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Transportation Funding 101

By enelson
Thursday, April 5th, 2007 at 5:46 pm in BART, driving, Freeways, Funding, Planning, Smart Lanes, tolls, Transit vs. driving.

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So you want to know what your transportation tax dollars are paying for?

For starters, lunch.

NOTE: While it’s not uncommon for public agencies to foot the bill for lunch at informational briefing for officials and the press, the host of this particular one, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, informed me on April 13 that he had paid for this lunch himself, and this item had made him look stupid. You can read my apology here (link pending).

I had a lovely grilled salmon with asparagus at Stacie’s at Waterford in Dublin, which was just close enough from the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station that I was able to bike there without breaking a sweat.

Now, before you start objecting, you should know that the asparagus was perfectly ripe and cooked just to the point where you needed a knife to cut it, but you didn’t need to chew it for 20 minutes. No cheese sandwiches on this blog.

You should also know that it was for a good cause, and I have no doubt that when my editor reads this, he will insist that I either reimburse the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority (your half-cent sales tax)

NOTE: Again, the exectutive director of ACTIA said the supervisor paid for the lunch, so no transportation dollars were spent on lunch. The reimbursement question is still open, however. 

for my salmon or offer to take the entire agency out for lunch. Our newspapers cannot be bought, although good-faith offers will be considered.

The worthy cause was Transportation 101, a primer for maze of acronyms, unpronounceable abbreviations and nearly invisible agencies that collect money for transportation, allocate it to various transportation programs, budget that money for transportation projects and call around to all the other agencies to find out who has money and what it can be spent for.

The students were officials and chamber of commerce folks of various cities within Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty’s southern and eastern district, including Fremont, Hayward, Dublin and Pleasanton. After hearing a lot of confusion about transportation funding among local elected officials, Haggerty decided to enlist the chiefs of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrans District 4, ACTIA and the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency to explain themselves.

There was also a member of the media there who was clearly more interested in the food than the lectures (no offense to the lecturers; the food was great). 

Although the primer was mainly about Alameda County, it could have applied to most other counties in the Bay Area, except two.

That was Lesson One: The feds and the state help counties who help themselves. Napa and Solano do not collect a transportation sales tax like everybody else, therefore, they don’t get the kind of matching funds that everyone else gets. That’s why it’s probable that the mess at the I-80/Highway 12/I-680 interchanges may not get fixed even though the state has a $20 billion transportation bond to play with.

And it’s not as if Napa and Solano are impoverished, either. Have you been to the Nut Tree lately?

Lesson No. 2: Our transportation funding mechanism, in California and other states, needs to be fixed. According to Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, “We’ve got a system for financing our infrastructure that is pretty badly broken.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, back when she was just the leader of the minority Democrats, appointed Heminger to a federal commission that is cooking up a new way to pump money into transportation. Heminger said the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, chaired by new U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary “Last Exit Before Paying Toll” Peters will be reporting its findings to Congress by the end of the year.

Lesson No. 3: What’s to complain about? The Bay Area got more than $1.2 billion for highways from the Proposition 1B transportation bond approved by voters in November and will get another $1.2 billion for public transit under the bond’s formula. Those capital project dollars won’t fix an operating subsidy crunch in next year’s budget as proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the legislature seems inclined to step in and take care of that problem, too.

Lesson No. 4: Besides lunch, the half-cent Measure B sales tax in Alameda County not only paid for my salmon, but it also paid for my ride, as in the BART extension to the Dublin/Pleasanton Station. It has helped pay for a number of other transportation improvements around the county and it may well light a fire under a further BART extension out to Livermore. One of the messages of the transportation lunch, delivered by ACTIA Executive Director Christine Monsen was “buy Alameda,” or else you’re just solving some other county’s transportation problems.

Sated and wiser after my lessons, I asked myself whether I could find my son a Wii game console in Emeryville, rather than Vacaville, where I’ll save a half-cent on the dollar. As I do this, cruising back toward Oakland on BART at 2:40 p.m., the traffic is already piling up on 580.

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