Over a Feb. 28 serving of eggs and sausage at the Howard Training Center, Ceres Chamber of Commerce as well as civic and business leaders heard about the need to pass a countywide half-cent sales tax for roads in Stanislaus County.
Carlos Yazmon, executive director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG), spoke about a plan to possibly place the half-cent sales tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot to generate $970 million over a 25-year period. The 16-member StanCOG policy board - made up of county and city officials like Ceres City Councilman Mike Kline - have been exploring the idea.
Attempts to pass a sales tax measure for roads failed in 2006 and 2008, the last falling short by 175 votes.
City councils have been weighing in on a spending formula if the tax is passed. Ceres has supported the expenditure plan which calls for 47 percent to be spent on road maintenance, 47 percent on new construction and six percent on alternative transportation.
Yazmon showed slides of local roads that are impacted with congestion and poor surfaces and suggested that the tax campaign be tied to quality of life.
"The Briggsmore interchange was designed for 20 years of traffic loadings," said Yazmon as he showed a photo of the overpass. "It's going on almost 50 years without any additional improvements. I think if we actually go for a campaign we'd use this and the caption would be ‘Do you know where your parents are?' They're stuck in traffic. And I think that's an important piece to note that transportation is a greater key to social issues. Follow your life and things that affect the family. I mean literally if you're stuck in traffic you're not home with your family."
The tax would infuse $456 million over 25 years for the county and the nine cities to spend on road maintenance. Ceres would receive $1.26 million each year. A recent 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 because gas tax monies are dwindling and asphalt prices have increased eight-fold since 1999.
Specific construction projects to be funded have yet to be set in stone but believed to include the Kiernan corridor between Riverbank and State Route 108; the Service/Mitchell Highway 99 interchange; Highway 132 from Waterford to the San Joaquin County line; and West Main Avenue from Highway 99 to I-5 in Patterson.
Included in the Central Corridor is 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.
Ceres would also receive $116,000 per year for bike and pedestrian projects. It would generate $349 million for "door through door" transportation services for seniors and disabled.
The tax would also help the region generate $1.8 million per year to help develop the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) commuter train that will ultimately run from San Jose, over the Altamont Pass to Merced. While proposed stops include Modesto and Turlock, Ceres Chamber officials would like to see a stop in Ceres. Yazmon noted that Ceres would need to meet criteria that include local investment, a location and ridership numbers.
"ACE is not really like a BART service where you can hop on and get off," said Yazmon. "You can hop on and get off but there's three trains per day ... so they're really more to serve the long range inter-regional commuters. A lot of people say, well, okay, why are we trying to send our work force to the better paying jobs outside the region? Well, commuter service works both ways. If the region can generate jobs here people will come here to work here. It works both ways."
The ACE line project is estimated to cost $2.4 million to operate and maintain.
If over two-thirds of the voters approve the tax, Stanislaus County would become a "self-help" county that would enable it to leverage for state and federal tax dollars. Nineteen counties in the state are self-help counties. He cited that Tulare County taxed itself to generate $49 million but leveraged to receive $200 million in matching funds in state transportation funds. San Joaquin County turned its locally generated $407 million into $740 million.
Yazmon said 81 percent of Californians pay into a transportation sales tax. All of the tax funds come back to benefit those areas.
Stanislaus County needs the tax, he said, 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.
"The deterioration, because of lack of maintenance, is happening faster than the cities can actually repair," said Yazmon. "Even with the status quo investment the cities are making, deterioration is still happening."
Winning approval of a new tax will require educating the voters, he said, and pleading the case that it will improve life with smoother and less congested roads.
Audience member Becki Barton Nicholes, not a fan of taxes, voiced that she felt "better about it already."