Transportation funding faces key test after Mayor Lee flips on VLF increase UPDATED

Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed the VLF, and now Mayor Ed Lee won't let San Franciscans raise it this year.

Facing a deadline of tomorrow’s [Tues/10] San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting to introduce measures for the November ballot, advocates for addressing the city’s massive long-term transportation funding gap still hope to introduce an increase in the local vehicle license fee, even though the once-supportive Mayor Ed Lee has gotten cold feet.

While Lee and all 11 of the supervisors support a $500 million general obligation bond that would mostly go toward capital improvements for Muni — a measure almost certain to be approved by its July 22 deadline — the local VLF was originally presented by Lee as a companion measure to fund Muni, street resurfacing, and bike and pedestrian safety improvements.

But when Lee got spooked by a poll in December showing 44 percent voter approval for increasing the VLF and the need to actually do some campaigning for the measure, he withdrew his support and left cycling, streets, and safety all severely underfunded. A report last year by the Mayor’s Transportation Task Force pegged the city’s transportation infrastructure needs at $10.1 billion over 15 years, recommending just $3 billion in new funding to meet that need, including the embattled VLF measure.

“It’s important for us to move forward with the local VLF,” Sup. Scott Wiener, who has taken the lead on ensuring local term transportation funding, told the Guardian. “If this is not the right election, then we have to say which election we will move this forward.”

But so far, Wiener hasn’t gotten a commitment from the Mayor’s Office, with which he says he’s still in active talks. The Mayor’s Office also hasn’t returned Guardian calls on the issue. If Wiener doesn’t get an assurance that the VLF will go before voters, then he says that he’ll push another fall ballot measure that he introduced May 20, which would increase the city General Fund contribution to Muni as the population increases, retroactive to 10 years ago (thus creating an initial increase of more than $20 million annually).

“It would be in lieu of the VLF, not in addition to it,” Wiener said the rival measure, noting that he prefers the local VLF, a stable and equitable funding source that wouldn’t cut into other city priorities. [UPDATE 6/10: Wiener said he received a commitment from Lee to place the VLF increase on the 2016 ballot, so he is dropping his measure to increase Muni funding as the population increases].

Sen. Mark Leno spent about 10 years winning approval for the authorizing state legislation that authorizes San Franciscans to increase the VLF, enduring two governors’ vetoes along the way before getting Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it into law last year.

Wiener notes that the measure would increase the VLF in San Francisco to 2 percent, restoring it its longtime level before Arnold Schwarzenegger used a VLF reduction as a campaign issue to get elected governor, slashing it to 0.65 percent in 2003.

“That action by Gov. Schwarzenegger has deprived California of about $8 billion per year,” Wiener told us. “This is not some newly minted fee, it restores the VLF to what it was going back to the ‘50s.”

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Director Leah Shahum said she was disappointed that Lee didn’t follow through on his commitment to fund bike and pedestrian safety improvements through the local VLF, but she said there is wide support on the board for the measure.

“Tomorrow is the big day, but we’re hearing real strong support for the measure,” Shahum told us. “I feel strongly there will be eight supervisors committed to introducing the measure.”

That two-thirds vote threshold is part of the legislation that enabled San Francisco to increase its VLF, but Shahum said she believes there is that level of support on the board for doing the VLF increase this year, which the SFBC would actively campaign for.

“The whole idea was these things would go as a package,” Shahum told us. “This is a huge deal for us. Give the voters a chance to vote for safe and smooth streets.”   

Lee's abandonment of the VLF comes in the wake of his SFMTA appointees' repeal of Sunday parking meters, which Lee said was driven by a desire to win over car-driving voters for his transportation measures. Last month on Bike to Work Day, Lee and other city officials also touted the measures as important for bike project, although Shahum said the general obligation bond does little for cyclists, except for an allocation for renovating Market Street. 

"There is not a desigination for bike safety and infrastructure, that was goign to be all in the VLF measure," Shahum said. 

Wiener cited the long road that Leno traveled to give San Franciscans that opportunity as a reason to move forward with increasing the VLF, a progressive tax that charges more for luxury cars than old beaters used by the working class, but Leno was a bit more circumspect about the situation.

“If it taught me anything, it’s patience,” Leno told us about the long road to let San Francisco authorize a higher VLF. “As with anything in the world, timing is everything.”

Leno said support from labor, the business community, and all of City Hall’s top leaders are all necessary to win voter support for increasing the VLF, so it’s crucial that everyone is enthusiastically on board. “I think we may only have one shot, so when we go to the ballot, we need to have our coalition intact.”

Without commenting on the wisdom of delaying the vote this year, Leno said that if that happens, it’s crucial to get everyone to commit to passing it in 2016, a position Wiener also supports.

“There are times when we need to have a long view,” Leno told us. “But one way or the other, we have to get serious about identifying dedicated revenue to invest in Muni or we will all pay a serious price.”


