In spite of rising gas prices, worsening traffic, and growing public concern about climate change, voters in two of the largest and most diverse counties in the state rejected transportation tax measures (Measures J and B1) that promised to meet these important transportation needs. Yet, these same voters, only four years earlier, in the case of Los Angeles County, and 12 years before, in the case of Alameda County, approved similar measures (Measures R and B) with strong support. What has changed in that time and what does this mean for transit-dependent communities and their transportation justice allies?
Alameda County’s Measure B1, promoted by Urban Habitat and many of its allies, included many important benefits for low-income bus riders. These were critical funds to improve bus service and restore cuts in service, provide seed money for a county-wide free student bus pass program, make major investments in bicycle lane and sidewalk safety, as well as provide more money for paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities. For this reason, B1 didn’t face the same grassroots opposition that Measure J did.
Like Measure J, B1 was a sales tax measure that would have continued to shift the transportation tax burden onto working families and away from corporations and wealthy individuals. (This is one of the main reasons why, after much debate, Urban Habitat ultimately decided not to endorse the final B1 measure. We were also concerned that the tax would become permanent and that it lacked protections against gentrification and the displacement of low-income renters from neighborhoods well-served by transit.)
Transportation Justice Reports from the Field
The bid by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to extend an existing transportation sales tax until 2069 failed to meet the necessary 2/3 threshold, delivering a setback to the Mayor's gentrifying and polluting vision for transportation expansion.
Sunyoung Yang, an organizer with the LA Bus Riders Union, which opposed the measure says, “Despite a multimillion dollar corporate-funded ad blitz and misleading ballot language, substantial numbers of voters heard our message about Measure J.”
The Coalition to Defeat Measure J hailed the result not as a defeat for mass transit progress, but as a rejection of MTA's pattern of running roughshod over civil rights, environmental justice, and community concerns in favor of corporate special interests.
Yang explains: “This is not a denial of funds for the MTA. This result forces a shift in the debate on how to redistribute the ample funds from Measure R that MTA already has, with racial equality, social justice, and good transit policy for all at the core.“
Low-income youth of San Francisco will be able to ride Muni for free during a 16-month trial period starting early in 2013, thanks to the efforts of a broad community coalition. After a two-year campaign, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) gave final approval for the funding on December 4, 2012. Campaign organizers want the program to begin in February, with a massive drive to sign up youth for free passes fully underway by March.
In November 2011, the coalition won crucial support when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors lent its support to the campaign. Spirited actions by youth, parents, and community advocates through 2011 had been aimed at winning relief for students and their families from the rising cost of bus and light rail fares following school district cuts to funding for yellow school buses.
By Mario Navarro
For the first time in its history, San Francisco youth will be able to travel to and from school, work, after-school programs and other activities throughout the city for free.
A vote by the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency board (SFMTA) on Wednesday to approve the Free Muni for Low-Income Youth means that the cost of public transit no longer will be a barrier to opportunity for young people in San Francisco.
For the past two years, youth and transit advocates tirelessly fought to transform the free Muni program from an idea into a reality.
The much-debated plan to let low-income kids in San Francisco hop aboard Muni for free apparently died Wednesday as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission narrowly voted against giving the plan $4 million in regional transportation funds.
The commission voted 8-7 against a motion to fund the 22-month free Muni plan, give $1 million to a two-year reduced- fare plan for low-income adults in Santa Clara County, and contribute $500,000 to an Alameda County student pass plan with a possible $2.5 million later. The vote split along regional lines with commissioners from San Francisco, the Peninsula and the South Bay favoring the program and East Bay and North Bay representatives opposed.
The MTC vote leaves Muni's $9.4 million plan, which was to start on Aug. 1, $5 million short. Municipal Transportation Agency officials declined to declare the free-fare program dead, but have said repeatedly that they can't afford to contribute any extra money.
Hard work and heartfelt testimony by young people and their allies broadened support for Free Muni for Youth among the members of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)—but MTC still wasn’t ready to fund a project that mainly benefits low-income youth and youth of color. The Commission rejected a proposal to allocate $4 million to the Free Youth Pass pilot program by a vote of 8 to 7 at its July 25 meeting. Commissioners from San Francisco, the Peninsula and the South Bay backed the program, while East Bay and North Bay representatives opposed it.
Youth from POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) responded to the vote with an unscheduled public comment, filling the room with chants of “Spread the word, spread the truth/Free Muni for all our youth!” and “We’ll be back!” before leaving the building.
Around 70 youth and supporters from all over the Bay Area attended the Wednesday morning MTC meeting. On the steps outside the agency’s headquarters after the vote, San Francisco Supervisor David Campos put the events in perspective.
On the eve of President Obama signing the Federal Surface Transportation Act, the Transit Riders for Public Transportation (TRPT) denounces the new bill and calls on the President to affirm his administration's commitment to environmental justice and transit riders by rejecting this bill. Known as the "highway bill," this legislation threatens public health and the environment in communities of color and systemically blocks transit riders from benefiting from the majority of this federal funding. This new version unfortunately perpetuates the 80/20 split in funding (80% for road infrastructure and 20% for mass transit) and fails to allow transit agencies the flexibility to use those limited dollars to maintain service, despite desperate need. At the same time, this bill blatantly guts the National Environmental Policy Act, which offers the only meaningful opportunity for communities to have a voice in major capital construction projects that will directly impact their lives.