Editor’s note: Do-over on transit tax

Crews work on the extension of Regional Transit’s Blue Line to Cosumnes River College, completed in 2015. RT wants to expand light rail further. (Photo courtesy of Sacramento Regional Transit)

Transportation sales tax could be back before Sacramento County voters

It looks like there will be a second try on a transportation sales tax for Sacramento.

But will the spending plan fit our times, when building more and more highways makes less and less sense? And will more voters be receptive this time?

On Thursday, Nov. 14, the Sacramento Transportation Authority is to get a key update on the potential November 2020 ballot measure. Included are the results of a new poll showing that while voters believe traffic has worsened and are concerned about it, they see homelessness as a bigger problem for the county. And support for a half-cent sales tax hike is short of the two-thirds majority required to pass it.

The authority board plans to discuss the issue at its Dec. 12 meeting and start drafting a spending plan.

UPDATE: A “discussion” draft spending plan put together for the Dec. 12 meeting calls for $1.9 billion to go to Regional Transit and another $1.2 billion for transit and rail projects, combined about 38% of the total $8.2 billion raised over 40 years by a half-cent sales tax. Of the rest, $3.1 billion would go to local road projects, $1 billion for highways and $445 million for interchanges.

Under a proposed timeline, the STA board would tentatively approve a spending plan in February, present it to cities and agencies and adopt a final plan in May.

The authority also put together Measure B, but in November 2016 county voters narrowly rejected that half-cent sales tax increase, which would have raised $3.6 billion over 30 years for roads, mass transit, bicycle lanes and other projects.

A lot has changed since then.

Climate change is an even bigger concern, so voters will be more skeptical of new highways that produce greenhouse gases. Environmental advocates are pushing for a spending plan weighted toward transit, walking and bicycling. So is the climate change commission created last year by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, which says the local transportation sector is the biggest producer of greenhouse gases but is not meeting reduction goals.

Regional Transit—which would have received about 30 percent of Measure B money—may have more public support. During the 2016 campaign, there was lingering anger over service cuts and fare increases during the Great Recession. Since then, RT has increased service, lowered fares and offered free rides to students, though some are unhappy with a new bus route network.

In 2017, the Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown approved a 17.6-cent hike in gas taxes to fund $5.4 billion a year in road and bridge repairs. Senate Bill 1 doubled the amount going to cities and counties from the state; Sacramento County is getting about $24 million a year.

So supporters will have to convince voters that another local revenue source is needed for transportation, on top of the Measure A half-cent tax that is on the books until 2039. Plus, some voters may be wary of another sales tax hike after passing the half-cent Measure U for economic justice last year, which raised the total sales tax in Sacramento to 8.75%.

Laying the groundwork for a 2020 measure, the transportation authority has reached out to interest groups, held community meetings and compiled wish lists from cities and local agencies. The total in “unmet needs” is a whopping $12.4 billion.

The city of Sacramento estimates $2.5 billion in unfunded needs in the next 30 years, including traffic control technology; bicycle trails, tunnels and bridges; sidewalks and crosswalks; reconstruction of five major interchanges; and a new bus terminal at the downtown train station.

Regional Transit puts its needs at $2.75 billion. Among other projects, it wants to replace all 97 light rail cars, modernize light rail stations, buy zero-emission buses and extend light rail to Sacramento International Airport.

Also proposed is $331 million to finish the Capital SouthEast Connector between Folsom and Elk Grove, a freeway that was highly controversial in 2016 and is still strongly opposed by environmental groups.

Opponents were vastly outspent in 2016, however, by contractors, business groups and others behind Measure B. While 65% did vote “yes,” that was about 8,000 votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage.

Consultants went on a “listening tour” to learn from the failure. One big lesson: not enough public input. So some advocates and officials are calling on the authority to take more time to involve the public and make sure the spending plan is right.

At an Oct. 29 City Council workshop, Steinberg and others said they want that spending list to reflect the city’s priorities of safety, “green” mobility and neighborhood equity. But the city has only five votes on the 16-member authority board, and council members acknowledged that support from suburban voters is crucial.

In the new poll, voters put the highest priority on fixing damaged roads first, providing safe routes to schools and making their cities eligible for state and federal matching money. They also want strong accountability provisions to make sure their taxes are spent as promised. The most important projects for voters vary somewhat depending where in the county they live.

Overall, 63% of voters supported a 30-year tax initially, and 65% after receiving more information. A 40-year tax gets support from only 56% of respondents.

“To reach the two-thirds threshold, ” the pollsters conclude, “the measure should be refined to include voters’ highest priority spending areas and accountability provisions in the ballot language; of course such a measure would need to be accompanied by a strong campaign.”

It’s never an easy sell to get people to raise their own taxes, and there’s no reason to believe 2020 will be any different.

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