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September 18, 2021

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Lessons from Measure RR for a 2022 Regional Ballot Measure – Streetsblog San Francisco

As we put the 2020 election into our bicycle helmet mirror, Streetsblog SF continues our interview series with local and national experts to lay the groundwork for the best possible mega-measure for the 2022 (or 2024) November election. Last month, we spoke with Richard Marcantonio about the difference between the visions for 2020 measures between the Faster Bay Area campaign and the Voices for Public Transportation coalition.

The first measure was put forth by business leaders and the think-tank SPUR, while the latter was put forward by a coalition of local transit advocacy groups, community groups, and equity activists. The major differences between the two proposals are hashed out below, but for the organizations in the Voices for Public Transportation coalition, a lack of a public process designing the measure could kill their support for any future measure.

This month, we focus on the passage of Measure RR and what the successful campaign to support this measure could mean for a mega-measure in 2022 or 2024. Damien Newton talks with Adina Levin, the head of Friends of Caltrain, author of the GreenCaltrain blog and member of the MTC advisory board. Levin and Friends of Caltrain are a part of the Voices for Public Transit Series.

To see all of the interviews in this series, click here.

(Note: the interview was lightly edited for clarity.)

Damien Newton (SBSF): Before I started to record this interview, we were discussing the importance of the process in building trust for ballot measures before they are written to build consensus. But in our pre-interview, you mentioned that Measure W in San Mateo County in 2020 was just as good a case study for the right way to build and promote a ballot measure. Can you take us back a couple of years and talk about that?

Adina Levin. Image via MTC
Adina Levin. Image via MTC

Adina Levin (AL): Sure.

SamTrans and the county put together a multi-stakeholder public process with a large group of stakeholders: business groups and labor groups, transit, active transportation and environmental advocates, youth, senior and disability groups, to discuss and hash out the expenditure plan but also the principles and policies of that measure.

The big distinction between this process and the one for the ballot measure that was pulled last spring can be seen in just the name. That project was called “Faster.” A lot of people (Streetsblog included), just called it “Faster.” 

Faster was a committee name for a group that was composed of the business community and the think-tank, SPUR. These groups came together and said, “We’re doing a regional ballot measure, and transit agencies and non-profits should come to us and give us feedback and we will figure out what will be in this measure.”

That was something in the Bay Area that created a lot of tension. In San Mateo county, there was a public convener (the County working with SamTrans) [that] allowed it to avoid this problem. After the groups hashed out their disagreements in this process convened by the public agencies, there was a united front of all these groups working together to get it passed.

The community groups, non-profits, and transit advocates then became the grassroots outreach arm for this ballot measure. We, and I say “we” because Friends of Caltrain were included in this group, worked to get out over 100 volunteers to reach tens of thousands of voters via phone bankers and text bankers and flyering.

The measure passed by 500 votes.

That multi-stakeholder process, with a public owner, helped build a broad consensus.

The business community had originally wanted to spend a lot of money for highway funding, but the environmental justice community and the transit advocacy community didn’t want any funds directed at highway expansion. The outcome was 22.5 percent for highways, which isn’t perfect, but it could have been a lot higher.

Having that dialogue didn’t eliminate the highway funding, but it brought it down.

SBSF: But there wasn’t really much of a public process for the measure that just passed, Measure RR. It was mostly a quick measure to keep Caltrain afloat during the shutdown, correct?

AL: One of the interesting things about RR is that the main campaign was during COVID and the message was that Caltrain’s finances were really weak and there was a chance of a shutdown because of COVID. ‘Measure RR will keep Caltrain from being shutdown’ was the headline.

But Measure RR was something people were planning for for years. The law that allowed the measure to go to the ballot, S.B. 797, was passed in 2017. It was passed because Caltrain never had a dedicated source of funding since it was founded. Caltrain had been getting the majority of its operating revenue from fares with about 30 percent from three county partners. (For a detailed explanation of Caltrain’s strange and inconsistent funding, visit this story, here.)

So the bill gets passed in 2017, but Caltrain didn’t go ahead and put the measure on the ballot immediately. At the time, the line was being electrified and Caltrain started going through a business plan process to discuss what service would be like in the age of electrification.

So before going to voters, there was a process of creating a plan for the future. The transit advocacy community led by Friends of Caltrain did a lot of community outreach and education around the potential to transform a service from a commuter rail service that really is designed for one particular purpose: to bring white-collar suburban commuters to jobs in the city. Because this is such a special service, it really doesn’t have to connect to anything.

This is a weirdly American way to look at things. Over the last fifty or sixty years around the world there have been dozens of metropolitan areas that started like commuter rail and turned them into a regional rail service that is the backbone of a regional transit system. The service is frequent all day long, including weekends, afternoons, evenings. These systems are well integrated with services and fares with the rest of the public transit system.

