Hating on the MTC yesterday was fun. Let’s do it some more.
I was all set to write a long post about the lawsuit against the MTC over the Warm Springs BART extension, but then Eric at Transbay Blog went ahead and did a fabulous job explaining the issue, so I encourage readers to head over there for the full story.
Basically, two former BART directors, Sherman Lewis and Roy Nakadegawa, are suing (PDF) to halt $315 million of funding allocated to the Warm Springs BART Extension. This money comes from two sources.
$224.4 million is from ACTIA, which distributes revenue from Measure B, the Alameda County half-cent sales tax for transportation. Funding for the Warm Springs BART extension (which would go from the current Fremont BART station to another location in Fremont, five miles away) was part of the original Measure B expenditure plan. But the expenditure plan dictated that the money could not be used for the Warm Springs extension until the rest of the BART extension to Santa Clara County had been fully funded. Santa Clara County voters narrowly passed a 1/8% sales tax last November to extend BART through downtown San Jose, but authorities are now backtracking on the promise, saying they can’t afford the whole project and will instead stop the extension two miles earlier and build only two of the six promised stations. (I feel really bad for Santa Clara County bus riders, BTW. Opponents of the measure had argued that approval of the tax for the BART extension would mean that funding for all other local transit improvements would be gutted. Supporters said no way. Then, a month after the election, sure enough, VTA announces that sure enough, all projects besides BART are now off the table. Ouch.) Anyway, the argument (PDF) here is that the Santa Clara County BART extension is not fully funded (even the truncated extension plan relies for on a Federal grant VTA hasn’t applied for, much less received for nearly a third of its funding), so ACTIA is not allowed to spend the Warm Springs money yet.
The other part of the funding comes from the MTC. The MTC has allocated $91 million to the Warm Springs BART extension from Regional Measure 2 (RM2) funds, which come from a one dollar Bay Area bridge toll increase approved in 2004. The RM2 money is not for just anything – there’s a list of projects the money is supposed to be spent on, which includes the Warm Springs BART extension. This list also includes the Dumbarton Rail, which would connect Caltrain on the Peninsula with East Bay transit services such as the Altamont Commuter Express, Capitol Corridor, and BART. In January, the MTC voted to take $91 million of RM2 funds away from Dumbarton Rail and spend it on the Warm Springs BART extension instead. The MTC claims this is allowed (PDF) because the Dumbarton Rail project is not yet ready to be built, while the Warm Springs BART extension is, and that Dumbarton Rail will get the money back later (PDF), sometime between 2019 and 2027, from State funds allocated through the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency. Although RM2 permits the MTC to reassign funds between authorized projects, this discretion is not unlimited – funds can only be transferred between projects within the same corridor. The lawsuit argues that this particular transfer does not comply with that requirement, although Eric of Transbay Blog suggests that this interpretation of the language may be too literal.
I’m totally opposed to building BART to San Jose and also to the Warm Springs Extension ($900 million for 7,200 daily trips is indefensible), but that’s not the point here at all. Even wasteful, inefficient, and sprawl-inducing projects are entitled to the money voters approve for them. But when voters are presented with ballot measures that include strict spending restrictions and agree to open up their wallets, it is imperative that the funds generated are used as promised. There are parallels between this lawsuit and Marleen Sacks’s suit over Measure Y. In that case, critics argue that the Measure Y’s language is too limiting for the City, and as such, a literal interpretation of the law is improper. Most voters, they claim, didn’t read all the details, they just wanted extra police.
This is a terrible argument! If the government wants to spend money as they please, then they shouldn’t write specific restrictions on expenditures into their ballot measures in the first place. It doesn’t matter if most people have no idea what they’re voting for – if a measure up for voter approval includes specific language about how the revenue generated from it will be spent, then it doesn’t matter if everyone who casts a yes vote or one person casting a yes vote read the fine print – a promise is a promise. Fully funded means fully funded. Not, hopefully fully funded at some point in the future. It’s the same thing as with that ridiculous airport connector. Voters said yes to $65 million for a $130 million project that was billed as having multiple stops along the way to connect the BART station with employment centers. Now that’s turned into almost $100 million for a $520 million project that will have no stops along the way. Not the same thing. Strict adherence to such spending limitations is imperative if we want to maintain the public’s trust in government. I’ve asked this question over and over and over again on this blog, but because it never gets old – how can we expect voters to ever agree in the future to raise taxes for specific purposes when they can’t trust that the money will be spent for those purposes?
Both the MTC and ACTIA are being tricky with the money they’re giving to the Warm Springs BART extension, and I applaud Mr. Lewis and Mr. Nakadegawa for their efforts to hold these agencies to a higher standard of transparency and honesty. You can read more about the lawsuit here.