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County ready for new road tax?
Poll shows voter support growing
Road conditions have deteriorated in some parts of Ceres, like here on Nadine Avenue but promise to worsen without new tax revenue. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Leaders in Stanislaus County believe they can win enough support for the passage of a half-cent sales tax for roads next year despite a polling survey that shows it being short of the required 66.6 percent plus one vote.

Before the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG) officials make a final decision on Jan. 20 on a third try for passage, members of the public will be asked to weigh in before a spending plan is reviewed on Dec. 16.

It's estimated that a half-cent sales tax would generate $970 million over a 25-year period.

During an October phone survey Godbe Research determined that support has grown in favor of a special 20-year tax, which would be spent on repairing roads, building new ones, and setting aside some for the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) train. A voter sampling in March 2014 indicated 61 percent support, which deemed insurmountable and election plans were abandoned. The survey taken last month indicated 64 percent of likely voters would vote for a measure raising taxes on sales in the county.

StanCOG opted against pursuing its third attempt at a countywide transportation tax for the November 2014 ballot, an initiative that failed by a narrow margin in both 2006 and 2008 general elections. The agency had discussed bringing the countywide transportation tax to voters in 2014, even going as far as to provide an expenditure plan that was reviewed by the city councils from each of the county's nine jurisdictions. However, the agency pulled the initiative after a countywide poll revealed that the item was unlikely to garner the necessary two-thirds approval for it to pass.

Officials believe the measure has a better chance of passing during the presidential election of 2016 as presidential elections tend to draw more voters who tend to have less cynical views on taxes.

StanCOG Executive Director Rosa De Léon Park said StanCOG is interested in hearing what the residents want to see in their communities. Input will be weighed against which projects would help win passage.

Ceres leaders are expected to push for inclusion of the Service/Mitchell Highway 99 interchange as they did in 2014. Before it was dropped, the 2014 measure included in the Central Corridor at least $31 million to fund the Service/Mitchell/Highway 99 interchange. The project was considered essential for the support of the Ceres City Council. The interchange is considered key to the commercial development of the Southern Gateway of Ceres.

Other cities will present their own priorities for spending the money. Modesto city officials will press for improvements for the Briggsmore/99 interchange.

There is an incentive for the county to put another tax on the ballot. If voters passed a road tax, it would designate Stanislaus as a "self-help" county. This designation would allow the region to access additional state-level transportation dollars, matching regional investment in roads nearly dollar for dollar.

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells argues that the tax increase is needed to preserve the condition of Ceres street pavement, which he says will continue to worsen without extra funding. StanCOG recently hired Nichols Consulting Engineers to analyze each of the nine cities' pavement conditions. Wells said Ceres rated an overall 69, or just beneath "good" condition on a scale of 1 being worst and 100 being perfect. He noted that road conditions will start slipping quickly without more money. Wells then explained the importance of maintaining streets through slurry seal to avoid more expensive fixes later.

The Nichols study concluded that Ceres should be spending $2.2 million annually on street maintenance but only spends $400,000. The city has been unable to keep up, said Wells, because gas tax monies are dwindling and asphalt prices have increased eight-fold since 1999. Wells said the gas tax money from the state goes to simple road maintenance, such as filling potholes, and cleaning a street after an accident.

The federal component of the gas tax, or the Regional Surface Transportation program, supplies Ceres with $400,000 to $500,000 annually.

The County needs the tax, StanCOG officials believe, because state and federal gas tax funds are not keeping up.
with new projects and pavement management.
In the 2012 state Transportation Improvement Program approved by the California Transportation Commission, StanCOG was allocated $25 million. In 2014 that amount fell to $13 million.