These services get more revenue and more ridership, even if the fares are more modest. By using the investment for more purposes, it ends up being more useful, more equitable, and more connected and sustainable.

The advocacy community helped raise awareness about that, and Caltrain’s analysis helped support that vision. Caltrain’s business planning process was very methodical: it exposed the business community, it exposed advocates, and it exposed policy makers to these ideas through a process that took one-and-a-half to two years.

Part of the business plan process, a part pushed by the advocacy community, was to have an equity study as a component of the business plan. What that study showed was that Caltrain’s ridership was whiter and higher income than the community it traversed. It also identified a series of opportunities to expand and diversify that ridership base. Not only through reduced fares, but also combining fares and schedules with other local providers. Obviously, riders of other services are people that would be easy to also attract to rail. By changing and increasing hours outside of peak commute times, they will be able to  increase its ridership base to include more lower income communities and communities of color.

That equity study turned into a series of equity policies that was part of the board approved business plan.

That work was done before they put a measure on the ballot this year. The outreach and public education built broad support for what the measure’s money would go for. Polling had been done consistently for a couple of years, and Caltrain consistently polled well. A measure to support it polled well.

Then COVID hit and Caltrain ridership plummeted because the white-collar commute focus turned into a vulnerability in a pandemic. The Caltrain board and a lot of people in the community thought that there was no way this would go on the ballot. We assumed polling would be terrible.

Caltrain did the polling in June, and it came back strong. Surprisingly strong. The things that voters valued in the poll were all things built up by the business plan: reducing traffic, reducing pollution, more frequent service, equity, and affordability. All fundamental improvements that Caltrain had worked on in that business plan for the past couple of years.

So Caltrain moved forward. I am going to omit a bit of drama that is the anti-example of how to build support for a ballot measure. (Editor’s note: read about it here, here, and here).

Once it got on the ballot, the same campaign strategy with Measure W was used again for RR. The business community did the heavy lifting on the fundraising and they raised $2.7 million in ads for television, radio and mass mailers. A network of non-profit and community groups got together transportation, environmental, and community groups to turn out 500 volunteers to do the phone-banking and text-banking. In COVID, we weren’t doing a lot of handing things out directly, but we still did a lot of voter outreach.

Having the community groups and the business groups come together to support something that has come together over several years produced a strong win.

So, the lessons from Measure RR are that public agency led vision and outreach, multiple stakeholders working together with a public owner and broad coalition working to get the measure passed are going to work best to get measures passed.

These are definitely lessons that apply to a future regional measure. The first thing is that we need a public convener, which is not something that was done in 2020. At the time, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) were working on the regional transportation plan and couldn’t take it on right then.

But regardless, we need a public convener. We need multiple stakeholders working together, and we need a unified vision of what is going to be funded.

And one thing that has come out of polling from the business community for Faster and polling from MTC is that Bay Area residents want an improved transit system that is seamless to the user. The Bay Area has 27 transit agencies, and if you’re traveling around the region you pay separately each time you change the color of your vehicle. We don’t have uniform fares, or wayfaring signage and the experience is sub-par. What people say consistently is that they support transportation funding and we want that funding to go towards a system that provides a better experience for riders.

It’s not a direct message from RR, but it’s something that needs to be considered when discussing any regional ballot measure.

SBSF: Understanding that, there’s been a thread in all of the interviews we did before where the funding mechanism that was preferred by the Faster Bay Area committee, a sales tax, isn’t the best way forward.

AL: One of the issues that many had with the Faster initiative in 2020 was that it relied on a sales tax. There was a lot of concern among equity advocates that sales tax is regressive and there were a lot of groups that are tired of using a sales tax as the mechanism we go to again and again.

Polling has shown that there are other, more progressive funding measures that will pass.

In 2020, the business community was proposing a 1 percent sales tax for their measure and a lot of groups wanted to see more revenue. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation helped fund a poll that showed that other revenue mechanisms could be viable. One of the things we’ll have to work through is how we’ll address the concerns that we have over a progressive sales tax.

Now with Caltrain and Measure RR (which was funded by a 1/8 cent sales tax) there was a lot of work that went in to creating a set of equity policies beforehand, as we talked about. They had already passed a discounted fare plan participating in the regional Clipper START pilot program at a 50 percent discount. Measure RR would fund continuing that discount and the other equity policies approved by the board.

These were things that helped stakeholders that had concerns about a sales tax support Measure RR. Not all of them, but it helped make a strong case that keeping service running and making it available to more people was more equitable than having a public transportation system just stop running.

Also, thanks to the language of SB 797, passed back in 2017, that’s all that we had available. That’s not the case for a new regional ballot measure.

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