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Road tax: To be or not be?
Survey to gauge voter support for new countywide roads tax measure
roads pic
The Stanislaus Council of Governments will soon be surveying residents in Ceres and around the county on their interest in a sales tax that would go towards fixing cracked roads and other transportation projects. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

The effort to attain funding to fix the county's failing roads will continue as the Stanislaus Council of Governments will once again be polling county residents to assess voter support for a half-cent sales tax to fund road repairs and other transportation needs.

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.

According to StanCOG Executive Director Rosa De Léon Park, the agency is taking a different approach with this new poll.

"StanCOG is interested in hearing what the residents want to see in their communities," said De Léon Park.

She said the poll will survey residents in each community and see what they're willing to support, whether that is a regional corridor project like those supported in the past, a more local roads project or bringing the Altamont Corridor Express train into the county.

The newest poll results are expected to be presented to the StanCOG Policy Board by October.

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.

Turlock voters defeated their own measure to increase sales tax by a half-cent sales tax on the November 2014 ballot. While the poor condition of Turlock's roads is a chief complaint of many local residents there, the measure failed to receive the two-thirds vote needed to pass.

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, he said, supplies Ceres with $400,000 to $500,000 annually.