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[whitespace] Planes, Trains and Automobiles

San Jose voters weigh three ballot measures. Here's how we think you should vote.

By Loren Stein

Measure A
VTA Transit Plan

Voters who don't like it when the government does things without asking for their advice should be pleased and flattered by Measure A, which does just that. But don't get carried away, because as everyone knows, giving advice is not the same thing as making sure it's taken to heart. Still, we'd recommend a nod of approval for this advisory measure, which asks voters if they are in harmony with the mass transit-
centric focus of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's (VTA) comprehensive plan, which was adopted by the board in December 2000.

The plan calls for the VTA to continue to focus its primary attention on mass transit needs such as improving bus and light rail service, finishing the Tasman East, Capitol and Vasona light rail lines, hooking up BART to the South Bay and planning for more links to Caltrain and other commuter rail services. By law, the VTA is supposed to ask voters every six years if they agree with its general plan. We think voters should say, Yes, we agree; we want more transit, better transit and faster transit. Now, where is that bus we were waiting for?

Recommendation: Yes on Measure A

Measure B
Road Repair Financing

Every once in a while, Silicon Valley's power elite line up like lemmings and take a flying leap off the cliff of bad public policy. This is the case, we believe, with Measure B, which has the public backing of every single elected official in the county and a lot of powerful folks who work behind the scenes.

Measure B would require that future flexible State Transportation Improvement Program ("STIP") funds as well as federal transportation-related discretionary cash won by Santa Clara County during the next 3 1/2 decades be spent primarily on highways and roads, rather than on mass transit projects such as Caltrain, buses and light rail. (No new taxes are needed.) Proponents of the measure say they want to balance the maintenance needs of neglected local auto pathways with what they say are the already adequately funded mass transit systems (including the BART-to-San Jose extension) being paid for by the 30-year, 0.5 percent sales tax voters passed in November 2000.

OK, sounds good so far. But here's what bothers us. First, and this is no secret, the measure's primary purpose is to mollify local leaders and other power players who balked at backing Measure A, the transit sales tax, because they feared that road improvement programs and what drives on them--cars--would take a back seat. Second, Measure B locks in these incoming funds for $2 billion worth of VTA 2020 roadway projects--such as fixing highways and potholes, signal synchronization and improving bike and pedestrian safety, for 34 years (when the transit tax expires). This seems like an awfully long time considering how transit needs and related technologies could--and should--change over the next three decades. Like others, we want to see the potholes fixed. But we wonder how local voters might feel if a similar decision had been made, say 30 or 40 years ago, to prevent the expenditure of local government funds on public transit in favor of autos. But wait a second, that did happen. which is why BART has served the East Bay for decades, but not San Jose.

Third, what the backers of both Measure A and B could not foresee (and which can never be predicted) was a serious economic slump that has placed transit projects in jeopardy as sales tax revenues have plummeted. Some may never get built, and others may not have the funds to operate. Additional sources of revenue will have be found if transit obligations are going to be met. But, you guessed it, much of the available cash will be tied up in fixing our existing highways.

A shorter-term measure or a formula where no more than 50 percent of the funds are used to repair roads would make more sense and take us in the direction we need to go, which is away from automobile dependency. So we're not following the crowd on this one.

Recommendation: No on Measure B

Measure F
Hotel Tax/San Jose Convention Center

Regardless of how one feels about past efforts to turn San Jose into a convention town, there's nothing worse than being a second-rate meeting destination, so let's finish the job.

It's been a shame watching great conventions like Seybold and Interop flee San Jose because they outgrew the city's facilities. Conventions bring ideas and business opportunities to a region and keep it vital. They help pay the salaries in the hospitality industry, from bell captains and night auditors to airport shuttle bus drivers. They keep restaurants in business and help clubs and musicians by booking them for parties. It's a revenue stream that supports amenities that benefit residents, too: airport improvements, transit systems, taxi service, public events.

Measure F will renovate and expand the existing convention center with funds from the Transient Occupancy Tax. That's the surcharge that appears on hotel bills at checkout time, a fairly painless donation to the civic good that visitors leave behind when they stay as a guest. San Joseans pay a hotel tax when they visit other cities. Los Angeles and San Francisco charge 14 percent, Seattle 15.6, Houston 17. Should San Jose remain a beggar city at 10 percent?

Critics suggest that a market-rate TOT will make San Jose anti-competitive. If that were the case, then why are the city's hoteliers among the biggest supporters of this measure? Measure F is a necessary corrective measure to the mistakes of the '80s, in which an undersized convention center was built without supporting infrastructure, like network wiring, museums and an adequate supply of hotel rooms. Museums and hotel rooms were subsequently built, but the convention center still lacks the space to handle the type of conventions that a business center the size of Silicon Valley deserves.

The convention center has proved a useful public space, hosting State of the City speeches, political conventions, entertainment events and presentations by heads of industry. Bill Gates, Peter Gabriel and Cesar Chavez have spoken there.

In addition to an estimated $115 million in ongoing revenue, the convention center expansion is expected to create 2,500 jobs and generate more than $100 million in personal income during the construction period. With Silicon Valley's recent unemployment figures, keeping local people employed should be a high priority. The best thing about Measure F is that it's a free ride for San Joseans. If hotel guests don't like it, they can always stay in neighboring cities, where the TOT remains 10 percent. It's a free country after all.

Recommendation: Yes on Measure F

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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