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Santa Rosa City Council skeptical of Faster Bay Area sales tax hike

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A push to raise $100 billion in new sales taxes for a massive investment in the Bay Area’s commuting network met with sharp questions from Santa Rosa leaders, who questioned the wisdom of placing a vague measure before local voters who could be casting ballots on a fourth transportation-related proposal in a little over two years.

The so-called Faster Bay Area proposal, commonly called Faster, aims to ease the congestion that cripples Bay Area commutes by luring hundreds of thousands of new riders onto buses, trains and ferries, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by polluting automobiles and shrinking gaps between rides to 15  minutes on many routes to make service more attractive.

Faster, which could come up for a vote in November, would need two-thirds support in the nine-county Bay Area to pass. While it likely has a tough row to hoe to win significant support north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the measure could still pass with heavy support from San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland-area residents.

The hurdles the measure will face to rally local support were evident Tuesday as council members peppered a Faster Bay Area spokeswoman with questions about its impacts, methods and feasibility, many of which went unanswered. One pointed comment came from Mayor Tom Schwedhelm as he peered at a draft map showing a potential nine-county rapid bus network and noted myriad projects in the South Bay, San Francisco and Oakland — but evidently little in store for the North Bay.

“It struck me how complex the system looks, and then Sonoma County looks like stick figures up there,” Schwedhelm said, highlighting a dearth of planned connections.

Faster Bay Area has been in the works since 2017 and is the brainchild of the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group — associates comprising and advocating for large businesses that operate in the area — as well as the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. The measure resembles the 2016 sales tax passed by voters in Los Angeles County to fund $120 billion over 40 years for public transportation.

A spokeswoman for the effort, Kelli Fallon, described it as an effort to compete head-on with the allure of driving to and from work alone. She noted that employers were keen on it in part to attract workers who would otherwise have to brave epic commutes from relatively affordable pockets of California.

“Unfortunately, our public transit has been inadequate in filling that need,” said Fallon, a policy manager for the Bay Area Council. “Fares are prohibitively expensive, the coordination isn’t really seamless for riders ... or it’s just not frequent enough to make it a convenient use for riders.”

The Faster proposal could follow March’s vote on renewing the sales tax funding Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit and a regional transportation measure voters approved in 2018 that’s mired in litigation and passed with a narrow margin of support in Sonoma County. It also may coincide with a renewal of a Sonoma County sales tax for transportation measures in November, and Councilman Chris Rogers urged Faster Bay Area advocates to consider the ramifications of placing their measure on the same ballot.

“I just hope you all understand that whether it passes or not, putting it on the ballot will jeopardize local jurisdictions’ ability to pass their own measures,” Rogers said, noting that the South Bay city of Mountain View had recently come out against Faster.

One of the few members of the public to show up to comment was Brian Ling, the executive director of the Sonoma County Alliance, a major local business coalition. He noted that his organization had decided to support quarter-cent sales tax measures for county transportation projects and SMART but was unlikely to support the Faster tax as proposed.

“We’re way more of a giver than a receiver in this deal, and we don’t like it, and we need money in other places,” Ling said.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority in November approved a broad initial list of local projects that could draw roughly $2.3 billion in funding from Faster Bay Area, with staff noting that the North Bay would particularly benefit from substantial funding to expand the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit network and to revamp Highway 37. Other large projects include hundreds of millions of dollars to expand local bus routes in Santa Rosa and build out long-planned Petaluma’s Rainier Avenue into a crosstown connector, while smaller asks include less than a million for a trail in Cloverdale.

Faster is still being revised and lacks a publicly available spending plan. It will need legislative approval to appear on November ballots, and whether it comes up for a vote this year won’t be clear for months as a bill to advance the measure is drafted and works its way through the Senate and Assembly.

With the massive proposal’s specifics still largely in flux, Fallon found herself taking copious notes of details to look into and questions to answer as the council members grilled her about the project. Councilman Dick Dowd was succinct in his assessment of the ambitious measure’s chances.

“I think the whole concept is going to be difficult to put together,” Dowd said.

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