Deal clears way for $3.6 billion Sacramento road, transit tax measure

A Sacramento Regional Transit light-rail passenger waits at the 16th Street station. A proposed transportation sales tax would help fund transit.
A Sacramento Regional Transit light-rail passenger waits at the 16th Street station. A proposed transportation sales tax would help fund transit. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento leaders have negotiated a compromise they say clears the way to put a $3.6 billion sales tax measure on the November ballot for countywide transportation improvements.

The measure would increase county sales taxes by a half-cent for 30 years. A disagreement in recent weeks over how to split the money between roads and public transit had threatened to undermine the effort.

Sacramento Regional Transit, the county’s main bus and light-rail operator, made a pitch for 33 percent of the funds. The troubled agency is counting on the money as a financial life raft to help it get out of debt and avoid raising fares next year. Early on, its leaders had hoped for half of the money.

But the deciding agency, the Sacramento Transportation Authority, instead proposed a 75-25 percent split in favor of roads. Agency staff members and consultants said polling and focus group interviews showed voters support money for transit, but they are more interested in seeing roads repaved and potholes disappear.

“In my district, the No. 1 complaint is crummy roads,” said Susan Peters, a county supervisor representing Carmichael, Fair Oaks and Arden Arcade, where car commutes are far more prevalent than bus rides.

With state and federal transportation funds dwindling, Sacramento officials say the local funds are critical, and consensus among city and county leaders is important to persuade voters to add to their tax load.

A hastily formed transportation authority subcommittee, including Peters and RT advocate Jay Schenirer, came up with a compromise: a 70-30 percent split in favor of roads, with a notable challenge for RT.

The transit agency must spend 75 percent of its new money in the first five years shoring up basic operations – replacing old buses, doing maintenance and improving security, for instance. Such remedial steps, in theory, will solidify the agency’s shaky finances and keep it from overextending itself by expanding bus routes or light-rail lines too quickly.

RT can use some of that 75 percent share for expansions, such as extending light rail to the airport, but only if it shows it has increased ridership, improved its farebox revenue percentages and refilled its depleted reserve accounts.

Schenirer and Peters said they agree on the compromise, though they used different words to describe its effect on RT. Peters had expressed skepticism about the wisdom of giving RT too much money.

“Pressure is the right word,” she said at a meeting Wednesday to hash out final details. “I’ll go with accountability,” Schenirer replied.

Schenirer has been working with RT management on reforms for the past year, including adding 25 light rail fare inspectors this summer. He said the sales tax measure “gives us a little bit of breathing room.”

Transit funding likely will remain a debated element of the tax plan. Environmental Council of Sacramento member John Deeter argued at a hearing that all of the sales tax funds should go to transit to encourage people to get out of their cars. In contrast, Eye on Sacramento, a group that focuses on government spending policies, says no new tax money should go to RT until it cleans house.

The compromise will be presented to the full transportation authority board Thursday. If that group agrees to the plan, the agency will make pitches to local city councils in the coming weeks for support for the issue, called Measure B. The county Board of Supervisors will make the final decision this summer on whether to put the measure on the ballot.

The sales tax increase would raise funds for a sweeping list of projects, including maintenance and repair money and project construction funds for every city in the county, as well as for unincorporated areas.

Cities would choose where to spend their money, with one notable requirement: They must spend 75 percent of their initial five-year allocations on fixing streets that fail to meet road pavement quality standards. Each city has submitted lists of projects it hopes to fund, besides road repairs, with the money. Most cities included bicycle and pedestrian improvements on their lists, as well as major local projects such as new freeway interchanges and bridges.

A recent survey conducted for the transportation authority found that 69 percent of likely Sacramento County voters would support the tax measure. Under state law, proponents will need 67 percent approval. The poll shows support levels could drop to 61 percent if there is organized opposition.

Transportation authority board chairwoman Kerri Howell, a Folsom City Council member, said she will push road, transit, bike and pedestrian advocates to promote the measure, even though some are disappointed with their share.

“We’re doing what we think is best ... so we can actually get this done,” Howell said. “If we don’t get it passed, no one gets anything.”

Sacramento County already is among 19 “self-help” counties in the state that have passed transportation sales tax measures to supplement state and federal funds. Sacramento’s existing half-cent transportation sales tax was passed by voters in 2004. It went into effect in 2009 and will be in place until 2039. The potential new tax would overlap the existing tax for a number of years.

The Sacramento County sales tax rate is 8 percent. The rate in the city of Sacramento is 8.5 percent.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak