By Alex Eisenhart | @AlexOnTransit | December 19, 2018
San Mateo County voters recently approved a half-cent sales tax known as Measure W, which will generate approximately $80 million per year in new investment to relieve traffic congestion and provide expanded mobility options for county residents.
To learn more about what this means for the future of the San Mateo County Transit District, we spoke with the agency’s Board Chair and Belmont City Councilmember, Charles Stone.
EISENHART: Why is Measure W so important to the financial stability of the Transit District?
STONE: Had Measure W not passed, we would have had to face the very real possibility of cutting service routes, lay-offs, increasing fares – none of which are palatable to anyone, including members of the Board.
Dating back to when I was first elected to the Board back in 2015, we’ve been talking about the fiscal cliff and the realities we face as an organization. We are saddled with significant financial burdens, including things like the $20 million per year debt payments for the Millbrae BART extension. Great project. We’re grateful it exists. At the same time, for a relatively small Transit District like ourselves, that’s a pretty big financial load to bare, especially when you consider SamTrans’ low fare/operations cost ratio. That’s true for most bus providers across the United States.
Buses aren’t supposed to be profitable in the public sector. We don’t want fares to be so high that people who are low-income or transit-dependent can’t ride our system. Combine that with our unfunded mandate to provide Paratransit Redi-Wheels (service) and you end up with a potential financial storm of epic proportions.
So in the many strategic discussions the Board has had over the years about how to address this impending issue, we made the decision to move away from the mentality of scarcity. We thought that by being so worried about the impending fiscal cliff, we were missing opportunities to improve and adapt our service in the Bay Area’s ever-changing economic and transportation landscape.
This led us to the historic Get Us Moving campaign, which I am proud to say brought together stakeholders from such diverse groups as local business owners, bike/pedestrian advocates, elected officials, environmental groups, equity advocates and many more. It was not an easy process, but it was the right process, which was validated by the unanimous approval of the Measure’s expenditure plan from both the SamTrans Board and the County Board of Supervisors.
EISENHART: Following the passage of Measure W, the SamTrans Board voted to not increase fares for bus service. Can you talk about how the Measure played a role in that decision?
STONE: Director (Carole) Groom said it best when she declared that raising fares, “would be the worst thing we could do upon winning Measure W.” I think now that we have a clearer picture of a brighter financial future, we are obligated to take a harder look at whether or not we need to raise fares. This new source of revenue opens up more options to address equity concerns for the communities we serve. We want to ensure that the people who depend on our services the most can afford to utilize those services, while at the same time increasing our overall ridership. I cannot overstate the influence Measure W had on our decision to forgo bus fare increases and how much more we’ll be able to do now that San Mateo County voters have chosen to support the future of public transportation in the Bay Area.
EISENHART: How will Measure W help advance the District’s effort to advance equity in San Mateo County?
STONE: The passage of Measure W and the reality that we no longer have to face significant cuts is a huge win for equity. Some folks during the campaign pointed out that sales taxes are inherently regressive in nature. I gently push back on that notion to point out that this tax is not levied on the basic necessities of life, which take up a disproportionate amount of low wage workers’ expenditures like rent, water, food and healthcare. Furthermore, the very people that we worry about paying a regressive tax are the same low-income earners who happen to take our bus.
Our latest SamTrans fare survey showed that 78 percent of our bus riders earn a household income of less than $50,000 per year. I cannot imagine the challenges that our residents with so little income have to face. It’s just unbelievable. To take away what is often their only means of transportation would have been disastrous.
EISENHART: How will Measure W help those who commute into the county, but can’t afford to live here?
STONE: The short answer is, in many ways. I’ll give you one example: express buses. When we hear “express bus,” folks often think of corporate bus shuttles for large tech companies ferrying employees that make upwards of $250,000 a year. But in reality there are a lot of tech workers who are not making six figures a year and their companies can’t necessarily afford to run their own bus service from various corners of the Bay Area. So by having our new express bus service, we can provide faster, more affordable transportation services equipped with features like Wi-Fi and high-backed chairs for commuters who need to be productive while on-the-go.
EISENHART: How will Measure W benefit local businesses?
