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your sales tax dollars at work

By enelson
Friday, January 26th, 2007 at 5:15 pm in BART, Bicycling, Funding.


Among the many things I’ve neglected while obsessing over a long-term project has been the work of Alameda County’s guardians of the half-cent sales tax for transportation.

In 1986, a majority of voters approved Measure B, which started the tax that year and created the Alameda County Transportation Authority to spend it. That taxing authority ended in 2002, but in 2000, voters passed another Measure B to continue from there under the auspices of the same agency with a different name, the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority. I’m guessing the snazzy new name was what won the second measure 81.5 percent of the vote.

So the modest staff of ACTA/ACTIA, some of whom are Capricious Commuter readers, treated several of the area’s transportation reporters to lunch (For the record, I DID NOT have a cheese sandwich.) and gave us the aforementioned history as well as a rundown of their past, present and future projects.

I feel for these people. They’re doing important work, for sure, but so much of it is in the small-change realm that it’s difficult to justify writing about. By small change, I mean under 10s of millions of dollars. These days, in the wake of voter approval of Proposition 1B, any transportation project under $100 million in the Bay Area is under the radar unless it has some quirky attribute that’s fun to write about.

But true to their mandate, the folks at ACTA/ACTIA work hard at getting the word out to voters/taxpayers that their will is being done. Today they succeeded in dragging me and even Mr. Roadshow from the San Jose Mercury News (lately acquired by MediaNews) out to hear their spiel.

So what do they do besides ply the media with pasta salad and pickles? They’ve helped pay for the San Leandro Fairway/Aladdin overcrossing, just about every improvement to Interstate 880 that’s been built, BART to Dublin/Pleasanton, the I-580/I-680 interchange and the Oakland Airport Roadway, to name many that are completed under the 1986 sales tax measure. They’re also helping fund the Altamont Commuter Express commuter train that goes from Stockton to San Jose via the Livermore Valley.

Even though the first measure’s tax spigot stopped running in 2002, there was still enough money for the ongoing construction of the I-880-Mission Boulevard Connector, which is now 60 percent complete, and other projects.

The agency’s current, 2002-to-2022 plan would do everything from expanding mass transit (including helping fund the BART to Warm Springs Extension, a sizeable baby step toward San Jose) and unclogging freeways all the way to filling potholes, adding bike lanes and putting up wheelchair ramps down the front of home-bound senior citizens.

They do a lot, this agency, and like other such agencies they have problems and controversies, like the now abandoned Hayward Bypass project and a no-bid contract for the same attorney since the agency was created (which the agency says it’s about to correct).

It seems, more than anything, that the people who run this outfit want more than anything for Alameda County residents to know first, that they exist, second, that their sales tax dollars are spent the way voters agreed they should be spent, and third, that they will listen to anyone who has an idea about how that money could improve mobility in the county.

That last part is key, because they’ve recently invited people to recommend projects to improve bicycle and handicapped access, purposes for which they have $7 million at the moment.

Transportation doesn’t grow on trees, but in self-help counties like Alameda, it grows every time you pay sales tax.

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19 Responses to “your sales tax dollars at work”

  1. Robert Raburn Says:

    In 2000, Alameda Co voters approved an “expenditure plan” listing the transportation projects and programs that they would receive. You are correct that ACTIA staff want to insure that the “sales tax dollars are spent the way voters agreed they should be spent.” To help assure voters, Measure B also mandated that a Citizen Watchdog Committee (CWC) would make regular reports to the public.

    The 2006 CWC Annual Report includes the following “Bad News:”

    “The problem is that Measure B projects are dependent upon a variety of funds. Nine projects are still facing funding shortfalls. If outside funding is not assured by April 2007, the Board will have to decide whether or not to re-allocate the ACTIA funds.”

    Voters were reasonably assured that their investment would lead to timely progress, but it is now clear that delivery of the proposed BART extension to South Fremont and the Oakland Airport Connector is not on the near horizon. Sufficient outside funding has not been secured.

    The following timeliness criteria was specified in the Expenditure Plan’s “Implementing Guidelines:”

    “This Plan’s goal is to complete the projects promised in this Plan in a timely manner.
    A project will be given five years from the first year of revenue collection (up to April
    1, 2007) to receive environmental approvals and to have a fully funded project.
    Projects that cannot meet this requirement may appeal to the Agency’s governing
    board for one or more one-year time extensions. Once time has expired, the sponsor
    will be deemed to have approved deletion of the project, and the funds will be
    reallocated based on the principles described above.”

