Lost in transit: To succeed in November, $3.6 billion transportation measure must play to the Sacramento suburbs

Measure B would raise local funds for roads, highways, streetcar and transit

The proposed Measure B sales tax could fund light rail’s expansion to the airport and Elk Grove.

The proposed Measure B sales tax could fund light rail’s expansion to the airport and Elk Grove.

Photo BY ISTOCK/MilenkoDesign

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the May 5, 2016, issue.

On the morning of April 20, while a Sacramento Transportation Authority subcommittee discussed a measure that could dictate transportation planning for decades to come, staff members at Wellspring Women’s Center were helping its clients get bus passes.

The Oak Park-based center hasn’t taken a position on Measure B, a proposed half-cent sales tax that could generate $3.6 billion for transportation projects around Sacramento County over the next 30 years—but it has a stake in the outcome.

So do many others.

The ambitious sales-tax proposal comes at a tricky time, as elected leaders try to balance the needs of a struggling transit system against voter expectations and their own priorities. All those cooks have crafted a stew that plays heavily to the commuter-friendly suburbs, whose buy-in is needed for the measure to pass in November, but may do little to hit state-mandated pollution targets and expand services to the transit-dependent.

“I think what’s worrisome about a measure like this is that it tends to be detached from longer-term regional transportation planning goals, or there’s the potential for that,” said Gian-Claudia Sciara, a researcher for the Urban Land Use and Transportation Center at UC Davis. “It becomes more about what can get everybody to approve the measure now.”

Measure B still has multiple stops before it arrives before voters, but most of its money is spoken for—earmarked for road repairs and highway expansions. There’s even $30 million for a streetcar project that city voters rejected last year. That leaves a quarter of the funds for Sacramento Regional Transit and, by extension, the working-class people who depend on it.

Like the clients of Wellspring, 89 percent of whom earn less than $15,000 a year and name transportation a huge barrier to meeting daily responsibilities or receiving social services. For them, a discontinued bus route or increased light-rail fare means fewer groceries, says Corey Rodda, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the center.

“It’s really hard to survive when you’re in poverty, especially given the high rates that RT charges,” she said.

Despite its proffered billions, Measure B may not reverse those trends. In many ways, the sales-tax proposal represents a grand bargain with the best odds of success. The question, now, is who gets left out?

It remains unclear where all that $3.6 billion will go.

Under Measure B’s expenditure plan, which the STA advanced on a 13-1 vote last week, 75 percent of the revenue in the first five years is slated for what are called “Fix It First” projects, mostly road and transit maintenance and rehabilitation work that has yet to be specified.

The emphasis on basic upkeep emerged for two reasons: Federal and state funding sources for these projects have dried up; and voters like them. In a March poll of 801 possible voters, the Sacramento Transportation Authority says Fix It First projects drew the support of 91 percent of respondents.

Fix it First also appeals to local elected officials, many of whom moonlight on the boards of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, STA and RT. Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna and Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer sit on all three, while many of their colleagues pull double board duty.

That helps, because STA board members must now get their jurisdictions to sign off on the proposal. Measure B needs the approval of seven city councils and the board of supervisors by early August to make the ballot, after which two-thirds of voters have to support it for it to pass.

That’s a high benchmark, one that could be missed if any organized opposition arises. In STA’s poll, 69 percent of respondents supported the measure, though that support dropped to 61 percent when arguments against the measure were presented.

It’s also why the STA favored a 70-30 split between roads and transit, despite calls for more transit funding by groups like the Environmental Council of Sacramento, 350 Sacramento, and Sacramento Transit Advocates and Riders.

“The problem is that most of the members who spoke from the public would like us to craft a measure that has zero percent chance of passing,” STA board member and Elk Grove City Councilman Pat Hume said at the April 28 meeting.

Transit and housing advocate Russell Rawlings, who recently exited the city of Sacramento’s mayoral race, acknowledged elected officials’ narrow margin for victory.

“I think they’re really concerned [about the measure not passing],” he said. “Which means taking care of the county, which means most of the money going to the roads, which is what we all expected.”

UC Davis’ Sciara called Measure B’s Fix it First emphasis “very constructive,” but found other elements troubling. Specifically, the initiative may not aid the region’s goals of reducing greenhouse gases as the population grows.

According to the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the six-county Sacramento region will experience a 36-percent population increase between 2012 and 2036. That means 811,000 more people, 285,000 new homes and 439,000 new employees during that period.

