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Local measures will play a role in transportation bond

The 1A and 1B bonds were hardly the only transportation issues that California voters saw this Election Day. There were scores of measures on county and local ballots that had an impact on transportation funds–and many of the areas that passed them may have an easier time getting a share of the state bond money.

Topping this list were 10 counties that had sales-tax measures for transportation. Counties with such taxes often use them to apply for state and federal matching funds. Supporters of these measures say they pay off at about a two-to-one margin. The next several years will provide a good test of this theory, as counties try to use their own money to leverage a bigger piece of the pie.

“The bond was not written to earmark a lot of projects,” noted Liisa Lawson Stark, legislative representative to the League of California Cities. “It’s going to be a competitive process.”

Much of this competition is going to be for the $1 billion in the State-Local Partnership program account, which requires a dollar-for-dollar match. But counties that come with their own money count have an advantage with other bond funds, as well.

Former California Transportation Commission chairman Bob Balgenorth said this body–which must approve some projects and set guidelines for others–is designed to be relatively free from political influence. But he also noted: “We certainly gave a hard look at the people who were able to bring their own money to the table.”

Balgenorth also noted that transportation sales taxes can defy political conventional wisdom, at least once “people have sat in traffic long enough.” Witness 68.5 percent of voters in tax-averse Orange County choosing to tax themselves for transportation.

Orange County’s Measure M was a renewal of an existing tax, however. So were three of the five that passed. Only Tulare County managed to pass a new tax, with Measure R squeaking by with a 363-vote margin in a recount.

All of these measures required a two-thirds vote due to Proposition 218, which voters passed in 1996. Four measures received over 50 percent but less than the necessary two-thirds. Several other counties have attempted to pass measures in recent years but have fallen just short of the two-thirds requirement.

Politicians in Sacramento will have a ringside seat when it comes to seeing what implications these sales taxes in the fight for transportation bond money. After all, the three fastest-growing counties in the state are nearby–Placer, San Joaquin and Merced–and each has had a very different experience when it comes to local transportation measures.

San Joaquin County voters renewed Measure K with 77 percent of the vote; the county now has a half-cent sales tax for transportation in place until 2040. The original version, passed in 1990, will bring in an estimated $735 million over its 20-year life. This money, in turn, helped bring in about $1.4 billion in state and federal matching funds, according to supporters.

The renewal was so important that the San Joaquin Council of Governments and local supporters pushed the renewal onto the ballot nearly five years before the original version expired. The renewal campaign basically stretched two years and became a prime point of contention among county supervisors–two of whom signed the ballot measure against it.

In Placer County, officials hope to get a half-cent tax on the ballot in 2008. The county has been doing all it can in the meantime, said Celia McAdam, executive director of the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency. On their highest priority item, the Interstate 80 “bottleneck” in the county, they’ve been talking with Caltrans and working on environmental review for nearly a decade.

“I can say ‘the bottleneck’ to anyone in Placer County and they know what I’m talking about,” McAdam said. She added: “We can go to construction in 2008, which in transportation terms is like tomorrow.”

This is important, given the January 16 deadline for proposals for one of the most sought-after pots of money, the $4.5 billion Corridor Mobility Improvement Account. These projects actually must be underway by 2012. The fast-pace of the bonds favors those areas that already are prepared with projects, said David Brewer, chief deputy director of the CTC.

“If you have a large project, you’re not going to have it ready for 2012 unless you’re pretty far along,” Brewer said. “If it’s a smaller project, you may have a chance.”

But without the sales tax, McAdam said, the county would be hamstrung for future planning and bond-money applications. Just ask Candice Steelman, spokeswoman for the Merced County Association of Governments. Measure G, a new half-cent sales tax, got 61 percent of the vote–a loss that in most elections would have been an overwhelming victory.

The tax was expected to bring in over $15 million a year. Now the county will be getting by with the approximately $3 million a year it gets from its Regional Transportation Impact Fee, a $1,700 a unit tax on most new construction. County voters now will end up paying for the bond, she said, without getting the full benefit.

“It’s much harder to pass a new tax than to renew one where residents have been able to see the positive outcome for years,” Steelman said.
The good news, Balgenorth said, is that at least there is bond money to fight over.

“I had the privilege of being chairman when we had no money to give out,” Balgenorth said. “It was a fun time.”

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at malcolm.maclachlan@capitolweekly.net


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