San Francisco transportation planner Jeffrey Tumlin talked last night at SFU mostly about the experience of transit funding referenda in California. The presentation is available on video. Tumlin’s book “Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Healthy, Vibrant and Resilient Communities” is used as part of the Next Generation Transportation course.
Have you ever been to Phibbs Exchange? It is probably as bad as they get – a dreary, isolated and unpleasant place to wait for a bus, (and one I often use in my own discussions about what is wrong with transit here). Translink has a lot of room for improvement but “it’s also the best that I have worked for.” We invented transportation tax measure referendums in California, and if you think the current experience here is bad, understand that it is so much worse everywhere else. You are right to demand perfection, but don’t let the best get in the way of the good.
Alameda County in California has 1.6m residents in 14 municipalities and 6 unincorporated areas. The original transcontinental railway did not reach San Francisco – it reached Oakland where passengers transferred to ferries. Up until 1994 it relied on a gas tax to pay for transit but as “funding dried up” in 1986 they introduced a county sales tax, which was risky given that at that time other neighbouring counties didn’t. In a referendum in 2000 a tax increase was approved by 82% of the vote. In California any general purpose tax increase must be approved by at least two thirds of the votes. That means for a vote to succeed there must be no organised opposition since at least one third of the voters are ideologically opposed to any tax increase. There is no federal or state support for transit operations or maintenance. In 2012 Measure B1 a half cent sales tax increase failed at 66.53%. Measure BB in 2014 passed at 71%. That was because by that time there was a coalition “with everyone on it” which adopted a strategy of focussing on “investments that matter to real people”. Communications stressed improvements in safety, efficiency, local streets and maintenance. Some projects were identified but not fully funded. Many projects were tied to housing development and many stressed bikes and pedestrians. The county is half suburban, with over a 70% car mode split. Car drivers voted yes because they understood that if other people switched modes there would be more room on the existing roads for those who continued to drive. Doing nothing would make matters worse.
Transit demand is increasing faster than population growth. This is due to demographics. As the baby boomers age and retire, they drive less and the millennials have much less interest in car ownership. Housing prices are actually worse than Vancouver. For many people in a low wage service economy driving is too expensive when housing costs have to be met first. Much of the success of the coalition was from the understanding of the combined affordability of transportation and housing. Every county in California has a similar story. Los Angeles knows that for its economy to succeed they cannot continue to bulldoze neighbourhoods to build freeways through them.
Messages that work
- Stress people, not mobility NOT focussing on congestion relief. For instance, tell the story of the single working mother who has the challenge of getting her children to and from daycare/school and herself to work – and how expensive that gets if she has to drive.
- Use pictures of people, including seniors and people with disabilities and reflect the diversity of the population. Be culturally sensitive to those communities and produce written materials in their languages
- Stress the need for employers to attract and retain young talent – people who don’t want to drive everywhere
- Improve public health – reducing the obesity epidemic means walking has to be built in to daily lives
- Improve economic efficiency – the space needed to move an automobile is ten times more than any other mode. There is much more people moving capacity if they are not all in cars – for the same space.
- Accomodate aging adults – see “Best Cities for Successful Aging” – that means walkability and more transit
- Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed – which is where the housing and transportation affordability index comes in. “San Francisco is more affordable than Little Rock, Arkansas” simply because it has homes and jobs within easy commute distance and good transit. It is not just affordable housing – its the combination with affordable transportation options. In Little Rock houses are cheap but they are distant from jobs and the only way to cover that is by driving. You do not improve the competitiveness of your region in the global economy by forcing poorer people to live in remote suburbs where they have to drive.
Much has been made by the No side of the delays in introducing this smart card fare payment system. The Bay Area has been trying to get such a system established since 1993. It was originally called Translink. It was launched in 1993 and abandoned in 1995. Twenty of the larger transit agencies agreed to relaunch the idea in 2010 .
By 2015 only 15 of the 20 agencies have actually implemented the card. Now rebranded as “Clipper” it is hated by all. The problems are many and various. For instance in San Francisco alone there are six transit operators each with their own fare system and no coordination between any of them.
