Sacramento must be smart on funding transportation

Regional Transit Officer Susie Marcketti waits to board a train. RT would benefit from a proposed sales tax hike.
Regional Transit Officer Susie Marcketti waits to board a train. RT would benefit from a proposed sales tax hike. Sacramento Bee file

If voters are going to be asked to pay higher sales taxes to fund Sacramento County’s transportation network, it must make sense in our era of global warming and sustainable development.

That means boosting public transit and encouraging infill housing, not paving new highways that will lead to more sprawl.

And that’s the direction the Sacramento Transportation Authority should set Thursday when it debates putting a sales tax measure on the November ballot – and chooses a spending plan to go along with it.

The tax increase would generate a projected $3.6 billion over 30 years for local projects, as well as local matches to apply for state and federal grants. It would raise the countywide sales tax from 8 percent to 8.5 percent, and would be on top of Measure A, the half-cent transportation sales tax first levied in 1989.

Under one plan, three-fourths of the revenue would go to local roads, pedestrian and bicycle projects, and regional highways. About 10 percent each would go to Regional Transit operations and light-rail extensions, including to Sacramento International Airport.

Under a second option, local roads and regional highways would get two-thirds of the money, while Regional Transit would get nearly 30 percent. That difference adds up over 30 years – $300 million more to replace aging light-rail cars, improve stations and pay for operations.

This option would be a lifesaver for RT, which is struggling to dig out of a financial hole and is already raising fares by 10 percent starting in July. In return, Regional Transit would absolutely need to keep its promises to fix customer service and become more accountable.

Option 2 is also more in line with a 20-year transportation plan endorsed in February by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments that will improve air quality and promote smart growth. The blueprint focuses on repairing and maintaining existing highways and unclogging major traffic bottlenecks such as the Capital City Freeway, and calls for cutting money from new highways and adding money for transit.

Plans are all well and good, but how we spend precious money is where the rubber meets the road.

The 16-member authority board – which includes all five county supervisors, five Sacramento City Council members and representatives from Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Folsom, Galt and Rancho Cordova – faces a balancing act. Suburban officials may be more interested in new roads, while Sacramento is leaning toward transit.

The board is trying to reach consensus, if not a unanimous vote, so that it can go to voters with a united front on the sales tax. To reach the ballot, the authority’s spending plan must be approved by the county Board of Supervisors, plus a majority of city councils.

The board also is trying to come up with a plan that can win support from at least two-thirds of voters. A poll done last month for the authority suggests that the sales tax can pass, with strong support for “fix it first” road and bridge projects but also for light rail, buses and pedestrian safety.

Voters seem to understand the reality – that just building more highways isn’t the solution. The county’s elected officials should give them a sales tax plan that does as well.