As morning traffic sped down Telegraph one morning a few days ago, a high school student named Alesha was the youngest in a group of local people publicly pleading for passage this November of a 1/2 percent county sales tax increase called Measure BB.
Among the many transportation-related initiatives Measure BB would fund, said Alesha, a student at Oakland’s Emilio Zapata Street Academy, are discounted youth bus passes—which would be a great help to families like hers, which sometimes has trouble coming up with bus fare to get her to school. “Some people think that we young people can just figure it out on our own,” she said, “but we really can’t.”
Alongside Alesha, politicians, laborers, businesspeople, and more rallied on the steps of Saint Augustine’s Episcopal church in support of the measure, which would provide billions for public transportation, infrastructure and related services in Alameda County. “If you’ve seen myself on TV or if you’ve had me knocking on your door,” said a woman who looked to be in her sixties, “the reason is because Measure BB is extremely important.”
“[MeasureBB] will have a huge impact on building and supporting transportation that links housing and jobs,” said Tess Lengyel, the Deputy Director of Planning and Policy for Alameda County Transportation Commission, in a phone interview last week. It would also maintain the counties’ roadway system and provide funds to make cities more pleasant for pedestrians.
Submitted by the Alameda County Transportation Commission, Measure BB calls for a 30-year ½ percent increase in the county’s 9 percent sales tax. This tax augmentation would generate $8 billion directly for cities in Alameda county, as well as the county itself. The funds would go toward more rapid bus lines; reduced fares for students, seniors, and people with disabilities; a BART station in Livermore; and many other projects outlined by the 2014 Alameda County Transportation Expenditure Plan.
That breezy and sunny morning at the press conference, three groups that often sit on opposite sides of the table appeared together to support the measure. Andreas Cluver, of the Alameda Building Trades Council, said the county needed to rebuild its infrastructure. Barbara Leslie, of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, said public transit needs to be a “safe” and “reliable.” And Fernando Estrada, of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said the measure would allow “us to take care of our own roads … our own transit system.”
Every city council in Alameda County has voted unanimously in support of the measure, said Oakland United Democratic Campaign executive director Sarah Richardson. If it doesn’t pass, groups like Bike East Bay and the Alameda County Transportation Commission will likely put it on the ballot during the next election cycle, Richardson said in an interview.
Measure BB would allocate $800 million to seismic improvements and traffic relief on the Interstates 880 and 680, the Fruitvale Bridge and route 84, among many other roads. It would also allot funds for school crossing guards, more daily trips on the Capital Corridor, and additions to wilderness trails such as the Iron Horse and East Bay Greenway.
“It can’t fail,” Richardson said.
The measure comes as the successor to Measure B, a ½ percent sales tax approved in 2000 to provide $1.4 billion through 2022. Measure BB is nevertheless necessary because the projects under Measure B have been completed ten years ahead of schedule, Alameda County Transportation’s Tess Lenygel said, meaning all the Measure B funds have been allocated. So Measure BB would let the region keep maintaining and improving its transit, she said.
“If we don’t have a sales tax measure, we don’t have any other way to fund our needs,” Lengyel said.
It also comes as a second attempt. A similar ballot measure to extend and raise the current sale tax failed in 2012. Still, Measure BB is crucial for cities, its proponents argue, because federal and state governments – still recovering from the 2007 recession – offer fewer funds for local redevelopment and infrastructural projects. Measure BB would also create a citizen’s watchdog committee similar to that already in place for Measure B.
Under Measure BB, with the county’s new sales tax at 9.5 percent, tax for a pair of $50 Levi’s would rise from $4.50 to $4.75. The total cost of a $200 iPod Touch would rise by about $1, and a $746 Kenmore Refrigerator by $3.50.
A few opposition groups, such as the Bay Area Transportation Working Group and the Alameda County Taxpayers Coalition, have criticized the measure, which was called “flawed” and “deceptively promoted” on the ballot argument against Measure BB.
“Have the billions of tax dollars already spent on Alameda County transportation resulted in fewer freeway backups?” the ballot argument asks. “Are city streets smoother and less congested? … Now they want to restart the same failed process.” Signed by Alameda County Republican party chair Suzanne Caro and former BART director Sherman Lewis, among others, the argument also states that the measure’s watchdog committee would be comprised of “favored stakeholders” and “Measure BB supporters.”
Sandra Hamlat, who represents Bike East Bay on the current Measure B watchdog committee, agreed that there has been some misspending of funds in the past. But a recent annual report by the committee concluded that no funds have been misspent over the last 12 years. A “tremendous” amount of energy goes into resolving issues, she said.
Even if voters approve the measure in November, BB will not provide enough funds to meet all Oakland’s needs, the city’s Public Works director Brook A. Levin said this month in a memorandum to Oakland’s mayor and city council. But the measure would provide “the single largest source” of transportation funds for the city, Levin said. And if the measure fails, BART would have to compete with limited state and federal funds, or look to fare increases, Alameda city councilmember Lena Tam said in an email.
Measure BB, said Richardson of Oakland United Democratic Campaign, would lead to the long-overdue maintenance of some 50 miles of roads and 250 neighborhood blocks in Oakland alone. The measure’s failure would further a “state of disrepair,” said Colin Piethe of Bike East Bay, since Measure BB funds would provide 2/3 of the projected local transportation budget over the next three decades. The increased tax funding would also improve the quality of life “drastically,” he said in an email.
On a bike ride one recent morning, Rene Rivera of Bike East Bay pointed out hazards on Telegraph Avenue, like roaring traffic and the cracks that swallow tires. Telegraph is a natural direct route between Oakland and Berkeley, Rivera said, which is why some 1,200 cyclists use it daily. Measure BB funds would help convert Telegraph into a two-way street with a center turn lane, she said, and bike paths on either side.
Riding down a newly paved bike lane at the MacArthur BART station, which was well-shaded and separated from cars, Rivera said the measure would help fund next- generation bikeways. She described bike lanes that would continue uninterrupted, from one city’s downtown to the next; and paths that double as parks, like the one beginning construction at the Oakland Coliseum that goes toward Hayward.
Funds would also go toward making the county a better and safe place to walk and travel, Rivera said, and would help “turn the tide” around climate change. “Measure BB is really leading the nation in terms of the investment in healthy, active transportation,” she said.