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Roads are in need
Half of 1/2-cent sales tax would help pave streets
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Potholes are common in Ceres, some scattered along Roeding Road at Kay Street. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Before the decision is made to order a November election for a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation in Stanislaus County, officials will be outlining just where they want to see the money spent. So far, all have been in agreement that half of revenues will be used to fill potholes and other necessary road maintenance.

Cities like Ceres are trapped between the need to maintain roads to stave off more expensive repairs later while not having the money to do so. City officials say more tax money is needed and they're hopeful the voters agree this year.

Ceres city officials will be also pushing for the inclusion of millions of dollars for the proposed new Service/Mitchell/Highway 99 interchange.

Also to be determined by the 16-member policy board of the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG) is exactly what streets in Ceres will be improved with road maintenance funds. Officials from StanCOG will be making presentations to the nine city councils in Stanislaus County within the next month. The goal is to wrap up the spending outline by the end of April.

"They want to be as specific as possible because most of the polling data indicate people want to know, they don't just want broad numbers," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells. "They want to know what's getting fixed. Most people want to know that the road that they drive on to get to work, to school, to church, to the grocery store, is going to get fixed and that's the detail that most people are looking for."

Efforts to pass the sales tax increase for road funding failed in 2006 and 2008, with the last effort falling short by 175 votes. Polling data suggests that voters may go for it in November.

StanCOG has decided against allocating any tax measure funding for the extension of the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) train line through Stanislaus County. The ACE train was seen as harmful to win passage.

"ACE did not make the cut per se," said Wells, "however that doesn't mean ACE is not supported. The hope would be with the expenditure plan they would free up other monies to fund ACE. But ACE did not poll well. People did not support it as part of a half-cent sales tax."

Promised in the failed 2008 measure was $31 million for the Service/Mitchell interchange. How much the city of Ceres snags for the new measure is unknown.

"We'll know in a couple of months," commented Wells.

A 25-year tax increase could generate an estimated $970 million for county and city jurisdictions to spend on roads. StanCOG officials have designated half of the revenue toward pavement maintenance and 28 percent for new construction of regional road projects.

The three major corridors to be focused on for new construction are the North, 132 and South corridors.

Ceres is hoping the measure passes for the sake of local street maintenance.

"That funding source does not exist," said Wells.

Wells said extra tax money is needed to preserve the condition of Ceres street pavement, which will continue to worsen without extra funding. In 2014 StanCOG hired Nichols Consulting Engineers to analyze each of the nine cities' pavement conditions. At the time 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 for slurry sealing and pothole filling to avoid more expensive fixes later.

The 2014 Nichols study concluded that Ceres should be spending $2.2 million annually on street maintenance but spends only $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.

Last week StanCOG approved the allocation of $200,000 to help educate the public on the need for a transportation tax. The nine cities and the county will contribute to those costs on the basis of their volume of sales tax revenue.

The tax measure is being formulated at a time in which other sources of state funding for major road projects are decreasing. The California Transportation Commission issued a notice saying that the decrease in gas prices is resulting in a decrease in tax revenues by $750 million. That immediately affects $7.4 million in Stanislaus County projects, possibly even the Pelandale Avenue interchange in north Modesto which is halfway into construction.

The $55 million Pelandale project had funding from STIP, or Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, which are tied directly to gas tax monies. That could put the project at risk. To help ensure that Pelandale is completed, StanCOG officials are offering to delay widening of McHenry Avenue between Ladd Road to the Stanislaus River bridge as well as put off the Highway 132 bypass near downtown Modesto. The 132 bypass - which has $28 million in local money set aside for it - was to break ground this year but will be delayed two more years. The groundbreaking for the McHenry widening project will delayed from 2017 to 2019.