A who’s who of elected officials spoke at Wednesday’s “State of the Region” event in Modesto, offering quick comments on a multitude of topics – from immigration and water bonds to government bureaucracy and predatory fish.
But there was a focus on planes, trains and automobiles and the need for Stanislaus County to raise its sales tax to fund transportation projects.
That was not how it was phrased, of course, as the word “tax” was barely mentioned. Instead, virtually every speaker talked about how Stanislaus needs to become a “self-help county.”
That’s what it is called when counties help themselves get transportation funding by agreeing to increase their sales tax rate, usually by a half-cent or so.
Such a proposal is expected to go before Stanislaus voters in November 2016. Similar tax-increase measures were on 2006 and 2008 ballots, but those failed to win the two-thirds majority support needed.
The push to win approval next time apparently has begun.
“The dollars are always going to go to self-help counties first,” Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, told the crowd, referring to how state transportation funds are allocated.
State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, also talked about how “our roads are in horrible shape” and how Stanislaus needs to become a self-help county.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, suggested the same.
The need for taxpayer investment in Stanislaus’ roadways was stressed by Matt Machado, the county’s public works director.
“We have good connectivity north and south throughout our region. What we lack is good east-west connectivity,” Machado said. He displayed a map of Highway 132 – which links Modesto to Interstate 580 – noting all the spots it needs to be improved.
“It has a lot of downfalls,” Machado warned. He described Highway 132 as a busy and dangerous strip traveled by 20,000 vehicles a day, including 3,000 trucks.
Those trucks haul “$43million a day worth of goods in and out of the county,” Machado calculated. He said that commerce gets interrupted by an average of 40 accidents a year. “It should be our focus.”
Machado said sales tax funds, “which hopefully will be coming soon,” could help make it a safer highway.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, talked about federal funding for transportation.
“We’ve got to get a highway bill done that brings more of our taxes back to California,” said Denham, noting some bridges in the county are not safe enough for school buses to use.
While roadway projects attracted the most attention at Wednesday’s luncheon, hosted by the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani focused her comments on trains.
Galgiani, D-Stockton, shared her vision for connecting California’s high-speed rail project to Altamont Corridor Express trains.
“The ACE system is coming to Modesto,” Galgiani promised, suggesting those commuter trains will be running from Stanislaus to the Bay Area by 2018.
Galgiani’s plan is to extend ACE – which currently runs from Stockton to San Jose – down to Merced. And she proposes expanding the high-speed rail line – now planned to be built from Bakersfield to Madera – up to Merced.
That would link the two systems, enabling rail access from Bakersfield to San Jose.
After the luncheon, Galgiani said she is confident her plan will work and funding is available to make it a reality. “I’ve been pushing four years to get this connection,” she said. “I’ve sold my Senate colleagues on that concept.”
Galgiani objected to critics of California’s high-speed rail project calling it “the train to nowhere.”
“It’s only nowhere until you connect it” to population and work centers, which is what linking it to the ACE system could do, she said. “We have to push and push and push for it to happen.”
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.