In fact there is no better transit system in North America than TransLink. Look for example at Boston, which is currently trying to de-ice 120 year old rail switches. Or Chicago where ancient wooden platforms on the El are disintegrating, dropping debris on the streets below and leaving foot wide gaps. Or BART which has had a disastrous 18 months. “You set the gold standard” for integrating land use, transportation, environment and social equity. In terms of cost effectiveness Vancouver ranks alongside much larger systems like London or New York. If you want to see disfunction look at New Jersey.
The one thing where Translink has fallen behind is communications. To some extent this can be attributed to Canadian culture and your dislike of “boasting”. But also Translink needs to get better at listening. Public officials need to be in the limelight all the time. There needs to be a greater focus [in the Yes campaign] on telling stories not wonkishness. In California the campaigns for funding measures last two to five years. Plan B must be to win next time. The new campaign starts as soon as this one is over and will be a lot of work. It has to identify outcome based performance indicators, not just dollars per ride. How you meet economic, environmental and social targets to show tax dollars are well spent. Every $1 spent on transit produces $5 of benefits.
Q & A
1 “I want better transit but I see the defects of Translink.” The BC Government is the problem. They give tax breaks to the corporate sector and do not step up to the plate to pay for needed infrastructure. We do not have a fair tax system.
We have many people who share your values. Sales tax is the worst form of taxation. It is regressive. The poor pay the most and the rich are the least impacted. But we have to live in the real world. The right solution is not necessarily the most workable one. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and the alternative is worse. Pressing for perfection is a recipe for not getting anything at all.
2 “Can we pull it off? In a month?”
Poll results are often different to polling – going both ways. There have been lots of surprises and rapid turnarounds in sentiment. The important thing is the delivery of the message to voters – mainly through tv and radio. There has been rightful criticism and it warrants a full response. The problem is that it is very hard to do that in a seven second sound bite. The Alameda County campaign relied on images and factoids.
3 The current provincial government was elected by the majority. The coalition has a very wide range of organisations within it. The question is did anyone’s views change as a result of your campaign?
Tumlin then conducted a quick straw poll of those present. Many there said they were “conflicted” supporting transit spending but mistrustful of Translink or disliking the sales tax. A few who came undecided said they had been persuaded by the presentation.
4 The next questioner linked the distrust of Translink to the pay of its CEO as “grossly overspending”
Tumlin gently pointed out that Translink is comparable to other agencies and that the cost of living here is very high, which makes it hard to attract people if you offer lower pay. There are some systems that pay less due to “the optics” – but they do not necessarily get the best managers as a result. You are actually talking about less than 0.1% of the budget
5 Gordon Price asked if privatisation – perhaps of parts of the system – was a way to improve performance.
At that point my notes stop as I stood up and positioned myself to reply to that assertion. I think Tumlin must have dealt with it effectively, as I then talked extempore about the campaign – and how Tumlin’s interview with News1130 had been received by the facebook trolls. I did scribble “governance – none is perfect – Portland Metro” which he said was directly elected – and is certainly an approach I would favour. Privatisation has been a disaster for public services everywhere: and worst bits of the Translink system are privatised – MVT runs HandyDART at much higher cost and lower service levels than the previous collection of mainly NGO and volunteer supported service providers. The Golden Ears Bridge and the Canada Line are P3 showcases of profit for the private sector at public cost.
6 How much do people save when they stop driving?
A media campaign is not an information campaign. The best facts are hard to explain. The cost of driving needs to include externalities, and needs to be expressed as an opportunity cost. That is a challenging message to deliver especially to the undecided. You need short messages for swing voters, you don’t have half an hour. It also depends on who says what: it has to be seen to be real. Campaigns that work bring on key people. We found that affordable housing advocates were key – once they got the tptn+housing affordability index thing sorted they could relay that to their clients in meaningful ways.
7 The first speaker got another turn at the microphone. “It is not right or equitable that the corporate sector gets the benefit of de-congestion at the expense of the people. There has been a $13bn loss of revenue due to tax cuts for corporations and that is being filled by fees and charges on the poor. It is a beautiful plan but I don’t want to pay for it. There is no Bill of Rights for users.”
