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Ceres on board with countywide road tax
Ceres interchange would get $30.7 million
Potholes and other street maintenance will get half of the new half-cent sales tax. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The proposed countywide half-cent sales tax for transportation is fine with the Ceres City Council which last week called for a special measure on the November ballot.

City officials say Ceres cannot keep up with road maintenance unless new local money is generated. They also are happy that the tax would steer $30.7 million for the Mitchell/Service/Highway 99 interchange and $17 million toward the county's $71.7 million Faith Home-Garner expressway connection which would ultimately divert truck traffic away from Mitchell Road.

"Both of those projects are very high on the city's priority list," said City Manager Toby Wells. "Both of them would make significant impact to our transportation corridors and improvements to Mitchell by removing truck traffic off Mitchell Road."

The tax will not entirely pay for the $123 million Mitchell-Service interchange. Wells said the rest of the funds would be derived from public facility fees, redevelopment bond proceeds and the pursuit of federal and state grants. Wells remains optimistic that the tax would enable the Mitchell/Service/99 interchange to break ground in four years and be completed in 2023.

Wells commented that getting the 25-year tax to pass "will be difficult." He said polling data showed support is shy but very close to the necessary two-thirds plus one vote majority. Similar tax measures failed in 2006 and 2008 with the last effort failing by a couple of hundred votes.

Agreement among the nine cities and the county was reached over the proposed expenditure plan.

"From a personal perspective," said Wells, "I think this expenditure plan is superior than the expenditure plan we had in '08 and I think in the course of the last two years significant collaboration has been reached by all the city staffs as well as the Policy Board of StanCOG and this is no easy task to get that many elected officials to agree on one approach to this."

Passage of the tax would make Stanislaus County a "self help" county and enable more state and federal highway monies, said Wells. "It allows to control our own destiny and have control of our own tax plan to help fix our local streets and roads."

Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra explained that 81 percent of California counties have local road taxes.

"In essence, if you're willing to tax yourself some you will, in return, be given funding for road improvements and road projects," said Vierra. "Those counties that do not have self-help tax, roughly the 19 percent of us just get overlooked for funding."

Vierra called the tax "a big deal road maintenance and for new transportation projects." He said he ordinarily doesn't support tax hikes but said he is supporting this one for the "tremendous benefits for the Ceres residents as well as Stanislaus County.

Stanislaus County currently has the 20th worst roads in the country, according to StanCOG.

The tax would generate an estimated $38 million per year to be shared in the county, or $960 million over the 25-year life.

Half of the funds would go to cities and the county to spend on a list of road repairs. In the case of Ceres, $33.95 million would be available for local street and road repairs. A list of exact streets to be fixed are detailed on the website, under the local investments tab.

Hughson would receive $6 million over the 25-year tax life for road maintenance and fund a Whitmore Avenue roundabout. It also provides $600,000 for the Safe Routes to Schools and Hatch Road multi-use trail improvements.

Modesto gets the lion's share of regional projects that would benefit all who shop and travel there. About $25 million will go toward the upgrade of the Briggsmore-Carpenter interchange; $2.6 million to widen McHenry Avenue to five lanes between Ladd and Hogue roads; $7.9 million towards construction of a new eight-lane interchange at Standiford and Highway 99 near the Vintage Faire Mall; and $74.2 million to complete the State Route 132 by constructing a four-lane expressway from Highway 99 to Gates Road. Modesto's share of local street fix money would total $171.8 million.

Oakdale would receive $18.5 million for local streets and road repair and maintenance. Funds are also allocated for immediate repairs for roads surrounding schools, hospital and downtown Oakdale and $1.85 for Safe Routes to Schools and other bike and pedestrian improvements. Oakdale would receive $1 million for intersection improvements for 108/120 at Rodeo. It also will contribute $59.7 million towards completion of the Oakdale Bypass.

The tax will help Turlock by fixing poor roads, constructing a new intersection at West Main Street and 18 new traffic signals. Turlock officials are pleased that $2.53 million would go toward the $12.7 million reconstruction of the Highway 99 interchange at Fulkerth Road.

The Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG) has outlined the following overall formula for the spending of the remainder of the tax monies:

• 50 percent of local street repairs;

• 28 percent on regional construction projects;

• 10 percent on traffic management, such as traffic signalization to improving local intersections to reduce vehicle wait time;

• 7 percent for point-to-point services, better transit connections between unincorporated areas and services in Modesto, transit and some money for van connections to the Altamont Corridor Express train station;

• 5 percent will be spent on pedestrian and bike path programs (or $250,000 annually for Ceres);

The 25-year countywide half-cent sales tax is expected to generate $480.2 million for local streets and roads, $48 million for bike and pedestrian paths, $96 million for traffic management, $269 million for regional projects and $67.2 million for transit services. Ceres share would be $122,210 annually for bike and pedestrian projects, and $244,420 annually for traffic management.

Voters appear to be poised to support the tax if they are supplied the specifics of where the tax money will be spent, a polling firm indicated. The measure must receive a two-thirds majority of support, or 66 percent plus one, to pass. An Oct. 15-21 phone survey of 153,723 likely voters by Godbe Research determined that support has grown in favor of the tax. The survey indicated 64 percent of likely voters would vote for a measure raising taxes on sales in the county. Officials believe a two-thirds majority may be secured by being specific to voters about where the funds go.

The Ceres Chamber of Commerce announced its support of the tax. Chamber President Renee Ledbetter said it will help educate the voters like it did to help win support for an increase in the Ceres motel tax.

Ceres resident Len Shepherd said although he hates taxes he would be supportive if it's written to where "the state can't get their filthy hands on the money that we as a county collect."

He said "I'm all for it because our roads are deplorable in many places."