    The public should be fully aware of this impending deadline. As Chair of the CWC I invite your help to either: simply accept project delivery delays with annual extensions; reallocate funds to other projects; divert other funds like new Prop 1B monies to meet Measure B project shortfalls; or define alternative ways to provide some level of promised improvements–perhaps on an interim basis.

  2. South Bay Resident Says:

    I’m not a Alameda County resident (as you might guess from my user name), but I would like to suggest canceling both the BART extension to Warm Springs and the Oakland airport monorail.

    In the case of the BART extension to Warm Springs, it serves very little transportation purpose for the residents of Alameda County in the absence of the BART extension to San Jose. Even in the event that this project gets built and VTA finds the money to run it, ridership is likely to be far below VTA’s projections, meaning that Alameda county residents will see little benefit from the extension. Further, Alameda county has many other projects that will produce more benefit to commuters for less cost.

    In the case of the Oakland airport monorail, why spend hundreds of millions of dollars to replace a bus service that nearly breaks even with a monorail that will lose more money and won’t be any faster. It seems that much less expensive improvements to the bus service (queue jumping lanes, signal priority and better signage) would provide service that is as fast and reliable as what is there now. Further rail service isn’t all that necessary to provide a quality service to travelers. Consider the example of Logan Airport in Boston, which has high quality bus service from the terminal to the T and which seems to be a major and successful airport. As an occasional user of the AirBART service, I don’t see a monorail as a worthwhile improvement.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    So, SBR, you won’t approve of my AirBART maglev idea? I’d pay $20 each way to ride something THAT cool.

    In addition, I’m proposing that the MTC do a study comparing the cost of BART to SJ with the cost of running a fleet of hovercraft from SJ to Oakland Airport (to connect to BART via maglev and SFO (think of the ridership gains for the BART extension).


  4. South Bay Resident Says:

    Hey, I’m open to whatever will move lots of people while coming closest to paying for itself. The hovercraft/maglev solution has a certain theme-park appeal, which may help. If you can get it to come close to breaking even i’m all for it:).

    In all seriousness, I remember a few years back someone was seriously advocating a hovercraft shuttle between OAK and SFO as well as some other ports around the Bay.

  5. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    When we on the Expenditure Plan Development Committee for Measure B were asked what projects were to be on the ballot, I calculated that one could provide free bus service forever if you put the money the airport connector was expected to cost into the bank and collected the interest from it. I voted against it, on that basis, and because it is not useful to the people who live closest to the airport, but was outvoted.

    Unfortunately, we do not make these decisions on the basis of the cost of capital. If we did, many things would cost a lot more, but our taxes would drop to almost nothing. The $30,000 parking space, the cost of the bare land in Oakland, means at least $10 a day to the person who uses it, at the expense of those who walk or takes transit. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Or a freeway!

  6. South Bay Resident Says:


    $3 million/acre ($30,000/space*100spaces/acre) seems a bit steep for raw land in most of Oakland, especially around the airport. That’s a more typical price for parking spaces in multistory garages. In fact, you can rent a parking space near the airport for $8/day including shuttle bus service to and from the airport, a newspaper, coffee and muffins. I suspect that their shuttle bus operation (every 10 mins while the airport is running) is a big part of their costs, so $2-4 dollars/day is probably a good estimate of how much they spend on providing the actual spaces.

    That being said, you are right that the capital costs of the BART monorail are excessive. There are also instances where parking is underpriced in urban areas. For example, most parking meters charge too low a rate. However, I can also think of places in the bay area where that’s not the case (downtown Walnut Creek, for example, raises enough money from meters to support construction of new garage However, you need to remember that many business move heaven and earth (or at least lots of concrete) to provide bundled parking because the cost of providing parking is less than the additional revenue it generates. In many cases, were there not parking the store would not exist.

    You have to remember that in most of the bay area it costs $2-3 dollars/day (a price happily paid by homeowners who demand 2 or 3 car garages) to provide a parking space and it is only in a few urban pockets where parking costs more than this.

  7. transit-dependent Says:

    What’s wrong with the OAK connector? I thought that the Port received several private-sector proposals. Something needs to be done, though. Perhaps we could build a roadway connection identical to the proposed monorail and just use buses?

    When is a transit authority going to step up and say that it’s time to cancel BART-to-SJ? Given the number of projects that could use the huge funds locked up for it, someone should start asking for its money.

  8. South Bay Resident Says:


    The problem with the OAK connector is that it is REALLY expensive and doesn’t do anything better than could be done with small improvements to the current bus system. As for running buses on an elevated ROW, that doesn’t solve anything because you still have to pay for the enormous cost of the elevated ROW. The advantage of running buses is that you can use existing infrastructure.

