Self-help counties' road work done faster, study says

A new study finds that counties with transportation taxes are mighty pleased for a reason not typically heralded by supporters of Stanislaus County's upcoming Measure S.

Such counties get things done a lot faster because the extra money allows them to hire private companies for road work instead of relying on the California Department of Transportation, the report concludes.

Stanislaus and 38 other counties without transportation taxes are at Caltrans' mercy, not only for road money but also for project management and construction, the study says. And the state often doesn't come close to the private sector in efficiency, many of the 19 counties with extra taxes affirmed.

And the few self-help counties that have stuck with Caltrans were pleased to discover extra leverage, said Bill Hamm, co-author of the recently released "The Self-Help Program: A Better Way to Deliver Local Transportation Projects."

"Just the veiled threat that money could be redirected to the private sector makes Caltrans more responsive to local needs," said Hamm, who formerly headed California's nonpartisan legislative analyst's office and later analyzed programs and budgets for the White House. He is affiliated with LECG, an expert advisory firm.

The results provoked words from the conservative California Taxpayers Association that some will find surprising:

"This study shows that when local residents believe transportation improvements are necessary, and that a tax is needed to provide funding, the self-help method is likely to yield the best return on their investment," Cal-Tax spokesman David Kline said in an e-mail to The Bee.

"When local officials have more control over transportation projects, local taxpayers have more control, too," Kline continued. "They are in a better position to hold people accountable for their spending and to insist on cost-saving steps like hiring outside experts."

Cal-Tax joined with the California division of the American Council of Engineering Companies to commission the study. Cal-Tax members believe "tax increases should be a last resort," Kline said, and take positions on measures on a case-by-case basis; the group hasn't weighed in on Measure S.

Measure S is a half-cent sales tax that will be on the November ballot for Stanislaus County voters.

Another bastion in fighting taxes, the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee, surprised some onlookers with a recent endorsement of Measure S.

But the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association remains opposed and began running advertisements against the measure this week.

"The general premise (of favoring outside experts) is valid," acknowledged the association's Eric Reimer, a mechanical and industrial engineer. But he isn't swayed by other counties' positive results, he said, because most are much larger than Stanislaus and can raise more money and get more done.

The half-cent sales tax is predicted to raise $700 million over 20 years, compared with the $3.1 billion San Joaquin County could generate with its Measure K in its 50-year life, which started in 1990. That county's leaders kept the current widening of Interstate 205 on track, despite a threatened derailing, by loaning the state $67 million from the transportation tax.

"The people will get taxed (in Stanislaus County), but we can't move because we don't have enough," Reimer said.

Other counties pursuing sales tax increases for transportation on the Nov. 4 ballot, or renewals, are Santa Clara, Los Angeles, Imperial, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sonoma and Marin.

Hamm's study proclaimed "geographical diversity" in studying 10 so-called self-help counties throughout California. But while four of the state's 19 self-help counties are in the San Joaquin Valley, none is among the 10 Hamm selected. And only one of the 10, Sonoma, with 484,470 residents, is smaller than Stanislaus (population 525,903).

Still, Sonoma County believes "that without the self-help program, important capital projects would not have been delivered," the study says.

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

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