Moving up plans by two years, Santa Clara County will likely put a quarter-cent, 30-year sales tax on the November ballot, joining Alameda County and San Francisco this fall in attempts to raise the billions needed to extend BART, build new interchanges and repave pothole-riddled streets.
Combined, these moves have Bay Area-wide implications, as many of the proposed projects link East Bay commute routes to those in the South Bay and San Francisco. Surveys show that support for such a tax is at 73 percent in Santa Clara County and 72 percent in Alameda County, a cushion that could be crucial to meet the state's strict two-thirds approval for special taxes.
"We have never tested this high," said Carl Guardino, chair of the California Transportation Commission, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the campaign manager for three successful transportation measures in Santa Clara County since 1996. "Even in 2000 during the height of the bubble, the highest we polled was 72 percent."
A measure could be put on the ballot by Santa Clara County supervisors or the Valley Transportation Authority, which oversees transit, highway and street funding in the county.
"We are very excited about the polling results," VTA board chair Ash Kalra said in a statement. "The VTA Board of Directors will further analyze the poll results and work with our partners at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and other stakeholders to look at potential ballot measure options." A decision will need to be made by this summer.
These measures would raise the sales tax to 9.0 percent in Santa Clara County and 9.25 percent in Alameda County.
The Alameda County measure would be a half-cent tax for 30 years. San Francisco is looking to raise its local vehicle license fee and use bonds for work on MUNI and city streets.
Contra Costa County is not going before voters this year, but in 2016 it may seek a new sales tax for road and transit work.
The measures would raise more than $12 billion over the next three decades -- almost $8 billion in Alameda, up to $3.7 billion in Santa Clara and more than $500 million in San Francisco.
Traffic delays have risen 21 percent in Alameda County in the past year, and the attention of voters is once again shifting from crime, jobs and schools to lengthy drives to work.
The measures would provide funds to bring BART to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara as well as to Livermore. Caltrain overpasses could be built from Gilroy to Palo Alto, and upgrades made to MUNI.
Targeting the horrendous I-680 commute between the East Bay and San Jose, a northbound carpool lane would be added on 680 through Fremont, plus a connector from 680 to 880. New ramps would be added at the 580-680 interchange and Highway 84 would be widened.
The Alameda County tax would redo terribly clogged interchanges on I-80 at Gilman Street and Ashby Avenue in the Berkeley area and up and down 880 through the East Bay.
The deplorable condition of local streets has also become a pressing concern, with a growing number of voters seemingly ready to dig in their pocketbooks to fill potholes. The Santa Clara County survey revealed that 87 percent said street repairs are a high priority, and voters in Alameda County rated pothole-filling as the third most pressing transportation need.
How bad has it gotten? Drivers who use Foxworthy Avenue in San Jose have posted handmade yellow and neon green signs that say "POTHOLE MINEFIELD AHEAD."
"The stretch of Foxworthy between Ross and Meridian has deteriorated in the last few years into a mostly undriveable road," said Chris Nielsen of San Jose.
Jeff Hallett of Livermore, a frequent BART rider, said, "I would definitely favor a half-cent sales tax increase to support BART to Livermore using a 580 route. It would make it easier for me personally."
"A new interchange at 580/680? I would go for that," said Thomas Barbeiro of Pleasanton.
Doug Swalen quibbles with the likely projects in the South Bay: "I can think of other more pressing projects that should get money, such as flyover ramps at 101/880, widening 17 down to Highway 9 and maybe adding a fourth lane to 85."
Cole Barber of San Jose wasn't buying it. "I am against any new taxes. They already collect too much money," he said.
Until a few weeks ago, it seemed the Silicon Valley Leadership Group would wait until 2016 to push for a new tax. It has never before sought one in a non-presidential election, because presidential races tend to generate a wider, more liberal turnout at the polls. But on a whim, Guardino asked pollster Jim Moore to do a survey on how a tax would fare this November.
The results Moore got made Guardino ask: Why wait? On Friday, he plans to inform business leaders and elected officials across the county of the survey details, seeking approval to forge ahead.
While the smaller turnout likely this November works against these measures' chances, another factor working in favor of them is that antitax groups aren't expected to mount much opposition.
Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said his group probably would not contest the various measures since they would have to meet the strict two-thirds voter threshold and are not an attempt to dodge legal restrictions.
"If that is what they want to do," he said, "that's democracy."
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.
Contra Costa: 8.5%
Los Angeles: 9%
San Francisco: 8.75%
San Mateo: 9%
Santa Clara: 8.75%
Source: Board of Equalization