Transportation funding faces key test after Mayor Lee flips on VLF increase UPDATED

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Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed the VLF, and now Mayor Ed Lee won't let San Franciscans raise it this year.

Facing a deadline of tomorrow’s [Tues/10] San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting to introduce measures for the November ballot, advocates for addressing the city’s massive long-term transportation funding gap still hope to introduce an increase in the local vehicle license fee, even though the once-supportive Mayor Ed Lee has gotten cold feet.

While Lee and all 11 of the supervisors support a $500 million general obligation bond that would mostly go toward capital improvements for Muni — a measure almost certain to be approved by its July 22 deadline — the local VLF was originally presented by Lee as a companion measure to fund Muni, street resurfacing, and bike and pedestrian safety improvements.

But when Lee got spooked by a poll in December showing 44 percent voter approval for increasing the VLF and the need to actually do some campaigning for the measure, he withdrew his support and left cycling, streets, and safety all severely underfunded. A report last year by the Mayor’s Transportation Task Force pegged the city’s transportation infrastructure needs at $10.1 billion over 15 years, recommending just $3 billion in new funding to meet that need, including the embattled VLF measure.

“It’s important for us to move forward with the local VLF,” Sup. Scott Wiener, who has taken the lead on ensuring local term transportation funding, told the Guardian. “If this is not the right election, then we have to say which election we will move this forward.”

But so far, Wiener hasn’t gotten a commitment from the Mayor’s Office, with which he says he’s still in active talks. The Mayor’s Office also hasn’t returned Guardian calls on the issue. If Wiener doesn’t get an assurance that the VLF will go before voters, then he says that he’ll push another fall ballot measure that he introduced May 20, which would increase the city General Fund contribution to Muni as the population increases, retroactive to 10 years ago (thus creating an initial increase of more than $20 million annually).

“It would be in lieu of the VLF, not in addition to it,” Wiener said the rival measure, noting that he prefers the local VLF, a stable and equitable funding source that wouldn’t cut into other city priorities. [UPDATE 6/10: Wiener said he received a commitment from Lee to place the VLF increase on the 2016 ballot, so he is dropping his measure to increase Muni funding as the population increases].

Sen. Mark Leno spent about 10 years winning approval for the authorizing state legislation that authorizes San Franciscans to increase the VLF, enduring two governors’ vetoes along the way before getting Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it into law last year.

Wiener notes that the measure would increase the VLF in San Francisco to 2 percent, restoring it its longtime level before Arnold Schwarzenegger used a VLF reduction as a campaign issue to get elected governor, slashing it to 0.65 percent in 2003.

“That action by Gov. Schwarzenegger has deprived California of about $8 billion per year,” Wiener told us. “This is not some newly minted fee, it restores the VLF to what it was going back to the ‘50s.”

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Director Leah Shahum said she was disappointed that Lee didn’t follow through on his commitment to fund bike and pedestrian safety improvements through the local VLF, but she said there is wide support on the board for the measure.

“Tomorrow is the big day, but we’re hearing real strong support for the measure,” Shahum told us. “I feel strongly there will be eight supervisors committed to introducing the measure.”

That two-thirds vote threshold is part of the legislation that enabled San Francisco to increase its VLF, but Shahum said she believes there is that level of support on the board for doing the VLF increase this year, which the SFBC would actively campaign for.

“The whole idea was these things would go as a package,” Shahum told us. “This is a huge deal for us. Give the voters a chance to vote for safe and smooth streets.”   

Lee's abandonment of the VLF comes in the wake of his SFMTA appointees' repeal of Sunday parking meters, which Lee said was driven by a desire to win over car-driving voters for his transportation measures. Last month on Bike to Work Day, Lee and other city officials also touted the measures as important for bike project, although Shahum said the general obligation bond does little for cyclists, except for an allocation for renovating Market Street. 

"There is not a desigination for bike safety and infrastructure, that was goign to be all in the VLF measure," Shahum said. 

Wiener cited the long road that Leno traveled to give San Franciscans that opportunity as a reason to move forward with increasing the VLF, a progressive tax that charges more for luxury cars than old beaters used by the working class, but Leno was a bit more circumspect about the situation.

“If it taught me anything, it’s patience,” Leno told us about the long road to let San Francisco authorize a higher VLF. “As with anything in the world, timing is everything.”

Leno said support from labor, the business community, and all of City Hall’s top leaders are all necessary to win voter support for increasing the VLF, so it’s crucial that everyone is enthusiastically on board. “I think we may only have one shot, so when we go to the ballot, we need to have our coalition intact.”

Without commenting on the wisdom of delaying the vote this year, Leno said that if that happens, it’s crucial to get everyone to commit to passing it in 2016, a position Wiener also supports.

“There are times when we need to have a long view,” Leno told us. “But one way or the other, we have to get serious about identifying dedicated revenue to invest in Muni or we will all pay a serious price.”

 

To participate in a public forum on this and related matters, please join us this Thursday evening for “Bikes, Buses, & Budgets: How to create the transportation system San Franciscans needs.” This Bay Guardian community forum, from 6-8pm at the LGBT Center (1800 Market), will feature Wiener; SFBC community organizer Chema Hernandez Gil; Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at SFSU who writes the Guardian’s monthly Street Fight column; and others, moderated by yours truly. It’ll be fun, informative, and one lucky attendee will leave with a A2B electric bike as part of a free raffle at this free event.