Reducing pollution will hinge on the area’s ability to decrease the average number of vehicle miles per household, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Plan that SACOG adopted last month. The plan suggests a number of ways to accomplish this, including expanding transit and infill development, so people aren’t commuting between home and work.

In drafting Measure B, the STA board also made accommodations to business and suburban development interests.

During last week’s meeting, the STA board relaxed an air quality provision that drew complaints from Region Business, Associated General Contractors of California and the California Alliance for Jobs.

Another business-friendly consideration has Measure B steering roughly 70 percent of its projected $3.6 billion to road, highway and local transit projects. (Specifically, “local transit” mostly refers to implementing bike and pedestrian master plans for every city in the county except Isleton, and fixing the roads that buses travel over.)

Other big-ticket projects include a $200 million widening of the Capital City Freeway from P Street to Watt Avenue.

Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer told SN&R that Measure B would also raise $30 million for the city’s $195 million riverfront streetcar project, which voters rejected last year under a lower price tag, but may be asked to reconsider.

On April 25, Schenirer and fellow Councilman Steve Hansen successfully pushed their RT board to adopt a $4.7 million design contract for the streetcar, using money from the federal government and the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento. After an hour spent discussing the contract, the RT board began considering possible system cuts, a conversation that it plans to continue at future meetings.

Rawlings, who was at that lightly attended meeting, says those priorities need to be reversed. While a fan of the streetcar idea, he thinks it’s the wrong time to invest in it while the regional transit system as a whole languishes.

“It’s the tale of RT really just self-destructing in so many ways,” he said.

Rawlings says he is concerned less with how Measure B divvies up its billions than what RT will do with the share it does receive.

“RT does not have a good track record of spending money,” he said. “More services would actually get more people to participate in the system. Any approach that doesn’t get us closer to that doesn’t make sense, in my mind.”

STA grappled with what to do about public transit while drafting Measure B. A current sales tax, Measure A, allocates 34.5 percent of roughly $30 million annually for RT. With RT facing numerous problems, STA has restricted how it can spend Measure B money.

“They’re going to have to do the Fix It First projects early on until they meet certain other requirements like increasing ridership, increasing their fare box recovery, those sorts of things before they can even look at thinking about doing expansions of the system,” said STA board Chairwoman Kerri Howell, a Folsom City Council member and candidate for Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. “That’s one problem that everybody has had with RT.”

But not the only one.

Under Measure B, RT could receive $952.3 million over 30 years, with $392.8 million designated for bus and train replacement, maintenance, operations and security. The rest is for extending light rail and servicing new lines, including lines to Sacramento International Airport and Elk Grove, which has attracted controversy.

Oak Park Neighborhood Association Vice President Katie Valenzuela Garcia says she’s considering filing a Title VI complaint against RT over the current Measure B spending plan. Title VI, part of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, requires that public funds be spent in a way that doesn’t encourage discrimination.

With much of RT’s Measure B share expanding light rail to higher-income areas, rather than restoring discontinued bus routes in minority communities, Valenzuela Garcia argues that’s not happening here. “This measure, as it’s drafted right now … is going to violate Title VI,” she said. “There is no way they can justify that when they cut so much bus service and increase fares for people of color.”

RT general manager Mike Wiley called that argument “a false concept” and pointed to the STA poll that showed 75 percent support for extending the lines. He says he doesn’t fear a Title VI challenge, but acknowledged many groups depend on public transit.

“We have very limited local support, and consequently it really causes us to be very careful and look at how we can allocate all of our services in a productive way,” he said. “While at the same time, we’re very sensitive to the transit-dependent needs that exist throughout our community. It’s a delicate balance.”

If anyone knows about that delicate balance, it’s the women of Wellspring.

Wellspring gives out $18,000 a year in bus passes, with women lining up at 7:30 in the morning for them. But there’s demand for more, its staff says, even as routes are reduced.

“Essentially, what I hear over and over is that ’I can’t get to the doctor’s. I can’t get my son to school. I can’t get to this vital court appointment that I have to expunge my record’ or these different things,” said Genelle Smith, a program coordinator for Wellspring.

So, on April 20, Smith and others organized carpools to ferry 68 women to an RT office at 13th and R streets. Wellspring provided each woman $3 to get a photo ID, so they could get a sticker on it that would allow them to purchase a $50 monthly disabled pass.

Blocks away, Howell made the case for a $125.6 million highway connector between Elk Grove and El Dorado County.