  9. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    We paid about $2,500,000 for 1-1/4 acre. There are a couple of old buildings on it which have no value for the real estate. The land that is available for parking, about 40% of it, fits maybe 30-35 cars if we are lucky. Do the math.

    The last time we bought land was about 17 years ago, and paid about 10% of the price per square foot. Land prices have skyrocketed in Oakland. If I were to subtract the cost to replace my own home according to my insurance agent from the value of the property, the land value is over $3,000,000 per acre.

    I do not know where you get $2-3 per day to provide a parking space. Even $10,000 for the land and $30,000 for a home garage is $2400 in interest and $500 or so in taxes every year, over $8 per day. No wonder so many people leave their cars on the street where they pay virtually nothing!

    If you can find private parking for less, it is because you have found someone who does not know the current value of their land. As people wise up, there are fewer and fewer of people like that, and therefore fewer and fewer private parking spaces.

  10. Richard Silver Says:

    While I’m not a supporter of the BART to San Jose extention, the extention to Warm
    Springd actually is a good one for Alameda residents. It will take pressure off of the
    Fremont Station, and, to the extent it attacts new riders, will get Santa Clara cars off
    the highway.

    But, what’s really needed basically is an upgrade and expansion to the current Amtrak Capitol corridor trains that operated between San Jose and Oakland and points north.

    Adding frequency, improving track speed and building more stations (i.e., Newark, Agnew , etc.) and you could have a first class service every bit as good as Caltrain.

    So you ask yourself, what isn’t this happening? It’s simple, there are many transit “advocacy” groups that support conventional rail in the corridor, but all too often unwilling to work together. They have different agendas that are more focused on either opposing BART, or promoting their own idea’s that they are afraid to join with any other group.

    The goal seem all to often not to be better transit for the public it seem to be “what’s good for me or the group I represent”

    So the advantage will always be to the BART supporters who are united.

    Richard Silver, Executive Director
    Rail Passenger Association of California

  11. South Bay Resident Says:


    BART to Warm Springs is a pretty hard project to justify. $700 million for 7,000 daily riders (according to BART’s usually wildly over optimistic estimates)? That can’t be the best use of 3/4 of a billion dolars. To be justifiable, a project that attracts that kind of ridership should be a factor of 10 or so less expensive.

    As for the Capitol Corridor, when I hear mention of that misbegotten rail line, I can only hear a great flushing sound – the sound of cuibc yards of cash being flushed down the metaphorical toilet. To date, CCJPA has spent over 1 Billion dollars on capital improvements the Amtrak Capitols. This is in addition to around $30 million per year in subsidies. They carry under 4000 people per day, many of whom switched from Greyhound’s formerly profitable service along the same corridor. It is spending like this that is keeping us stuck in traffic. Why, oh, why can’t we start rationally evaluating transit projects and funding them accordingly?

    It is difficult to make rail projects pencil out in most of the bay area, yet we continue to fund them neglecting many more cost effective alternatives, including better bus service (especially express bus service, which can offer faster trip times than BART at a fraction of the cost), subsidized vanpools and road improvements.

  12. Paul Marcelin-Sampson Says:

    While I agree with South Bay Resident that money is sometimes wasted on rail projects when express bus service would do, I think we should be fair to BART and the Capitol Corridor here.

    By U.S. and California standards, BART and the Capitol Corridor achieve high farebox recovery ratios. BART’s farebox recovery ratio has hovered around 50% for many years (this is systemwide; I am not going to debate the merits of specific BART extensions in this comment). The Capitol Corridor broke 45% last year. These are better-than-average places to invest transit capital and operating dollars. The Capitol Corridor has been particularly sharp with marketing, feeder bus partnerships, and schedule tuning. Gene Skoropowski, David Kutrosky and their team are doing a good job.

    South Bay Resident’s criticisms of the Capitol Corridor do not seem fair. I think some legitimate gripes would be that the operating contract is not subject to competitive bidding and that the State of California does not have an ownership interest in a rail line that it has paid to upgrade. (The State does of course own the passenger rolling stock, which represents a significant portion of the State’s investment in the Capitol Corridor.)

    Greyhound was never as frequent or as comfortable; it is also not fully accessible to people with disabilities (this prompted an amendment to S.B. 804 for my county, Santa Cruz, which is one of the Capitol Corridor’s feeder bus counties).

    The only worthwhile competitor I’ve seen in the ten or so years that I’ve been traveling between the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento was an experimental ferry-to-bus connection. Baylink took advantage of unused capacity on its high-speed ferry from San Francisco to Vallejo (1 hour) by adding luxury coach service from Vallejo to Sacramento (under 2 hours). Thanks to sharp marketing and a pretty frequent schedule, fares were covering the marginal cost of the coach service by the end. The project fell victim to a general shortage of capital within Baylink/Vallejo Transit/City of Vallejo.

