New Legislation Seeks to Lower Voter Threshold for Transit Tax Approval

In 2008, Bruins for Traffic Relief Rallied for the Measure R transit sales tax which despite earning nearly 70% of the vote barely passed. New legislation seeks to lower that threshold from 67% to 50%.

A series of amendments proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to SB 791 would lower the threshold of voter approval for new taxes to fund transportation improvements from 67% to 50%.

“SB 791 empowers local communities to meet their local transportation needs, improve regional mobility, and invest in high-priority, job-creating infrastructure improvements,” said Sen. Steinberg.

News of this change broke over the weekend, and already transportation groups such as the Bay Area’s TransForm are already providing Action Alerts for Californians to contact their representatives in Sacramento.

The anti-congestion charge, in the form of per gallon fees on fuel paid at the pump, could be used to fund transit, bike and pedestrian projects, toll lanes, and the safety and maintenance of state highways and bridges. The charge would be levied on the sale of gasoline and diesel fuel and, for electric cars, on vehicle registration, and could be implemented for up to 30 years.

Revenues could pay for transit capital, operations and maintenance; bicycle and pedestrian programs and projects; programs and projects that would demonstrably reduce the growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT); conversion of carpool lanes to toll lanes; and improvements “relative to the maintenance, safety and rehabilitation of state highways and bridges.”

“Almost half of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation,” said Warner Chabot, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters. “SB 791 will provide Californians with better transportation choices. It will lead to fewer cars on the road and will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This bill is an environmental milestone.”

As we’ve seen with other proposals that would allow expansion of transit, bicycling or pedestrian networks, there is unity between environmental groups, organized labor and business leaders when it comes to supporting “pro-transit” ballot initiatives.

“The transportation improvements that would be made possible by SB 791 would create desperately needed good jobs in California,” said Maria Elena Durazo, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “Every $1 billion invested in transportation creates about 47,500 jobs. SB 791 will put Californians back to work, especially those who have been hit hardest by the recession.”

In 2008, Los Angeles County became the most recent county to pass a tax to fund transportation improvements.  Because any voter approved fee requires two-thirds support, it was a long night for transit advocates on November 4, 2008 despite overwhelming support for the initiative.  For Denny Zane, the executive director of Move L.A., the coalition founded to support Measure R, Steinberg’s proposal is a welcome change.

“In 2008 voters in LA County miraculously voted to support the Measure R sales tax for transportation by a two-thirds vote in the throes of a collapsing economy.  But, it should not require a miracle to ensure the future of our transportation system and our economy,” said Zane. “This bill provides the opportunity for congestion reduction strategies that can be approved by a sensible majority vote, including expanded transit services or highway improvements.”

No hearing date has been scheduled for SB 791, but Streetsblog will cover this legislation if it moves through the Senate and Assembly.