A draft environmental document provides clues on dozens of potential street, bridge and traffic signal projects if Stanislaus County voters approve a road tax in November.
Some officials representing the county and its nine cities are making good on a February pledge to pinpoint how $700 million from a bump in sales tax would be used in specific transportation projects during the next two decades.
Others, however -- including the county's two largest cities, Modesto and Turlock -- are taking more of a "trust me" approach, preferring to preserve maximum flexibility for future decisions.
Results of a countywide pavement condition survey, due in a few weeks, might further influence some agencies' wish lists, officials from Modesto and Newman said.
But Vince Harris, director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments, said significant changes to the 10 agencies' new lists, quietly published in an appendix to the road tax's environmental impact report, are unlikely.
Officials representing many of the 10 agencies three months ago said they had learned lessons from Measure K, a similar half-cent sales tax increase which failed to capture the required two-thirds' voter approval in 2006.
So they shortened the proposed tax's lifetime from 30 years to 20. They increased a share going to neighborhood roads, as opposed to highway interchanges and other projects with regional impact. And they promised to do a better job of explaining how the estimated $700 million would be spent.
StanCOG quickly revealed a detailed plan for the 49 percent going to regional projects, designed to vastly improve east-west traffic flow by creating three major corridors, one in the north, south and central parts of the county. And 1 percent would be reserved for administrative costs.
Specific neighborhood projects for the other half, or $350 million, finally got a soft-opening reception on Page 385 of StanCOG's recently released draft environmental report. A public comment window will close June 23.
Some proposals are quite detailed. For example, Waterford would put $660,000 toward a new traffic signal and improvements to curbs, drains and sidewalks where Western Avenue meets Highway 132. Waterford spells out how it would spend fully 96 percent of its $5.6 million during two decades.
Ceres specifies more than 89 percent of its funding, and is the only agency reserving a portion -- $690,000 -- for transit projects. Outspoken advocates for senior and disabled riders last month backed off criticizing the proposed tax's distribution formula, appeased by a separate promise to seek previously untapped state and federal transportation money.
Newman, on the other hand, specifies how it would use less than 14 percent of its $6.8 million take.
And Turlock earmarks but one-third of its projected $48 million share, leaving the rest unaccounted for.
"The recommendation was to provide future city councils with some flexibility," said Tim Kerr, Turlock's city manager. "The fear was, if we took every dollar and tied it to specific projects, and the initiative lasts several years, how do you address the unforeseeable without violating the spirit of what the voters approve?"
Modesto painstakingly pinpoints street-resurfacing projects all over the city, the largest in Stanislaus County with 209,936 people. But the lengthy list only accounts for 25 percent of Modesto's projected haul of $137.6 million.
Some wish lists vague
Firoz Vohra, the city's deputy director of public works, and Newman City Manager Michael Holland said they expect to alter their respective lists when the countywide pavement index is released in a few weeks. The most recent previous survey was conducted in 2002 -- too old to be of much use, Vohra said.
"To predict more than 10 years out is kind of difficult," he said.
County officials submitted a lengthy wish list detailing signals, bridge replacements and widening of well-traveled roads. But they're leaving half of their $77 million unaccounted for.
"Conditions may change over the next 20 years," acknowl- edges a road tax report circulated by StanCOG.
Still others submitted vague lists, suspecting that voters' eyes might glaze over if they were to see exhaustive technical dreams.
For example, Patterson describes only 20 percent of its money in specific projects, with the rest listed under "various locations in Patterson." Officials know where they want to use the majority, City Manager Cleve Morris said, but opted not to disclose it.
"We felt in some cases, too much detail may confuse the voters," Morris said. "That detail is available and spelled out, but it's a matter of not putting too much in so they don't get confused. It's kind of a balancing game."
Meanwhile, officials with StanCOG -- composed of elected leaders from the county and several cities -- are closing in on hiring a public outreach firm that will be charged with explaining potential projects to voters in each community.
StanCOG policy board members in February bitterly criticized out-of-town consultants who drove the failed 2006 Measure K, vowing to hire a local firm this time, for about $170,000. The agency initially set a May 1 bid deadline in hopes of hiring someone by the board's May 14 meeting, but delayed the deadline two weeks.
"We pushed it back because we thought it would be better to give consultants more time to do a more quality proposal," Harris said. "We're certainly hopeful of seeing a number of firms that would be interested."
StanCOG is expected to hire consultants and review a formal road tax expenditure plan June 11, Harris said.
StanCOG's recruiting papers say the bid winner will produce two mailers aimed at voters throughout the county, in mid-June and mid-July. Harris said those dates are not firm, as county supervisors are not expected to formally place the unnamed road tax on the November ballot before August.
State law supposedly prevents elected officials and their consultants from outright cheerleading, allowing only dissemination of information.
But private-sector leaders can strongly push a tax hike. This year, the baton is being carried by Modesto's Kirk Lindsey, a trucking executive and member of the California Transportation Commission, and Paul Van Konynenburg, board chairman of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
The pair have visited mayors in each of the nine cities, Van Konynenburg said, encouraging comprehensive wish lists designed to win over voters. But specificity is left up to individual agencies.
"Each city and the county is responsible to tell their citizens what they plan on doing with the money," County Supervisor Dick Monteith said. "Everyone should know what it's intended to be used for, so they can be held accountable for spending the money as they've designated.
"I believe if we can regain the confidence of the people, they'll pass things and we'll get them done," Monteith continued. "If we don't spell it out, it's never going to be successful."
County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said the county, Patterson, Newman and Turlock are exploring forming a joint powers authority to oversee the south-county corridor, a proposed expressway from Turlock to Interstate 5.
It's modeled after one governing the north corridor widening Kiernan Avenue, or State Route 219, from Highway 99 to a point east of Oakdale. Modesto, Riverbank, Oakdale and the county are partners in that effort.
The south corridor represents the most significant addition since Measure K and helped win support of the countywide road tax from lukewarm officials in Turlock. But critics of Gerry Kamilos' vision of developing a gargantuan business park near Crows Landing say the expressway represents a veiled, lucrative subsidy to Kamilos.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.