  13. South Bay Resident Says:

    While the farebox recovery of BART and the Capitol corridor are good, that is only a small portion of the cost of the service. The immense capital costs of the systems can’t be ignored. When you look at the total subsidy (capital and operating) most rail systems fare very poorly*.

    As for Greyhound, since they are a private operator, they face greater constraints on how much service they can run due to the need to make a profit. Had their service been subsidized or a comparable state run service been created, it could have done a better job much more cheaply. The Baylink buses were a great example of this (when they were running, I lived in Davis and used both Baylink and the Capitols). It’s a shame that the Capitol corridor sucked up all that capital**.

    *Actually, I think that the initial BART system was a pretty good investment, however, the extensions have been costly boondoggles

    ** yes, I know that much of the capital spending was authorized by bond issues and limited to rail, but that doesn’t make it good policy.

  14. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    My understanding is that BART’s farebox recovery is substantially less than AC Transit’s was before BART. BART took their most profitable service, the transbay service, and turned it from a money-making service to a money loser. (Of course, the free carpool lanes on the bridges, which essentially subsidizes automobile drivers to replace a few transit vehicles with dozens more cars, has also had an effect.)

    The other bad effect of BART was to increase the distance that one was expected to commute. It really does not matter whether the commuters can ride BART or not. The competitive nature for jobs requires that you travel the same radius to work. So more people are traveling farther to get to work, and most of them are driving.

    Before BART, the average commute was probably half the distance that it is now. If you double the average distance of the commute, the network that supports it needs to cover four times the area, so it costs four times as much to provide it. However, at best, it brings in only twice as much money from the people who use it. Also, the chances that you will find a carpool rider at work are only 25% of what they were. So there are four times the single drivers, and they are driving farther.

    I would like to remind South Bay Resident that there have been substantial improvements made to the highway route between the Bay Area and Sacramento. The costs of widening I-80 over the years, plus replacing bridges, probably dwarfs that spent on the Capitol Corridor. While it can be argued that helped other traffic, so did the upgrades of the rail route.

  15. Paul Marcelin-Sampson Says:

    Bruce, I think the two changes you posit would have been general trends, not specific effects of BART.

    – Farebox recovery ratios probably declined everywhere, as transit usage fell off during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

    – Commute distances probably rose everywhere, as freeways were built and expanded during those decades.

    I don’t think BART hastened either trend. It would be interesting to see whether the original BART impact study discussed commute distances. (I haven’t looked at that document in a long time; where I live now there’s no copy closeby.) Probably no one wanted to say too much about farebox recovery, although I do remember reading an account of the unplanned operating expense items (the in-house security force, for example) that prevented BART from achieving its financial targets.

    I still say that BART’s ~50% farebox recovery is excellent in today’s public transit market.

    Regarding carpool lanes, the elephant in the closet is fuel economy. A typical transit bus achieves 4 miles per gallon (per Altoona, the national bus testing facility). If we keep 15 people on it from the start of the trip to the end (this translates into a somewhat higher number of boardings), we’ve achieved 60 passenger-miles per gallon. A basic Korean or Japanese subcompact car (not a hybrid) achieves 30 miles per gallon. If we keep 2 people in it, we’ve also achieved 60 passenger-miles per gallon.

    This is just to say that if fuel consumption, not congestion, is the concern, an effective carpool program can give a weak transit program a run for its money. Unfortunately, much less has been written about passenger train fuel economy. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory publishes some nationwide averages, but it would be interesting to know the fuel economy figure for a typical Capitol Corridor trainset. From that, we could find out how many passengers we’d need on-board to beat the fuel economy of the import car.

  16. Eugene Skoropowski Says:

    South Bay Resident quoted some totally inaccurate information regarding the Capitol
    Corridor, and a now-ended Greyhound service.

    First, his capital cost numbers are not correct. In the last 15 years, the
    total investment in the Capitol Corridor line is $297 million, the vast
    majority of these funds were to rebuild the line between San Jose and
    Sacramento. That’s an average investment of $19.8 million dollars per
    year. Those investments have also benefitted the Port of Oakland, as the
    freight has grown several fold during that same 15 year period. The
    average weekday ridership of 4,000 is correct for the moment , but in the
    last 8 years, Capitol Corridor ridership has grown from 463,000 annual
    passengers to 1,302,000 annual passengers, each one travelling an average
    of 70 miles. The Capitol Corridor now keeps about 100,000,000
    vehicle-miles-traveled (VMTs) off of the parallel highways each year.

