Modesto area transportation leaders to discuss road tax

12/15/2013 5:53 PM

12/16/2013 9:36 AM

The idea of a road tax going before voters across Stanislaus County will resurface Wednesday as transportation leaders discuss their next move.

A November ballot measure remains in the mix. But leaders would have to quickly agree on a course of action — a tall order for a large group of politicians with varied interests that has been known to quarrel over road priorities.

With rising costs and fewer dollars from state and federal sources, traffic and wear and tear on vehicles will continue to worsen, say some of the 16 members of the Stanislaus Council of Governments. Most believe a voter-approved countywide road tax would help solve the problem, but they haven’t agreed on a path to take.

Last month’s failure of Measure X in Modesto seemed to represent both good and bad news for road tax supporters. Passage of Measure X might have dampened a countywide initiative because Modesto voters might not go for two new taxes. On the other hand, its rejection suggests a bad attitude in general toward any tax.

The county’s second-largest city, Turlock, presents another challenge. Its leaders, still smarting from an October StanCOG vote favoring Modesto over Turlock on another issue, have yet to decide whether to seek a Turlock-specific road tax, which could dilute chances of success for a countywide tax.

Previous ballot measures needing two-thirds voter approval failed in 2006 and 2008, the last by a narrow margin. Momentum for another try seemed to build about a year ago, then dipped when February poll numbers suggested halfhearted support. It picked up under Modesto Chamber of Commerce lobbying before dipping again in October when Turlock threatened to withhold support. Also, a committee of city managers hesitated to hammer out a plan with details like how long the higher sales tax should last and how much more shoppers might pay.

Some leaders of other agencies hope Turlock will drop its go-it-alone threat, in light of a StanCOG vote in November to spend $200,000 studying the feasibility of a South County Corridor, a future freeway-caliber road linking Turlock and Highway 99 to Patterson and Interstate 5.

StanCOG staff a few weeks ago came up with a low-cost idea to test voters’ moods. A consultant could deploy throughout the county, explaining to focus groups the goals of a separate StanCOG effort to develop growth guidelines, and talk about a road tax at the same time.

But members of StanCOG’s policy board, composed of elected representatives from the county and its nine cities, balked. Some were unhappy with a public relations firm, Flint Strategies, during a $212,000 process leading to the growth policy, called Valley Vision Stanislaus, and didn’t want to spend an extra $50,000 for focus groups and related tasks.

“I said, ‘No,’ ” said county Supervisor Terry Withrow. “As electeds, we need to make our case to taxpayers instead of paying some consultant. If we think it’s the right thing to do, we need to let people know our heart is in this.”

In November, policy board members unanimously rejected the consultant idea. StanCOG Executive Director Carlos Yamzon will try again Wednesday, with a more detailed plan.

In a proposal dated Dec. 11, the firm’s Kendall Flint said focus groups of 12 to 15 people could “offer a depth, nuance and variety to the discussion that would not be available through surveys” in meetings through the end of March. She could probe thoughts on a road tax while engaging people in transportation and land-use talks under the Valley Vision banner, she said.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien questioned whether “we’ve rebounded enough to have money in our wallets to pay another tax. I totally understand that viewpoint,” he said.

“The reality is we’re not going to an improved road network without it,” O’Brien continued. “At some point, it’s going to be necessary. Is that now?”

The South County Corridor effort is similar in some ways to one undertaken a few years ago for the North County Corridor, a future east-west freeway bypassing Modesto on the north and Riverbank and Oakdale on the south. Studies continue and its exact path has yet to be chosen. Segments are expected to sacrifice farmland, while the South County Corridor is more likely to expand West Main Street between Patterson and Turlock’s developing industrial area.

The South County Corridor study could be done in 12 to 18 months, Yamzon said.

Meanwhile, Yamzon attended a recent conference in San Diego for the 19 California counties with voter-approved transportation taxes, which are home to 81 percent of the state’s population. He sat on a panel of “aspiring counties” wanting to join the club and learned that typical sponsors of road tax campaigns — road construction, freighting and business interests — are more apt to help financially in 2014 or 2015, before the 2016 presidential election.

A statewide study found that agencies throughout California will be lucky to come up with 45 percent of money needed for projects through 2020, says Yamzon’s report. And polling by other agencies up and down the state has turned up little enthusiasm for more taxes, he said.

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