It's no secret that traffic in Santa Clara County is bad and getting worse, as an influx of new residents and new jobs strains roadways throughout the Bay Area.
As county officials test the waters on a 2016 sales tax measure to alleviate some of these traffic woes, one county supervisor points out that past county-wide tax measures have done little to help the residents in North County and West Valley cities, who don't benefit much when sales tax dollars are routed to fund BART improvements.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian collected data from the county and the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to find out how revenue from the past two 30-year transportation measures -- the 2000 Measure A half-cent sales tax and the 2008 Measure B eighth-cent sales tax -- has been spent throughout the county. Nearly 80 percent of those funds, or $3.65 billion, has gone straight into extending BART to San Jose through the East Bay.
"For 15 years now, BART to San Jose has been dragging away 80 percent of the funds, and I think we're seeing the consequences of that as the economy heats up," Simitian said.
Traffic getting worse
Traffic comes to a crawl during commute hours on most of the major thoroughfares along the Peninsula. Reports from Caltrans identified the evening southbound commute along Highway 85 as one of the worst in the area, receiving an "F" rating this year for traffic density from Central Expressway to Fremont Avenue in Sunnyvale. Other southbound alternatives clog up quickly in the late afternoon. From 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., drivers can expect huge delays from University Avenue in Palo Alto to the Rengstorff Avenue exit, with average speeds peaking at a disappointing 29 miles per hour.
The northbound commute is also packed along most stretches of Highway 101, from San Jose through Palo Alto during the morning hours, exacerbated by recent lane closures in Palo Alto for construction of the San Francisquito Creek bridge replacement project. In Mountain View, average speeds are as low as 13 miles per hour from Ellis Street to Rengstorff Avenue from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Even the "High Occupancy Vehicle" carpool lanes are at or approaching a poor level of service along major Bay Area highways, diminishing the incentive to carpool, according to the Caltrans report.
The problems are expected to get worse. Estimates from the state anticipate county-wide population growth of 353,000 over the next 20 years, and hundreds of thousands new jobs. Commute trips are expected to go up by 51 percent, but as it stands, Santa Clara County will only increase the capacity of its roadways by about 5 to 6 percent, according to a 2009 VTA study.
Measure A passed with just over 70 percent of the vote, and was intended to connect BART to Milpitas, San Jose and Santa Clara. But the tax measure also included language for providing light rail throughout the county, expansion and electrification of Caltrain, and increased rail and bus service. As of this year, $3.3 billion of the $4.2 billion collected since 2000 has been spent on BART.
Measure B was explicitly designed to help fund the BART extension, with the assurance that VTA would receive matching funds from the state and federal government for construction costs. The measure passed by only a fraction of a percent at 66.78 percent of the vote.
Benefits aren't shared
While transportation and traffic is indeed a regional issue, Simitian said there are pretty limited benefits of the BART extension to cities like Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos, and West Valley cities including Saratoga and Cupertino.
"I tend to take a broader view on these transportation issues," Simitian said. "That being said, if we're going to ask taxpayers to impose yet another tax on themselves, we should expect them to ask how this is going to relieve congestion."
Last month, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group published a poll showing how receptive county voters would be to a new sales tax measure for transportation improvements on the 2016 ballot. The ballot language proposed was similar to the Measure A sales tax and includes finishing the BART extension, traffic relief for the county's eight expressways, improved Caltrain service, and bike and pedestrian safety near schools.
The poll found that the measure would pass with a slim margin. Of the 750 likely voters polled, 68 percent said they would vote for a half-cent measure, whereas 71 percent said they would vote for a quarter-cent measure.
Data from the county shows that North County and West Valley residents have been reliable supporters of transportation measures in the past, pitching in nearly a quarter of the total votes in favor of Measure A and Measure B and providing 16.4 percent of the tax revenue. Simitian argued there ought to be a greater level of equity for the county districts that only get fringe benefits from the BART extension.
Gearing up for traffic upgrades
Mountain View could see a number of transportation improvements in the coming years, provided VTA can secure regional or state funds, including Caltrain grade separation projects and creek trail improvements.
Throughout the month of August, cities all over the county will be submitting proposals to VTA to improve traffic as part of the agency's Valley Transportation Plan, a long-range plan with to-be-determined funding. Mountain View's public works department staff could not provide the Voice with a list of new and updated projects for this year.
Previously submitted project proposals by the city include a $71 million project to construct a grade separation that would sink Rengstorff Avenue underneath the Caltrain tracks, and a $600,000 project to reconfigure the intersection at Miramonte Avenue and Park Drive.
Creek trail projects proposed by the city include a $15 million extension of the Stevens Creek Trail to Mountain View High School, as well as smaller improvements and extensions to both Permanente Creek and Stevens Creek trails.