    The annual operating budget (subsidy from the state, if you will) for
    operations is about $20.0 million, and this number has been flat for the
    past 6 years. In fact, the state operating budget was about $17.5 million
    for the 12 train frequency back in 1999. In 2000, we revised the service,
    and were able to run 14 trains for the same funding. In 2001, the last
    increase in state operating funds, provided $20.0 million to increase the
    service to 18 trains. Since then, during the past 6 years, the Capitol
    Corridor has self-financed the growth of service, now 32 weekday trains (14
    to/from San Jose) and 22 weekend day trains, and not had any increase in state
    operating funds. There is no federal money, operating or capital in the state’s intercity rail program. In 1998, the riders paid 29.8% of the cost of the
    service. Today the riders pay 50% of the cost of the service, and this is
    rising each year.

    As for Greyhound, they tried an upscale commuter oriented service from Sacramento,
    departing from a plentiful parking lot, and priced it below the Capitol
    Corridor fares. This was not a service that existed before the Capitol
    Corridor service, and to suggest that the Capitol Corridor put that
    Greyhound service out of business is a gross misrepresentation of the
    facts. Greyhound started the service new in 2001 or thereabouts. It could
    not make money for Greyhound, so they stopped it. Capitol Corridor ridership
    changed very little as a result of the demise of the Greyhound service.
    The market for the Capitol Corridor is NOT just San Francisco, but also
    Sacramento, San Jose, Martinez, Emeryville, and points in between, not even
    served by any other intercity bus operation. Frankly, we need all the
    travel options for people, and since ridership on the Capitol Corridor
    continued to grow regardless of Greyhound’s service, there was never any
    competition between the two that I am aware of. Yes, Greyhound solicited
    rail riders, but there are only so many amenities and ‘space per passenger’
    that a bus can offer versus a train, and riders who travel longer distances
    simply have more room and more amenities on the train. It is too bad that
    Greyhound withdrew the service because they could not generate the riders
    to sustain it, even though that service operated over a publicly built and
    maintained highway (free to Greyhound, except for the small contribution of
    their fuel tax).

    As for the state’s intercity rail program (the Pacific Surfliner route, the
    Capitol Corridor route, and the San Joaquin route) they were built and
    operated because the voters of California, back in 1990, said they wanted
    them, and approved the money specifically to build what we have today. And
    what do we have today? We have a travel choice for many people who had no
    such choice 15 years ago. We have the second (Pacific Surfliner), third
    (Capitol Corridor) and fifth (San Joaquin) busiest Amtrak routes in the
    country in California. 20% of ALL Amtrak riders are now in California, and
    that number and percentage is growing annually. The three state-supported
    intercity routes keep nearly 500,000,000 VMTs off of California’s highway,
    maybe making them a bit less congested than they would otherwise be.

    California’s intercity rail program came from the people of this state.
    These trains (and the connecting buses to the more remote parts of our
    state) serve the people of this state. I for one believe that in the
    future, a greater and greater share of the longer distance travelers in
    this state will ride California’s trains, because we have them, and because our
    people have a travel choice besides the highway.

    Eugene K. Skoropowski
    Managing Director
    Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority

  17. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    No, BART took the cream of the ridership and turned it sour. It was not a “trend.” The transbay bus service was making money. BART, despite the claims that it would make money, lost money from the outset.

    Incidentally, I believe that AC Transit’s farebox recovery on its transbay service is comparable to that of BART even now.

  18. Reedman Says:

    Buses only provide a rational transportation option
    if traffic is moving. Try getting from San Jose to Fremont
    for the evening commute home. For five hours a
    day, 880 and 680 are stopped, as are all
    the surface streets. The buses are just as stuck as the

    BART Extension
    The reason for doing the Warm Springs Extension is the
    Fremont station. It is in a horrible location, boxed in by
    a hospital and city park, with very poor road access.
    The ‘grand compromise’ for going into Santa Clara County
    should be to connect with VTA Light Rail at the Milpitas/San Jose
    border near the Great Mall (perhaps going one more stop to
    Berryessa to give the trains room to turn around). Tunnelling
    into downtown San Jose is lunacy, and running parallel to Caltrain,
    and not going to the SJ Airport is worse ….

  19. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Buses only get caught in traffic if you put them in traffic. You could set aside a lane of the freeways, buy a bunch of buses, and have a rapid transit system up and running from Fremont to San Jose in a fraction of the time it would take to even get started building BART or extending light rail, and at a fraction of the cost. There may be some bottlenecks that it would be worthwhile building around, but the system could be running while that happens. You cannot do that with rail.

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