To participate in a public forum on this and related matters, please join us this Thursday evening for “Bikes, Buses, & Budgets: How to create the transportation system San Franciscans needs.” This Bay Guardian community forum, from 6-8pm at the LGBT Center (1800 Market), will feature Wiener; SFBC community organizer Chema Hernandez Gil; Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at SFSU who writes the Guardian’s monthly Street Fight column; and others, moderated by yours truly. It’ll be fun, informative, and one lucky attendee will leave with a A2B electric bike as part of a free raffle at this free event.    


Either I'm the only one who understand what "equitable" means, or in the only one who doesn't. How is it an "equitable" system to specifically charge car drivers for bike and muni improvements they'll benefit least from. Seems like it would be "equitable" to spread the cost across all who would benefit.

I suppose this is the same "equitable" that gets GED-wielding BART operators, station agents and janitors $85k plus OT and benefits.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 09, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

The hive mind will get together and talk about how equitable it is that everyone owes the progressive agenda.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 1:25 am

Transportation funding faces key test after MTA spent the past decade picking fights with constituency after constituency while conspicuously avoiding improving a transit system or anything resembling building up a basis of trust with riders, operators and voters.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 5:22 am

then Muni will continue to fail, and we should not throw more money at it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 6:35 am

How is it equitable for cars to pay 100% of the VLT and exempt cyclists and and MUNI riders. Start collecting a registration fee for every bike rider over the age of 18. Stop the practice of giving free rides to teenagers. Add a tax similar to the hotel tax on the sale of all bike in S.F. Bike lanes that are not uses should be removed, example, the bike lane on Alemany between Congdon and San Bruno Ave is seldom if ever used yet cars are forced from 3 lanes to 2 for a bike lane that is never used

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 6:24 am

Lee is rejecting putting it on the ballot because he knows it cannot and will not win.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 6:36 am

The voters are not going to support the bond measure yet that appears to be lurching forward towards a ballot crash.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 7:01 am

Now it's probably toast as well. I personally know both left-wingers and right-wingers who are going to vote NO on the bond measure.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 7:18 am

After the MUNI sick-out, nothing is going to pass in November, not even the bond measure.

Posted by VLF is DOA on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 6:53 am

MTA revenue fails due to management malfeasance more so than labor troubles.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 7:41 am

Management have failed because their political bosses lack the spine to stand up to the unions. That neuters management but they are starting to show some metal now, thanks to the voters rightly banning strikes

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 7:53 am

but only 20% of Muni's costs are covered by fare income - a dismal performance metric.

In effect, each Muni journey costs $10.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 8:01 am

How did you arrive at that percentage regarding Muni operator's "worth." Do you disrespect all transit operators around the country, of only Muni? Do you only disrespect transit operators in San Francisco, or do you respect all blue collar professions? I smell a 1%er.

Posted by guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 9:59 am

It's a shade over 20%.

The London transit system, which is far superior and gives free travel to all kids and seniors, recovers 90%

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 10:18 am

Farebox recovery is irrelevant.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 11:00 am

SF's recovery rate is the lowest in the nation, or not far off.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 11:15 am

Clearly farebox recovery is not that big a deal given the wide range of farebox recovery percentages which seems to have a median of around 40%.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 11:27 am

It virtually is free given that each ride gets an $8 subsidy.

No way to run a business. And yet SFMTA whines that the problem is a lack of revenue when the real problem is clearly runaway costs and a fare structure that doesn't come close to covering those costs.

London manages 90% from fares. We should hire the guys that run that.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 11:44 am

Yes, Muni should be free at the fare box.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

It's only free because somebody else pays for it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 12:25 pm


Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

Are you suggesting that Muni isn't over-crowded and over-stressed enough?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

I'm suggesting that we replace MTA management, eliminate fare box recovery all together and invest significant amounts of resources in increased capacity and dedicated ROW.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

As long as MTA management is beholden to the Mayor, it doesn't matter who holds the positions.

Posted by guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

I meant replace the governance structure of the MTA to an elected or diverse appointed board or just repeal Prop E.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

We need transit experts, not ideologs and social engineers

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2014 @ 5:36 am

There is no such thing as a transit expert.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 11, 2014 @ 5:59 am

But some people know more than others.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2014 @ 7:02 am

That is that Muni operators be paid the same as the private sector drivers, that fares reflect the costs, and that management are freed from political interference.

The voters approved the banning of strikes so it is clear that the voters are concerned about the cost structure. Muni rides should not cost $10 each

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

Is it time to pull the plug on Prop E or at least reign the SFMTA in?
Maybe Restoring Transportation Balance will help or at least give City Hall some much needed clarity on where the voters stand:

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

SFMTA management cannot manage because of their political overlords

Posted by Guest on Jun. 10, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

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