Are Sacramento voters willing to pay to repave roads, upgrade transit?

Measure B on the Nov. 8 ballot proposes a half-cent sales tax surcharge that would raise an estimated $3.6 billion over 30 years to finance roadway fixes throughout the county.
Measure B on the Nov. 8 ballot proposes a half-cent sales tax surcharge that would raise an estimated $3.6 billion over 30 years to finance roadway fixes throughout the county. Bee file

Traffic congestion is increasing in Sacramento. More streets are in disrepair. State and federal transportation funding has not kept pace.

Sacramento city and county leaders are asking voters to pull out their pocketbooks to do something about it. Measure B on the Nov. 8 ballot proposes a half-cent sales tax surcharge that would raise an estimated $3.6 billion over 30 years to finance major fixes and upgrades throughout the county, starting with filling potholes and repaving rutted streets.

Backed by all seven cities in the county, as well as the county Board of Supervisors, the measure is being pitched as a way to take on more of the funding burden locally – and gain more control locally. The goal is to compensate for inconsistent funding from the state and federal governments, and years of gridlock over efforts to find a better revenue source than the faltering gas tax.

Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters, who represents older suburbs, including Fair Oaks, Carmichael and North Highlands, is a leading proponent. Bad pavement is the top complaint she says she gets from constituents. The county and cities report they are $1.1 billion behind on basic roadwork.

“This is the best way I see to get money to repair our roads,” Peters said. “Given the slowness of the state and federal governments to come up with a plan for transportation, we just don’t have any more time to wait.”

The measure is opposed by a group of taxpayer activists who note that the county already has a half-cent transportation sales tax in place, Measure A, that will last through 2039. The Measure B tax, if passed, would run from 2017 to 2047, effectively giving the county a one-cent transportation sales tax surcharge for more than two decades.

City public works directors and regional transportation planners say the existing Measure A, approved in 2004, has helped move the county forward amid recession and state funding cuts, but doesn’t provide enough money to meet growing needs. While Measure A focuses on construction of roads and transit projects, its alter ego, Measure B, emphasizes repair and maintenance.

Nineteen of the state’s 58 counties have local sales taxes for transportation. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Contra Costa and nearby Placer County are among 14 counties with transportation sales-tax proposals on next month’s ballot.

Distribution of Measure B money would be overseen by the Sacramento Transportation Authority, an entity made up of various city council members and county supervisors. A taxpayer-oversight committee would monitor the process.

The plan calls for 70 percent of the money to be spent on roads and 30 percent on transit. It requires jurisdictions to spend 75 percent of their Measure B money in the first five years on fixing streets that score below pavement-quality standards. Once each city’s streets meet those standards, the 75 percent rule would disappear, allowing cities to spend more on new projects.

Sacramento Regional Transit, which operates buses and light-rail trains throughout much of the county, also must spend 75 percent of its tax allocation in the first five years on shoring up basic operations, such as replacing buses, doing maintenance, upgrading stations and improving security.

The measure also would provide money to advance several major county projects. The most dramatic is a $700 million widening of the Capital City Freeway between midtown and Interstate 80 near Watt Avenue, the region’s most congested freeway. The concept includes a bike and pedestrian lane next to the freeway on the American River bridge. Much of the money is expected to come from state and federal sources, but Sacramento must put up local money to compete for those grants.

Some Measure B revenue would go toward widening Grant Line Road into an expressway as a Highway 50 and Highway 99 alternative for commuters between Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Folsom and El Dorado County. Other funds would pay part of the cost of extending light rail to Natomas and the airport, providing an alternative to Interstate 5. Sacramento hopes to win federal money to pay for half of that project.

Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg recently gave Measure B proponents a $200,000 loan out of his campaign account.

“It isn’t glamorous, but it is essential,” he said. “Regions are having to step up and do what we can to take care of these issues.”

Developers, home builders and road-construction companies also have contributed to the Measure B campaign. The effort is endorsed by bicycling and pedestrian-advocacy groups, as well as clean-air groups, transit supporters and local chambers of commerce.

It isn’t glamorous, but it is essential. Regions are having to step up and do what we can to take care of these issues.

Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg

Kerri Howell, a Folsom City Council member and chairwoman of the Sacramento Transportation Authority board, said the measure’s allocations represent a compromise among representatives from Folsom, where officials want to build freeway interchanges; unincorporated suburban areas, where road repairs and upgrades are tops on the to-do list; and urban areas such as Sacramento, which wants to make downtown more friendly to transit, bikes and pedestrians.

Opponents, including the Sacramento Taxpayers Association, contend that Sacramento has not spent its Measure A funds efficiently and is not likely to spend the Measure B money well. They singled out Sacramento Regional Transit, citing past decisions that have put the agency into financial trouble. RT, notably, has launched reform efforts under new leadership, winning praise for cleaner trains and improved security and service.

The Save the American River Association opposes a planned bridge for light rail, cars, pedestrians and bicyclists over the American River between downtown and south Natomas.

Larry Carli, who lives on a ranch on Grant Line Road in Elk Grove, said expansion of Grant Line would destroy farmland and open up new development.

“It seems like they are steamrolling,” Carli said.

The measure needs a two-thirds vote for passage.

The Sacramento County sales tax rate is 8 percent. The city of Sacramento’s rate is 8.5 percent. The state’s base rate is 7.5 percent. The highest county rate in the state is in Alameda, at 9.5 percent. Some cities have 10 percent rates.

An existing statewide quarter-cent sales tax is scheduled to expire Dec. 31, so with passage of B, the Sacramento County rate would be 8.25 percent, and the city of Sacramento rate would be 8.75 percent.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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