Sacramento eyes new transportation tax, but are residents willing to pay?

Less than a year after Sacramento County voters narrowly rejected a transportation tax, several Sacramento groups are already getting ready to ask voters again to tax themselves for more road and transit funds as soon as next fall.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which includes city and county elected representatives, will hire a public relations firm this month to spend the next half year on what it calls a “Transportation Ballot Initiative Stakeholder Listening Tour.”

The group wants input from 300 community groups by April and hopes to find some groups willing to champion the effort aimed at generating local funds to fix more roads and widen others, possibly including the Capital City Freeway over the American River. A SACOG spokeswoman declined to estimate how much the PR contract will cost, saying it is too soon to know until SACOG enlists a firm later this month and determines the scope of its work.

At the same time, Sacramento Regional Transit, the county’s bus and light rail operator, is pushing legislation authored by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, that would allow SacRT to ask voters for more sales tax funding.

The transit funds likely would be used, they say, to expand bus service and replace outdated rail cars with low-floor trains that the elderly and people in wheelchairs can board without climbing stairs.

SACOG and SacRT also could team up on a joint ballot measure – as they have in the past – rather than compete with each other.

Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, a member of the SACOG board, said officials have not yet decided whether to go for a ballot measure in 2018, wait until 2020 or find some other revenue source altogether.

If either group tries the 2018 ballot, they could compete with the city of Sacramento, which may ask voters to extend its Measure U sales tax for basic city services, including police.

SacRT operations chief Mark Lonergan said his agency is in talks with SACOG to determine the best strategy.

“There have been no decisions made about whether or not there will be a run at a sales tax in 2018,” he said.

Officials with both groups say they will make the same plea to voters that they did when they pursued a joint half-cent sales tax measure in 2016: Federal transportation funding has largely stalled and no longer can be counted on to provide enough mobility funding for a growing population.

A year ago in November, Measure B, which would have raised the county sales tax a half-cent on the dollar for 30 years, won 65 percent of the vote, but did not pass because state law requires 67 percent approval.

A transportation tax opposition group, Eye on Sacramento, contends a new tax would essentially be a double tax because the county soon will get an influx of transportation funds from Senate Bill 1, state legislation that relies on higher gas taxes and registration fees to provide $54 billion statewide over the next decade, and because the county already has an existing sales tax for transportation projects.

Proponents say they misfired with the local transportation tax measure last year because they didn’t take enough time to reach the public early on and to get vocal grass-roots support.

“The criticism from groups was that the process was too truncated and not inclusive enough,” said Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer.

Both SACOG and SacRT say they hope to enlist community groups to take the lead in making the case for local long-term transportation funding.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak