In words and video: Is light green for county's transportation tax?

Thousands of commuters headed to the Bay Area have watched crews widening Interstate 205 between Lathrop and Tracy. Expected to be finished in late 2008, I-205 will have three lanes in each direction.
Thousands of commuters headed to the Bay Area have watched crews widening Interstate 205 between Lathrop and Tracy. Expected to be finished in late 2008, I-205 will have three lanes in each direction. Modesto Bee

Counties with transportation taxes are accomplishing wonders with the extra cash. Measure S supporters say the same could happen in Stanislaus County, if voters agree in November.

They envision roads with more lanes, stronger bridges and revamped highway interchanges like those popping up all over San Joaquin, Fresno and Tulare counties, valley locales of similar size and economic standing.

Nineteen of California's 58 counties have given themselves higher taxes, raising some $35 billion to improve transportation systems.

But some critics insist leaders in Stanislaus County can't be trusted. Others note that a common selling point in some successful sales tax bumps -- public transit -- is all but absent from Measure S.

Keeping up with the Joneses was a 2006 campaign theme in Stanislaus County before a transportation initiative failed to garner the required two-thirds approval. The envy motive didn't work then, but might now, as more drivers pass new interchanges in Ripon, Manteca and Stockton and watch Interstate 205 being widened on the all-important route to the Bay Area, said Measure S campaign co-chairman Paul Van Konynenburg.

All of those San Joaquin County projects, and many more, are using half-cent sales tax proceeds to leverage an extra $400 million in state and federal transportation money. Officials at higher levels award comparatively little to counties like Stanislaus, that haven't agreed to share in the burden.

"The No. 1 argument sold to reluctant people is, 'Look what can be done when you're a self-help county,' " Van Konynenburg said. "It's a powerful message."

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Officials in self-help counties often boast that their projects are loosening traffic, making roads safer and boosting the economy by attracting employers.

"It's hard to imagine any of this would be done without Measure K," said Wil Ridder, senior regional planner with the San Joaquin Council of Governments. He referred to that county's sales tax increase, approved in 1990 and renewed two years ago on the same day that others in Merced and Stanislaus and counties was defeated.

San Joaquin County's transportation tax first passed with 60 percent approval. The simple majority standard has since has been raised to two-thirds. Leaders predicted collecting $700 million, about the same as Measure S.

With some success under San Joaquin County's belt, voters two years ago handed the Measure K renewal an impressive 78 percent vote of confidence, the highest in California. The renewal extends the tax's life to 50 years and is expected to provide $3.1 billion.

Voters in smaller Tulare County approved a transportation tax two years ago and also project $700 million in revenue.

"It's a great success," said Ramon Lara of the Tulare County Association of Governments.

Tulare and San Joaquin counties pledged a portion of proceeds to public transportation. They expect to gather $91 million and $930 million, respectively, for bus, rail and bicycle projects, anything to move people while creating less air pollution.

Getting people out of cars is a central focus of the green and smart-growth movements.

Neither has proved as powerful, however, as the deterrent from bruising fuel prices. Amtrak is setting ridership records, recently reporting a rise of 32 percent on San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor routes, and ridership on Altamont Commuter Express trains has swelled 29 percent.

Both companies run trains through Stockton's historic Robert J. Cabral Station, a brick-red landmark depot renovated with transportation tax money.

"Measure K obviously is an enormous chunk of the change that we use to run the ACE train," said Thomas Reeves of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. He envisions commuter rail someday extending to Modesto and Merced.

But even Measure S can't make that happen.

Stanislaus County's 2006 version might have raised $25 million for public transit. Leaders dropped that component from the Measure S expenditure plan, which lays out how proceeds must be spent.

"We have limited funds," Van Konynenburg said.

Senior advocates cried foul in March after the road tax proposal began taking shape. Leaders placated them with a promise to evaluate previously untapped state and federal transportation money that's supposed to go to transit but is being used for road maintenance.

"If we're not fully utilizing the transit funds we already have," Van Konynenburg said, "why ask for more?"

The League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County recently endorsed Measure S -- with reservation, because it provides nothing for public transportation.

A former ACE commuter, though, is irritated.

Frank Ploof, 61, of Salida supported the 2006 tax but said he feels betrayed by Measure S. "We have to look at alternatives to automobiles," he said. "We have to invest in public transportation. But that's all been gutted.

"You get the feeling that the whole process is suffering from groupthink, that come hell or high water, they're going to push forward."

Community over politics

Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District board members recently backed Measure S. And the county's Republican Party leaders are bucking a long tradition of tax opposition with a rare endorsement.

"Sometimes community has to trump politics," said GOP Executive Committee Chairwoman Joan Clendenin. "(Measure S will be) raised here and spent here and improves the quality of life in Stanislaus County. That's what we're after. I think that's what everyone wants."

But Stanislaus Taxpayer Association board members recently came out against Measure S.

Former group president Dave Thomas said board members reviewed Modesto's finances and concluded that the city is spending a fraction of street maintenance revenue on pavement work. The rest goes to curbs, gutters, sidewalks, trees, power and electrical work.

"If you starve the streets, then ask for a tax, we don't like that," Thomas said. "Trust is a real important thing and we don't trust these guys."

On the Net:

www.sjcog.org/Programs%20&%20Projects/Measure_K.htm; www.tcmeasurer.com; www.stancog.org; http://selfhelpcounties.org/index.html.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.