Local Elections

Capital-area voters balk at taxes to fix potholes, clogged roads

Commute traffic eastbound on Highway 50 near the 59th Street exit.
Commute traffic eastbound on Highway 50 near the 59th Street exit. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Sacramento leaders say they’re not sure what to do about the region’s traffic congestion and crumbling roads after two local transportation sales tax measures fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, despite winning significant support from voters.

Sixty-five percent of Sacramento County voters agreed on Tuesday to raise their sales tax another half-cent to fund pothole repairs and add a few significant new projects, including the widening of the congested Capital City Freeway over the American River. That Measure B approval number still fell short of the legal 67 percent standard for special tax approvals.

Similarly, Measure M in Placer County, which would have raised funds to rebuild the Interstate 80-Highway 65 interchange, fell several percentage points short of passage.

Jeffrey Spencer, head of the Sacramento Transportation Authority, said it is clear that residents in both counties want to improve their daily commute, but not quite enough to dip further into their pockets. Perhaps it will take worsening traffic jams and more potholes before they embrace the idea of raising taxes.

“Voters often wait until they reach the pain threshold,” Spencer said. “People vote for mobility, but their pain threshold has to be high enough to value that. Evidently in Sacramento, it wasn’t valued enough.”

A Measure B vote analysis by precinct shows the highest support for the tax was among Sacramento city and Rancho Cordova residents, and county residents living near freeways and light-rail lines. The lowest level of support was found in suburban areas such as Orangevale, Citrus Heights and Elk Grove, as well as in rural areas.

Similar transportation measures notably passed in the state’s two most metropolitan and congested counties, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Overall, though, eight of 15 transportation sales tax measures fell short.

In conservative Placer County, Measure M proponents say they are at a loss about how to fund fixes and expansions on that county’s tightly packed roads.

“Things will get worse before they get better,” said Celia McAdam, head of the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency. “The traffic is still out there, but we don’t have any money, to put it bluntly.”

Officials at the financially struggling Sacramento Regional Transit agency had hoped for Measure B funds to help replace aging buses and light-rail vehicles and to expand service. General Manager Henry Li on Wednesday said the agency will continue to look for some source of local funds, but he said he does not know yet what that would be. In the meantime, he said, the agency probably will not be able to increase service in the foreseeable future.

The local transportation sales tax measures reflect an attempt by California counties to come up with a stable, locally controlled funding source to make up for what officials say is a failure by the state and Congress to fund basic needs.

Local officials say they do not know what to expect from the new federal leadership. President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants to build transportation infrastructure, but hasn’t offered sdetails. Congress has stalled for years on finding adequate funding mechanisms to compensate for eroding gas tax revenue.

At the state level, Gov. Jerry Brown called a special session on transportation funding in 2015 to deal with a $3.5 billion repair backlog, without results so far. Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen said he plans to ask legislators to work on funding, including looking into the potential of changing the law that requires a two-thirds majority vote for special taxes.

Sacramento city officials, meanwhile, have a smaller transportation funding mechanism in the works – a fee on new development to help build roads, transit and other transportation improvements to handle demand caused by that new development. The City Council will consider the fee in December.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak