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Transit Allies Fight for Share of Sales Tax

By Marcy Rein

The smell of garlic growing hits your nose as you turn off Hwy 101 onto Route 152 through Gilroy. With its wide streets, low buildings, and dry 95-degree heat, Gilroy feels like a Central Valley town, though it sits at the southern tip of Santa Clara County, on the fringe of Silicon Valley. When you head north on 101, the “San Jose City Limits” sign pops up in the middle of open space and thirsty hills, and about 15 minutes later, traffic begins to clot around the 10th largest city in the country and its far-flung carpet of suburbs—wheelhouse of the high-tech industry and site of some of the worst commutes in the country.1

But low-income transit users face some common challenges, whether they live in Gilroy, the Latino communities of East San Jose, or Sunnyvale. The buses they depend on cost too much, take too long, don’t run often enough or late enough, and are always at the end of the line for transit funding.

The countywide transportation sales tax proposed for the November 2016 ballot could begin to close the funding gap, but competition for the $6 billion the tax could raise will be stiff: The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)2 got proposals for $50 billion worth of projects by its August 31 deadline. Low-income transit users will need to press their case in a political process that has been dominated by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents the region’s major employers. But a diverse new coalition, the Transportation Justice Alliance (TJA), is taking the challenge head-on.

“This is something bigger than the initiative,” says Diana Salazar, community organizer for Sacred Heart Community Service. “We’re in a broad alliance, and we’re building a strong base of riders countywide…. As low-income bus riders, we historically haven’t benefitted from services and the right to move. This is about coming together, claiming our place and power, learning how we shape the city and county.”Community meeting on proposed transportation sales tax, at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, Sept. 9, 2015 © 2015 Tiburon

Transportation Funding Burden Falls Where it Hurts Most

Before 1980, California counties got about 80 percent of their transportation funding from the federal and state governments. Since 1980, the balance has flipped. Counties now bear 80 percent of the cost of their transportation systems, according to VTA’s Planning and Program Development Director John Ristow. Federal and state transportation spending, such as it is, favors highways; only 20 percent of federal dollars goes to transit, and in large metropolitan areas like San Jose, almost none of it can be used for bus operations.

To fill the funding gap, counties have turned to sales taxes. Santa Clara was the first to do so, with a 1984 ballot measure that raised funds for highways. This funding strategy has the county’s poorest residents paying the biggest share of their income to support the system—and getting the smallest returns.

“We’re paying but not getting service. It’s like taxation without representation in the American Revolution,” says Lucila Moran, an activist with Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos (RUTU).

For transit-dependent county residents like Moran, “transportation dictates the quality of jobs, education, housing, and services you have access to,” says Charisse Ma Lebron, director of health policy and community development for Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA), a group that combines research, policy advocacy, and organizing in campaigns for equitable growth, healthy communities, and quality jobs.

The ongoing housing crisis makes transit even more vital. “When you’re displaced, you get pushed farther from where you have your life. If you don’t have a car, public transportation is your only way to stay connected,” says Lisa Castellanos, Sacred Heart’s director of policy and organizing. 

Low-income families in the county spend around one-third of their household income on transportation3 and are far more likely to take the bus than light rail (84 percent of them depend on the bus, but only 16 percent rely on rail).4 The average annual income of VTA bus riders is less than $30,000; for BART riders, it’s $53,000, and for CalTrain riders, $117,000.5The bulk of the revenues from previous county transportation sales taxes have benefitted higher-income residents.

Bus service hours are down 22 percent since 2000; even after the restoration of some hours in 2010–2011, service is the lowest it’s been in 25 years. Light rail service, by contrast, has gone up 32 percent since 1999-2000.6

More than half the funds from the half-cent tax passed in 1996 went to transit—but to light rail, not buses. Eighty percent of the revenue from Measure A, passed in 2000, has gone towards bringing BART to San Jose,7 and money raised by the eighth-cent tax passed in 2008 is all earmarked for BART.

To say that transit funding slights the Valley’s poorer residents is also to say that it leaves out communities of color. Latino, Black and Native American families have the lowest incomes in the Valley and saw the sharpest decline in income from 2000 to 2010.8 Segregation within the tech industry concentrates Latinos and African Americans in poorly paid service jobs.9

Transportation sales tax measures go to the voters with a spending plan attached. The fight for a fair distribution of the funds happens early—so when the Silicon Valley Leadership Group tried to slide a new tax proposal onto the 2014 ballot with little discussion, community groups and some elected officials weren’t having it.

Getting Equity on the Agenda
David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard) founded the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group in 1978; it changed its name to the Leadership Group in 2005, but remains the voice of the high-tech employers at the core of the Valley’s economy.

