Stanislaus voters finally approve countywide transportation tax

From left, David Wright, and Bill and Cathy Zoslocki look at election results at a Measure L party Tuesday night at Vito’s in downtown Modesto.
From left, David Wright, and Bill and Cathy Zoslocki look at election results at a Measure L party Tuesday night at Vito’s in downtown Modesto. jlee@modbee.com

Better streets could be on the horizon in Stanislaus County and its nine cities, where enough voters Tuesday appeared to be saying “yes” to higher sales tax for transportation needs.

With more than half of precincts reporting late Tuesday, Measure L – with 71 percent approval – appeared poised to push over the two-thirds threshold of 66.67 percent.

“We’re feeling pretty good,” said Paul Van Konynenburg, a Modesto businessman who led a private drive for Measure L.

For supporters, the third time was a charm. Similar efforts in 2006 and 2008 to establish a half-percent tax increase for roads failed to capture supermajority support, the latter falling short by a hair.

This time, Measure L was endorsed by all 52 people elected to lead the county and its cities, and finally won the blessing of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association. All hope the extra money will elevate Stanislaus’ profile with smoother streets, less congestion and an expanded transportation network.

“Everyone agrees – Yes on L,” said an ad funded by a private committee.

Van Konynenburg said, “Our campaign formed the largest coalition this county had ever seen. We basically had everyone in the tent.”

Leaders also committed this time to spending more tax proceeds fixing neighborhood roads. Some Measure L money will help build new highways, but at a lesser ratio than proposed by Measure K in 2006 and Measure S in 2008.

For 25 years, shoppers will pay 5 cents for something priced at $10, 50 cents for a $100 item, and so on, raising about $960 million over 25 years, or $38 million a year. Most people will pay a sales tax rate of 8.125 percent; rates are higher in Ceres and Oakdale, whose residents previously passed special surtaxes.

Former Modesto Councilman Bruce Frohman wrote ballot arguments against Measure L, partly because he enjoys robust public debate and wanted to see more dialogue on such an important issue. He also worried that tax proceeds would be used to subsidize growth without developers paying their fair share.

“A number of people have told me that they oppose the tax but are afraid to take a position because doing so does not make one popular,” Frohman said in an email, before the election.

Most large, urban counties have road taxes. Before Tuesday, only two counties larger than Stanislaus didn’t have one.

Measure L will help city and county leaders leverage hundreds of millions of dollars more, they say, in state and federal money that’s not available to counties without so-called self-help taxes.

Also, Measure L money cannot be seized by state leaders. And local leaders must continue spending money on road repairs at the same levels, rather than shifting money to other needs such as police or parks.

A citizens oversight committee will be established to track spending, with members appointed from throughout the county. Modesto additionally agreed to create a separate panel just for that city, the county’s largest, to win the taxpayer association’s support.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390