Sacramento transportation tax moves toward public vote

Commute traffic east bound on Highway 50 near the 59th Street exit on Wednesday, September 23, 2015.
Commute traffic east bound on Highway 50 near the 59th Street exit on Wednesday, September 23, 2015.

A plan to put a half-cent Sacramento County transportation sales tax measure on the November ballot took a key step forward Thursday.

The Sacramento Transportation Authority board voted approval of a plan that would raise $3.6 billion for road and transit improvements over the next 30 years. The measure will require approval of two-thirds of county voters to pass.

Transportation authority representatives will spend the next month making pitches to local city councils for their support. The county Board of Supervisors will make the final decision this summer on whether to put the measure on the ballot.

If approved, the tax would pay for a sweeping list of projects countywide. Seventy percent would go to road projects, with a “Fix It First” theme in the first five years, focused on repaving streets and filling potholes.

Thirty percent would go to transit, much of that to Sacramento Regional Transit, which operates buses and light-rail trains. The STA board made a point of requiring RT to spend 75 percent of its tax allocation in the first five years on shoring up basic operations, such as replacing old buses, doing maintenance and improving security, rather than expanding routes.

Leaders from Sacramento cities and the county say they are pushing the tax measure because state and federal transportation funds have not kept up. State and federal transportation gas pump tax levels have not increased since the early 1990s. The emergence of more fuel-efficient cars and trucks has eaten into gas pump tax revenue, as well.

Each city submitted lists of projects it hopes to fund with the money, including interchanges, road widenings, and bike, pedestrian and transit improvements. The tax would provide funds to extend light rail to Sacramento International Airport, and will allow Elk Grove to create a high-tech corridor to allow express buses to avoid car congestion. The measure will fund widening of the Capital City Freeway, including on the bridge over the American River.

STA officials and their consultants say they believe the November ballot measure will pass, although its margins are slim. A recent survey conducted for the transportation authority found that 69 percent of likely Sacramento County voters would support the tax measure, just above the 67 percent threshold. The poll showed support levels could drop to 61 percent, however, if there is organized opposition.

Transportation authority board Chairwoman Kerri Howell, a Folsom City Council member, called on business representatives, transit advocates, bike and pedestrian activists and others to join in supporting 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