The Leadership Group has initiated all of Santa Clara County’s transportation sales tax proposals. It has funded polling to see which spending plans would get the greatest voter support, and bankrolled the campaigns themselves. In late 2013, Leadership Group President Carl Guardino proposed a new sales tax for the November 2014 ballot, to spend on BART and roads.

“When SVLG floated the idea of a potential new measure in 2014, we and many others jumped in quickly to make sure the next transportation funding measure would be made with significant community input and through a transparent public process,” says Chris Lepe, TransForm’s senior community planner.

WPUSA called together the group that would become the TJA—a broad coalition of more than a dozen community organizations, unions, environmental groups, and policy advocates.10   “We want to be sure the tax revenues are invested to benefit our communities, and raise our communities’ voices in the transportation sphere,” says Lebron.

TJA members met with VTA staff and Board and other local elected officials to make the case for postponing the tax vote and seeking meaningful community input. The VTA agreed to consider the tax for the 2016 ballot and to collaborate with the TJA on four community meetings around the county.

More than 400 people participated in the meetings held in Gilroy, Mountain View, Central San Jose, and East San Jose. The meetings were scheduled to make attendance easier—on Saturday afternoon in Gilroy and in the early evening everywhere else. The organizers provided food, childcare and translation—Spanish/English at all meetings, and Vietnamese/English as well in East San Jose.

In two-and-half packed hours, the meetings offered a crash course in the way decisions get made on transportation funding and a chance for community members to talk directly with VTA planning staff. Participants spent about an hour in breakout groups, mapping their regular transit use and reflecting on their riding experience. They ranked the transit improvements they would like to see and reported their priorities back to the VTA staff and the meeting as a whole.

Some needs percolated to the top of the list at every meeting: more frequent and affordable bus service; better connections among bus routes; reduced fares for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income people, and safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. The TJA is compiling the community priorities into a transit justice platform that can guide it through the next stages of the work.

“Santa Clara County has had very strong labor, social justice and environmental coalitions, but this is the first time these interests have mobilized around transportation funding in such an invested way,” says Lepe, who as a student at San Jose State was part of the campaign to keep San Jose’s famous flea market, “La Pulga,” from being displaced by a future BART stop at Berryessa.11

Keeping Fairness at the Forefront
“Transportation is a collective enterprise, and this is a long process. We need to work together to improve transportation for all,” Lebron reminded participants at the end of each community meeting.Bus riders from Gilroy and surrounding areas identify routes where they need more buses. © 2015 Harvey Barkin

At the next step in the process, the TJA will need to ensure that equity stays on the agenda when the VTA decides which of the dozens of project proposals submitted by cities, agencies, and community groups will go into the final spending plan that gets on the ballot.

The VTA has been collecting input to help its board of directors decide on the criteria it will use to evaluate proposals. The coalition sent a four-page letter detailing changes that would enhance equity and environmental health elements in the proposed criteria. For example, instead of “travel reliably,” the group suggested saying, “Increase the reliability of public transit, especially for people with disabilities, seniors, students, and low-income individuals.”

The Alliance also suggested that the VTA compare an entire package of equity-based projects and programs against other packages. In planning lingo, these packages are “scenarios.”

“Developing an investment scenario that starts with the needs of low-income communities produces the greatest benefits—including environmental and economic benefits—for the broader community,” says Bob Allen, director of policy and advocacy campaigns for Urban Habitat. “We saw this at work in the recent regional planning process that led up to the adoption of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area.”12

The VTA will review all the proposals using the criteria it picks, and come up with a draft expenditure plan by February 2016. Before the sales tax measure goes on the ballot, all 15 cities in Santa Clara County and the VTA Board will have to approve the spending plan. The Alliance and its member groups will continue participating on VTA’s Policy and Ad Hoc committees, engaging Board members and other elected officials.

Working with a Complex Process and Flawed Choices
Special-purpose sales taxes in California have to pass by a two-thirds majority,13 so the proposal that emerges from these long preparations must appeal to voters all over the county with widely varying income levels and transportation needs—from the wealthy, almost rural communities of Saratoga and Los Altos Hills, to the poorer communities east of Hwy 87, to the suburban environs of North County. 

“Typically, we see high turnout in North and West County, so opposition needs to be neutralized or pleased,” retired San Jose State University Political Science Professor Terry Christensen says. “When you need two-thirds approval, you can’t afford any organized opposition.”

Deep imbalances between jobs and housing define the county’s transportation landscape. Jobs abound in the northern part of the county, but housing—especially affordable housing—is hard to find. Workers must travel from San Jose or farther away to work at Apple in Cupertino, or Stanford University in Palo Alto, for example.

The BART extension has drawn support from those who see it as an effective way to get drivers out of cars and encourage job growth in San Jose. “The entire Bay Area has been behind extending BART… I drive 880 and the traffic is horrendous; as the economy gets more regional, our need for connectivity increases,” says Doug Bloch of Teamsters Joint Council 7.

