Jeff Jardine

If Measure L fails, and you want to see your road tax dollars at work, go somewhere else

Twenty California counties have been feasting off your tax dollars for decades to get their roads built, their roads expanded, and their roads and streets repaired, along with other transportation upgrades.

Meanwhile, Stanislaus County’s pavement continues to fall apart in chunks. Plans for new roads are made. Public meetings happen. But the money isn’t there.

Why do the other counties get their roads built and we struggle so greatly? Primarily, because they’ve passed the so-called “self-help” transportation taxes while Stanislaus County – along with 38 other California counties – have not. Those with self-help sales taxes qualify for matching state funds or federal funds passed down through the state, and rate as a higher priority than the counties that haven’t helped themselves by passing the sales tax measures.

Which is why, through Measure L, Stanislaus County is making its third stab at a half-cent transportation tax. The county is among the 16 statewide with similar measures on their ballots for the Nov. 8 election. Granted, more counties passing self-help taxes means more counties will compete for the same basic pool of matching funds from the state, and from the federal government passed down through the state. But the benefit remains.

Think of self-help as the road-building version of Disneyland’s “FastPass.” Sure, you pay more up front, but you get to cut in line ahead of those who didn’t pony up the bonus bucks for the right to ride the Matterhorn and Splash Mountain. And, like the FastPass, the self-help tax is not transferable. Measure L money, promoters promise, will stay here and be used here.

If Stanislaus County had passed a self-help tax a decade or more ago, the county’s planned North County Corridor Expressway might be a reality today, although it might have been in the form of a rerouted Highway 120 north of Oakdale instead of the new planned route south of Riverbank. The same applies to realigning and improving Highway 132 west of Highway 99. Neither road is rebuilt or even under construction.

To see the difference a self-help tax makes, just look north to San Joaquin County, which passed its self-help tax, Measure K, in 1990. Voters elected in 2006 to extend it for 30 more years. It has financed billions of dollars worth of construction and improvements and, by the time it sunsets or is renewed again in 2036, will have paid for billions more.

The tax needs 66.7 percent to pass, and is more likely than its predecessors to succeed. It received the endorsement of the Stanislaus Taxpayers’ Association, which opposed the two previous measures. Some individuals are against it, including former Modesto City Councilman Bruce Frohman who told The Bee in July that a half-cent tax is too high and warns that once passed, citizens will be stuck with it for two decades. Others complain it will lead to sprawl, yet former Modesto Councilman Denny Jackman, the chief proponent of the 2015 Stamp Out Sprawl campaign, supported Measure L in an recent letter to The Bee’s Opinions Page.

Can major projects be built without the self-help tax? Mountain counties including Tuolumne, Calaveras, Alpine and Amador all completed projects without one. They benefited from an economic boom and from funds from Prop. 1B, a statewide transportation bond referendum the voters passed in 2006. Whether they could start from scratch and build those roads today, following state cutbacks from the recession – and without a self-help tax – is anybody’s guess.

But this much is guaranteed in Stanislaus County: If Measure L fails, and you want to see your transportation tax dollars at work, just take a drive through one of the counties that does have a self-help tax.

That is where they will be.

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