What I Think About When I Think About Measure A

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on Twitter that after months of opposing Measure A, I decided I now support it.  I got some pushback from people who suggested I was abandoning our climate goals, selling out to evil SANDAG, or just accepting an ill-advised compromise.

Very few people read this blog, so I am not writing under any pretense that this will affect the outcome of the election on November 8, less than a week away.  But I thought it may be worthwhile to lay out my reasoning, if for no other purpose than to show there is more than one way to reach a desired outcome.  Many will disagree, but I hope it at least makes some people question the thought process.

I don't think my overall preferred outcome is any different than the No on A coalition.  The question, therefore, is a disagreement over how we get there.  Based on the reasoning behind the opposition, it seems too many people are asking: "Is Measure A a good proposal? Doe it do enough to get us towards our goals?"  The answer is undoubtedly no.  It includes too much freeway spending in all the wrong places, it doesn't provide enough certainty that transit projects will be built, and combating climate change is pushed to the side.

But that is the wrong question to be asking.  Instead of asking whether Measure A is "good," we need to be deciding whether a "No" vote on Measure A will get us closer to our preferred outcome.  I think the answer is it does not.  Faced with this fork in the road -- support or oppose Measure A -- taking the "Yes" road offers the path of least resistance and the most feasible opportunities for achieving the desired outcome. 

So how do I reach that conclusion?  Anyone who is reading this knows what Measure A is, so I won't go into the details.  The way I look at it, Measure A has two main components: (1) a revenue increase and (2) a list of projects to be built with that revenue.  As far as I know, no one on the left is opposed to a revenue increase. 

Looking at the actual Measure A language, there are two critical provisions: (1) There is a project priority list that SANDAG has discretion to delay but the funding can only be removed with a countywide vote of the electorate [Section 24] and (2) although the measure includes a project list, any project built with Measure A revenue "shall be consistent with" the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and submit to an EIR [Section 3.D and 14.F].  Stated in other terms, if the RTP changes, the project list necessarily has to change and the project list can be changed with a countywide vote of 50%. This lower threshold is being completely overlooked, but is critical to any analysis of Measure A.

These two facts mean that even if Measure A passes, there are two methods to change the project list, the very source of nearly all objections to Measure A.  Moreover, at least one of these methods --- changing the RTP --- is practically inevitable.  The EIR for the predecessor to the current RTP is currently under review in the Supreme Court to determine whether the EIR must address compliance with the Governor's Executive Order to cut GHG emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.  The current RTP expressly admits it does not meet this requirement.  That same 40% reduction, however, was codified this year in SB32.  Under SB375, some future version of the SANDAG RTP will have to meet this drastic cut in GHG emissions.  The result? A far more transit-friendly RTP.  When that RTP changes, so too will the projects that can be built with Measure A funds.  If SANDAG resists state law?  Our current courts have already been amenable to striking down the EIRs for deficient RTPs and past success would suggest another lawsuit is likely to prevail (Not to mention that CEQA lawsuits allow for the recovery of attorney fees, whereas you don't get your ballot initiative funding back.)  Unless state law changes, its hard to imagine a future RTP that doesn't seriously amend the project list under Measure A.  

Alternatively, advocates can push for a county initiative to change the project list, which would only require 50% approval.  With that lower threshold, it would be far easier to find a majority willing to support a more transit-friendly project list. 

Neither of those options may sound easy, and they aren't.  But both are far easier and more likely to succeed than any alternatives on the table:

  1. Kill Measure A and then push for a new measure with 100% transit: this would either have to get past the SANDAG Board or require massive fundraising to push an initiative.  I am a firm believer that the current SANDAG Board will not put a more transit-friendly initiative on the ballot.  The current version, already under attack from the right, was the result of fierce lobbying and was close to not getting past the SANDAG Board as is.  More lobbying isn't likely to change the result. And even if we could get it on the ballot, it would still require a 2/3rds vote countywide.  Whether this is even possible is dubious.  SANDAG's polling showed the main concern of county residents was freeways. Possible? Sure.  Likely? Not really.
  2. Sub-regional measure: the idea would be to find a more transit-friendly electorate, like the MTS region, that would approve a transit-only plan.  There are two flaws with this plan.  First, it would likely result in less revenue, meaning less projects.  Second, there is no real benefit to pursuing a smaller electorate.  Looking at the comparative populations, 2/3rds of the MTS region (the threshold for a special tax increase) is nearly the same as 50% of the county.  Thus, if you could hit 2/3rds in the MTS region for a new initiative, you could just as easily amend Measure A at the lower 50% threshold countywide AND have more revenue.
  3. Reform SANDAG: some have said that we need to reform SANDAG before anything else and then a new, transit-friendly Board will put a 100% transit measure on the ballot.  I, of course, would love to see SANDAG reform.  But even if this is achieved, it is still easier to get to our desired outcome if Measure A is already passed.  This new Board could amend some of the project list itself and submit a Measure A amendment for the ballot, again with an only 50% approval threshold.  This would be easier than the same Board crafting an entirely new transit-friendly measure which, once again, has to get 2/3rds approval from a skeptical county electorate.  Measure A and SANDAG reform are not mutually exclusive, and we should be pushing for both at the same time.

Of these four options, I think the "Pass Measure A and Reform It" strategy is the most likely to lead to the desired outcome.  Get the revenue increase in place, and then graciously lend a hand as SANDAG scrambles to comply with state law by completely reworking the RTP.  At the same time, lobby the Legislature for a SANDAG reform package.  It is far from perfect, but stands on firmer ground than any of the alternatives.  

Again, the point of this post is only to show that carefully analyzing the options and finding the path of least resistance can lead to better outcomes than fighting tooth and nail in the trenches after picking the most obvious strategy.  Most will disagree with me and my assumptions may be wrong.  But I would love to see this type of analysis in the future rather than a knee-jerk protest.