LINK). And I’m riffing off something Margarita was saying, what we all need to do a better job of is painting a picture of what we think the future is going to look like.

We all know that we need a transportation system that is affordable, sustainable, resilient, accessible, healthy and safe. Those are the elements of a wonderful transportation system. We know that does not translate into a transportation system that is dependent on cars. That is not affordable, or sustainable or resilient…or any of those things. The only thing a transportation system based on the car is is fast…at least in places where you don’t have gridlock.

You asked, “what should it fund?” It should fund those things that will move us towards a transportation ecosystem that has dense communities with affordable housing and grocery stores. Communities where you can walk or bike anywhere you go. It has to do with land use. We need to fund cities to build the land use to support the transportation ecosystem that we know we need.

We need bikes. We need public transit. Public transit should be free. Bike share and scooter share that should be part of public transit. That should be free too.

Hopefully we’re going to get to a point where we have free, clean, shared autonomous on-demand vehicles as a part of that ecosystem too. Not solo, but shared vehicles.

Margarita: That was beautiful.

In different countries, the words “accessibility”, “sustainability” and “resiliency” mean different things. I was talking to a Brazilian friend of mine about mobility after COVID. Inspired by what she’s seen here after the death of George Floyd, she’s started to put racial justice into her work. They never used those words in mobility and transport before. It was something you only heard from social issues.

I know we have advocates working here on mobility justice, we have groups including the Untokening that are working on those principles. But as important as “accessibility”, “sustainability” and “resiliency” is including racial justice and mobility justice in everything we do, everything we ask for.

Because we know who is taking the bus: Latinos, black people  because they have lower income. Of course there are some white people too, but who takes the bus in America is really racially marked. Because most people if they have a choice, they just ride a car.

In Brazil, people are inspired by what is happening here. It’s great to see that, but it’s a reminder that we have more to do too.

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