Stanislaus Council of Governments to weigh putting transit tax on ballot

02/18/2014 6:33 PM

02/18/2014 6:34 PM

Leaders tonight tentatively could decide whether to put a transportation tax before voters throughout Stanislaus County in November.

Potential competition fell off when supporters of a similar push across California recently decided against a statewide vote on the same ballot.

The local initiative still needs the blessings of county and city leaders. Waterford has signed on, and the eight other city councils are scheduled to take up the question in coming weeks.

A half-cent sales tax increase could raise $970 million over 25 years for road and transit projects throughout the county, supporters say, with potential to leverage much more in state and federal money handed out only to so-called self-help agencies with such surtaxes. Improvements would help position Stanislaus as a business force, bringing more and better jobs and new-found vitality, supporters say.

The Stanislaus Council of Governments, composed of representatives from the county and its cities, last month approved a spending formula for tax proceeds allocating 47 percent for street repairs, 47 percent for new freeways, and 6 percent for rail and bicycle projects and improving choices for seniors and the disabled.

StanCOG Executive Director Carlos Yamzon was deployed to explain the effort to county supervisors and city councils. He met Tuesday with Oakdale leaders, and presentations are scheduled Monday in Hughson; Tuesday in Turlock and Newman; and before county leaders March 4 in Patterson, March 10 in Riverbank and March 11 in Modesto.

Ceres council members heard Yamzon’s pitch but opted not to vote immediately. They could take action Monday.

Meanwhile, the effort shed potential competition when the groups Transportation California and California Alliance for Jobs three weeks ago dropped the idea of asking voters throughout the state for a higher vehicle license fee for road and transit projects. Supporters of the California Road Repairs Act had hoped to put a measure on the November statewide ballot but decided not to test whether people have recovered enough from the economic downturn.

“Now that they’ve pulled out, it becomes a less crowded ballot,” Yamzon said Tuesday.

He will update StanCOG’s policy board this evening, and members could signal whether November is right for the local push.

Previous efforts failed in 2006 and 2008, the last by a whisker. Both drew majority support, but such tax hikes require two-thirds supermajority approval.

Not counting support from private organizations and businesses, the current campaign would cost $400,000 in public money, or the same amount spent in 2008, according to a report. Most would be used to pay consultants for environmental studies ($150,000) and to educate voters on the merits of a transportation tax ($150,550).

Modesto, with more residents, would pay the largest share at $112,937, compared with Waterford’s $1,794 share, according to a formula based on sales tax generated in each area. StanCOG would contribute $105,893.

If approved, the local transportation tax could generate $456 million for potholes and other road maintenance. Another $456 million would help build the North County Corridor north of Modesto and south of Riverbank and Oakdale, a south county corridor from Turlock to Patterson, and upgrades for Highway 132 from Modesto toward the Bay Area.

Smaller amounts could help extend Altamont Corridor Express rails, bringing East Bay passenger trains to Modesto and Turlock.

Nineteen of California’s 58 counties have voter-approved transportation taxes, raising $3 billion to $4 billion each year. Most are urban counties containing 81 percent of the state’s total population.

Four of the counties – San Joaquin, Fresno, Tulare and Madera – are in the San Joaquin Valley, while holdouts are Stanislaus, Merced, Kings and Kern.

Also tonight, StanCOG members will hear that key environmental studies on Highway 132 upgrades are expected to circulate in late summer or fall. The documents address plans for a new freeway segment bypassing Maze Boulevard west of Modesto and tying into Highway 99.

The Stanislaus Council of Governments will meet at 6 p.m. today in the agency’s third-floor chamber at 1111 I St., Modesto. For more information, see www.stancog.org/pdf/policy-board/agendas/2014/pb-agenda-02-19-2014.pdf.

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