This morning, the Merc’s transit writer Gary Richards officially pronounced dead the proposed 0.125% BART sales tax increase for Santa Clara County. Approval by 66.41% of the voters won’t be enough to meet the Prop 13 2/3 requirement, and the remaining ballots are unlikely to change the result.
The proposed 16 mile extension at BART’s southeast corner is an addition to the (already funded) 5 mile extension to Warm Springs in Fremont. Together, this would be the first addition to the 35-mile East Bay stretch along the Nimitz Freeway (from Richmond to Fremont) since 1972, the first year the system was open. With extension, the electric rail system would serve five counties — the original three counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco) plus San Mateo (home of SFO) which was added in 2003 and Santa Clara County.
However, this would not be the first time county residents were taxed to pay for BART. In 2000, a thirty-year, 0.5% sales tax increase was passed that promised to “Connect BART to Milpitas, San Jose, Santa Clara” as well as add rail connections between existing rail and San José airport. The latest plan remains controversial.
The failure to deliver on the 2000 promise made voters skeptical as to whether the latest tax increase would be enough to deliver on these (existing) promises — or whether politicians would come back later for even more money. As Merc columnist Scott Herhold wrote 10 days ago:
How much will BART cost? The official estimate is $6.1 billion. But BART has a rich history of cost overruns. The extension to San Francisco Airport wound up costing nearly 40 percent above its initial estimates ($1.5 billion-plus instead of $1.1 billion). Delivering BART on budget is made much harder by the task of tunneling under downtown San Jose, which has a high water table. Ex-BART board member Roy Nakadegawa puts the cost at $9 billion to $10 billion. The truth is that there are huge unknowns.Timing is everything. If the vote had been held in July when gasoline prices were still over $4/gallon, the measure would have easily won. As booster-in-chief Carl Guardino proclaimed that month:
"We are sitting in a time where gas prices are on the way to $5 and people want an alternative to the automobile," Guardino said. "That's the reason why we are doing this."Time to polish that crystal ball, Carl. Gas is approaching $2.50/gallon and everyone is feeling poorer and in less mood to pay a tax.
It sounds like the failure of the ballot measure is a good thing for all concerned. Since the election, Richards has been floating a compromise plan being promoted by local politicians and transit bureaucrats. The idea would be to drop the $2 billion, five mile tunnel under San José and instead leave BART above ground to East San Jose. The Milpitas stop would connect to San José’s light rail system while Alum Rock is right at Highway 101, allowing commuters easy access to BART for trips north. (Right now, the Fremont station is several miles inland). As our mayor, Chuck Reed, was quoted by Richards:
"I'll advocate that we build it as far as we can with the money we have. If that takes us to Berryessa, fine. If it takes us to Milpitas to light rail, that's fine."This seems like a no-brainer: build what you can now, and find funding for the more ambitious goals later on. I suspect politicians worry that building BART without the tax increase will raise questions as to whether it was necessary. I think during this era of financial (and business and government) overreach, getting smaller results sooner with less resources is the way to rebuild voter confidence.