But the BART project has taken far longer and cost far more than anticipated, leaving a host of unmet needs not only for TJA’s constituencies, but for North and West County cities as well. Elected officials from several cities signed onto a letter to VTA in August 2015, asking the agency to take a more truly regional approach to planning. Priorities for North County cities include electrification and grade separations for CalTrain (over- and underpasses so the train doesn’t back up car traffic) and light rail extensions.

“How have downtown San Jose interests dominated the process until now?” asks Mountain View City Council member Lenny Siegel. “We need more jobs in San Jose and more housing here, but the imbalance is so great that transit must be part of the picture. The best option is transit that follows the commute… cars use 280, 85, 237, 101 from the south. That’s the traffic transit needs to address,” Siegel says.

Some members of the TJA, notably WPUSA, advocate incorporating affordable housing near transit into the sales tax measure. Building affordable housing within a quarter-mile of transit could also cut congestion and pollution by reducing vehicle miles traveled; affordable housing yields even greater benefits than market-rate, according to a report by TransForm and the California Housing Partnership Corporation.14Signing in at East San Jose community meeting © 2015 Tiburon

Building Power for the Long Term
“The affordable housing need is so acute that you can’t have that level of public investment and not include it,” says Bob Brownstein, WPUSA’s director of policy and research.

California law only allows local governments to raise sales taxes 2 percent over the state’s base sales tax of 7.5 percent. Santa Clara County’s rate is already at 8.75 percent, so it can go up another half-cent. If the transportation tax passes, the county won’t be able to raise taxes until the current measures expire in 2036.

“You need to seize windows of opportunity when they open. This is our last chance to capture local resources for transit for a while, so we need to take it seriously,” Brownstein says.

The social movement moment also offers an opening, and a perspective on the work.

“A bigger movement is happening around the Bay. This is an opportunity to build power in a way unique to this moment because of the multiple ways low- and moderate-income folks are suffering and struggling over the costs of housing and transportation,” says Lisa Castellanos. “We need to democratize more spaces where decisions get made that hit very close to home for low-income people and people of color, immigrants, undocumented, people who ‘shouldn’t’ be participating, whose voice isn’t considered in the electorate.”


Marcy Rein is a contributing editor for Race, Poverty & the Environment.


1.    “Transportation Justice in San Jose and the Bay Area,” presentation by Urban Habitat and Public Advocates for PACT, March 2012.

2.    The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) runs the bus and light rail systems in Santa Clara County. It also functions as the county’s Congestion Management Agency, responsible for making transportation plans and securing and allocating funds. Its Board of Directors sets policy for the agency. The Board is made up of 18 county and city representatives; 12 are voting members and six are alternates. All are elected officials, appointed by the jurisdiction they represent. Three are Santa Clara County supervisors, six come from the city of San Jose, and nine represent other cities.

3.    Moving Silicon Valley Forward: Housing, Transit and Traffic at a Crossroad, Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and Urban Habitat, 2012, p. 6.

4.    Ibid., p. 10.

5.    Interview with Charisse Ma Lebron, director of health policy and community development for Working Partnerships USA, Aug. 18, 2015.

6.    Life in the Valley Economy 2012, Working Partnerships USA.

7.    Transportation funding memo to county Board of Supervisors.

8.    Latino and Black families saw their household income drop by 29 percent; white households experienced a 9 percent decline; Asian households saw a 1.4 percent increase. Life in the Valley Economy.

9.    Blacks and Latinos hold fewer than five percent of the high-paying engineering and technical jobs, but make up 75 percent of all grounds maintenance workers, 72 percent of janitors, and 41 percent of security guards. Tech’s Diversity Problem: More than meets the eye, Working Partnerships USA, 2014.

10. As of September 2015, the Transportation Justice Alliance included the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, California Walks, Friends of CalTrain, Greenbelt Alliance, People Acting in Communty Together (PACT), Public Advocates, Sacred Heart Community Service, Sacred Heart United Seniors Action Committee, Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos (RUTU)/Riders United for Transportation Renewal, Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits, Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, Teamsters Joint Council 7, TransForm, Transit Riders United, Urban Habitat, Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA) and Yu-Ai Kai.

11. For more on “La Pulga,” see Ginny Browne, “San Jose Flea Market Faces BART Expansion, Displacement,” Race, Poverty and the Environment, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2011.

12. SB375, a part of California’s landmark climate change legislation, requires regions to plan to bring jobs, housing and transit closer together in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is the planning body for the nine-county Bay Area region: Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties.

13. A special-purpose tax raises funds for a specific use—in this case, transportation. Sales taxes to raise money for city and county General Funds only need the support of 50 percent of the voters, plus one.

14. Why Creating and Preserving Affordable Homes Near Transit is a Highly Effective Climate Protection Strategy, TransForm and the California Housing Partnership Corporation, 2014.


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