You present an intelligent reasoned argument, which is valid from a good governance and policy standpoint. But it is a solution for the next provincial election not this referendum. It is possible for voter initiatives to rescind taxes – and you can go back every year. (He was obviously talking about the California Proposition legislation at this point, not necessarily BC.)
8 We are tribal social primates. We have no sense of belonging (I think he meant to the region) which has lead to a loss of trust. How do we deal with tribalism?
Metro Vancouver is a coherent economic unit and a very effective competitor in the global economy. It is more cohesive than many California metro areas. San Francisco is quite different to San Jose – but it is very difficult to put a simple line between them that does not have boundary effects. In terms of economic productivity the boundaries here are clearer and well set. By tribalism I think you mean that we do not want to pay for other people’s projects. I think the way to deal with that is to engage young people as they are better networked than anybody else – but then you also have to get them to vote. I think you do have here a sense of commonwealth which is missing in the US. You have no idea how bad things can get. No-one can get everything they want. You have to develop a sense of compassion for people who are different to you. We are not in competition. It is in my interest to help you become more productive. In crass politics give them what they need but not all that they want. It is an ugly process.
Hire a lot of young people and get them involved in the campaign. Get them to show up at the polls. The Alameda County proposition was lost by 731 votes!
9 Erica Rathje reminded those present that the federal government subsidises the fossil fuel industry with billions of dollars. We will have the opportunity to deal with that in this year’s federal election.
Do not punish yourselves locally by denying additional funding that your transportation system desperately needs.
10 The Hong Kong model which produces great transit at no cost to the taxpayer.
I am very much in favour of Value Capture. We use a lot of it in San Francisco. Development of land freed up by the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway for instance. The TransBay Terminal is being funded in part by Tax Increment Financing. Impact Fees on residential developments pay for affordable housing.
The meeting was large and well attended. Discourse was generally polite – except for some heckling when the first speaker made a long statement which appeared not to include a question. He did get a better reception later, and many people admitted to “feeling conflicted”. I agree. I do to. I think we are being manipulated. We do not have the same antitax Proposition 13 mentality here – and it should not be foisted upon us. I think the speaker was right when he said that if this sales tax proposal is approved, the province can then withdraw from funding transit expansions and concentrate on its favourite road building projects. But I think he missed how much provincial politicians love to cut ribbons on SkyTrain extensions. It will be interesting to see, if Linda Hepner has to proceed with her Plan B, if the province co-operates. Though that risks creating the multi-agency mess that sank the TransLink card in the Bay Area and bedevils their Clipper.
My understanding is that the problems of the Bay area are more of Fares Integration and Service Coordination are at the heart of the Clipper problems rather than technology issues. When I came to Canada in 1988 it was to work on FISC between the TTC and GO Transit who had incompatible mag swipe and optical reader tickets respectively. But the problem was not one of technology – a clumsy “TwinCard” approach fixed that – but rather incompatible tariffs and service objectives. Much has changed in the Toronto region since but transit mode share regionwide has not advanced by very much. And the number of agencies has actually increased. The battles in the Bay Area are I think similar and are reflected in the number of agencies and their local loyalties. It would be very sad indeed if one of the outcomes of losing this plebiscite is that Translink were broken up into municipal fiefdoms but that seems to be in the back of the West Vancouver Mayor’s mind.
As to Value Capture I must say that I am not all convinced that our developers will welcome the Hong Kong approach here. They have been infuriated by suggestions that Translink here get into the property development business. My experience with the first TTC Sheppard Subway proposal was that when developers heard that value capture of station developments would pay for the line construction, they would not give up so much of their profits and would be able to make more by simply taking their development proposals to adjacent municipalities outside the TTC service area. I have also heard here that many developers are becoming averse to the current Development Cost Contributions regime – which they see as capricious and open to abuse. The municipalities meanwhile point out that DCCs pay for parks and schools, community centres and sidewalks, and other desirable amenities. They do not wish to relinquish this source of funding to the regional transit system which has more nebulous local benefits, in their view. Here is more about the use of value capture for rapid transit.
Oh and as for privatisation read this