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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Local Option Taxes and the New Subregionalism in Transportation Planning


This dissertation examines the planning processes for new local option transportation taxes. Typically, these are temporary, voter-approved, single-county sales taxes linked to legally binding expenditure plans. In many states, they increasingly dominate transportation planning and finance. Because they bypass the federally-mandated metropolitan planning process, they appear to place at risk important policy goals (e.g. reducing air pollution) that it is intended to address. Yet they can also create opportunities for innovation by empowering interest groups and policy entrepreneurs to play more direct roles in transportation decision-making. Despite the taxes’ growing importance, their planning – the choice of projects and programs to be funded, and the decision processes used – remain poorly understood.

This study traces the formulation of four transportation tax expenditure plans enacted in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1984 and 2000, from the time they were first proposed to the time they won voter approval. Detailed histories of the four planning efforts were developed using key informant interviews and review and analysis of newspaper archives, public records, and other contemporary documentation. Each case examines the nature and degree of participation by various stakeholder groups, sources of funding and political support, the consideration of alternative policy objectives and other ongoing planning processes, and how decisions were ultimately made.

The four cases display a diverse range of planning styles and policy priorities. The taxes clearly created a potential for business and real estate interests to win voter approval for a slate of projects that supported their private objectives rather than public ones. But the need for voter approval also empowered organized minority interests (such as environmental, public transit, and social justice advocacy groups) to demand a role in the process and create more balanced outcomes. Also significant was these planning efforts’ demonstrated potential to codify innovative policy approaches, such as growth management and congestion pricing, that the metropolitan planning organization had not been able or willing, to enact on its own.

Overall, these processes exhibit at a subregional level elements of the “new regionalism” – a convergence of new policy goals and collaborative governance styles that has largely not been observed within metropolitan transportation planning.

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