STONE: We hear over and over again from local businesses that they cannot hire and retain people. If you walk around the various downtown areas in the county you’ll see a lot of store-front windows with “help wanted” signs advertising jobs for $15/hour. Folks simply cannot afford to live here on those wages, so they’re moving further away from work and commuting further in. Providing more options for people in that type of situation can help defer the cost of their commute and improve the overall quality of life, making longer distance work commutes more sustainable.
I would also love to help both residents and local businesses by exploring new transit options for folks who live in San Mateo County’s hills or suburbs. If we can find a way to transport folks who don’t already have convenient access to bus service to/from local downtown hubs, we could help reduce parking and traffic congestion, boost local business revenue and increase ridership. That’s something we can actually explore thanks to the passage of Measure W. I know that if there was an affordable way I could take my family into Downtown San Mateo without having to drive and deal with traffic and parking, I’d absolutely do it.
EISENHART: What is the Transit District doing to adapt its services to be more marketable for the needs of today’s commuters?
STONE: That’s a tough nut to crack. Government by its nature, for very good reason, moves slowly. And yet, here we are in the Silicon Valley – the heart of cutting edge, fast-paced industry disruption. That doesn’t work as well in government. Government in Silicon Valley is where the ethos of disruption runs head-first at a sprinting pace into the wall of government. That being said, we’ve tried a lot of different things. The Samtrans Mobile app, something that admittedly we should have had five years ago, is one way we’re making an effort to modernize our services. A mobile bus app is something people expect in this region and previously when folks learned that we didn’t have one they’d be rather shocked. I’d like to see us become a little more nimble in the face of an ever-changing transportation landscape.
That ever-present change also provides an opportunity to attract more riders. Most people ride SamTrans because they need to. I want to see us expand on that and persuade people to ride SamTrans because they want to.
Unfortunately there is a stigma associated with riding the bus in San Mateo County. When I first pushed my kids a few years ago to start taking the bus it was an uphill battle. Even my own children got the idea that the bus is not something that “people like us” take, which is ridiculous. So we started taking the bus together as a family. One night we rode SamTrans into Half Moon Bay for dinner and they were surprised to learn that it was actually pretty cool. Even though we were sitting in traffic, they enjoyed seeing the view from the mountains, the big windows, not having to drive… and now I’m proud to say they’re vigorous bus riders! They don’t ask me for rides nearly as much. They’ve figured out how to read the bus schedules and go places on their own. I hope more people in our community get to experience that.
At the risk of sounding like a tech company, we have to disrupt people’s perception of buses. There’s a lot of potential with younger generations, who are statistically less likely to own cars, but I’d also like to get more folks of all ages and income levels on the bus. That’s high on my list as Board Chair.
EISENHART: What key efforts will Measure W funds support?
STONE: I think the most critical initiative that’s really been saved by the passage of this Measure is electric buses. We will be able to procure more electric buses more quickly thanks to Measure W. That’s important because it’ll not only help to reduce our carbon emissions, but it will also provide a more enjoyable riding experience. These buses are so quiet and they’ll provide free Wi-Fi for passengers. I think that will go a long way to encouraging folks to take the bus.
We’ll also be able to take a hard look at increasing youth ridership, particularly around school start/stop times. Disrupting that morning/afternoon traffic associated with elementary, middle and high schools is a big part of decongesting local roads. If anyone disagrees with me, I’d ask you to just drive Ralston Avenue between 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. or 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Same for Holly Street in San Carlos. Same for Hillsdale Boulevard in San Mateo. It even affects Highway 92!
EISENHART: Final thoughts?
STONE: We don’t know what the transit challenges and opportunities of five years from now will be. We’re on the cusp of game-changing shift where the industry is talking about everything from autonomous vehicles to underground vacuum tubes. I think the fact that we are able to react to drastic change is an undervalued part of this Measure. I am grateful that we can continue to move forward on initiatives that relied on the passage of Measure W. I am grateful to the voters and everyone who helped make Measure W a reality. And as always, I am grateful to the thousands of District staff who work every day to provide safe, quality transportation services to the communities we serve. Thank you.
Now let’s get us moving!
Alex Eisenhart is a public affairs specialist with the San Mateo County Transit District’s Communications Department.