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StanCOG to gain support for local transportation tax
Road maintenance in Stanislaus County is only half the reason why officials may be seeking a half-cent sales tax increase for the November ballot. Alligator cracks in pavement are turning into serious pot holes in Stanislaus County, an official with StanCOG told the Ceres City Council on Monday evening.

Roadways in Stanislaus County might have a better chance for receiving much-needed improvements, as the Stanislaus Council of Governments, the regional transportation planning agency, heads to each of the nine cities to garner support for a countywide local transportation tax.

Although the countywide transportation tax failed by a narrow margin in the 2006 and 2008 general elections, the county hopes to get it back on the November ballot this year. The measure, if passed, would increase sales tax a half-cent over a 25-year period.

In January, the StanCOG Policy Board, comprised of representatives from each city within the county, voted in favor of a framework for the expenditure plan should the tax initiative get approved. While the board has not yet voted to officially place the measure on the November ballot, StanCOG Executive Director Carlos Yamzon says that he hopes the expenditure plan will help the agency receive support from the local city councils.

"All that we approved is a framework for the expenditure plan, which is basically, ‘if we had a tax measure, what would the money be spent on,'" said Yamzon. "All we're doing now is going to the city councils throughout the nine cities to make sure that we have the full support of all the local council members."

Yamzon visited the Ceres City Council on Monday and hopes to visit each council within the county by the end of March.

According to Yamzon, the approved framework will see 47 percent of the funds allocated to highways and corridors of regional significance, another 47 percent to local road maintenance, and the remaining 6 percent to alternative modes. Of that six percent dedicated to alternative modes of transportation, 80 percent is allocated for rail, 15 percent for mobility management for seniors and the disabled, and five percent to bicycle and pedestrian projects.

The Ceres City Council indicated that they aren't thrilled about supporting the tax unless it ultimately makes the Mitchell/Service/99 interchange a reality. But Yamzon indicated that the projects that are being funded first are those that are ready to be constructed. The Mitchell interchange is not as close. He indicated it's important for the cities to get onboard with the funding percentages before specific road projects are outlined to voters.

Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra said that he is supportive of the tax but fears voters won't support it if StanCOG does not clearly list projects that will be accomplished once it passes.

Councilman Ken Lane said Ceres voters may be hard to convince since they already voted to implement a half-cent sales tax for public safety in Measure H.
"Even though the Policy Board, who will decide whether or not to put the tax measure on the ballot, is made up of representatives from each of the city councils within the county, we would like to make sure that we have the full support from each council as a whole," said Yamzon. "It's just part of the outreach that we're doing."

The framework for the expenditure plan will allocate the revenue collected from the local transportation tax to various roadway and infrastructure improvements, if approved.

Should a countywide local transportation tax be approved by voters, Stanislaus would qualify as a "self-help" county, making the region eligible to use local dollars to leverage billions of federal and state dollars each year to dedicate towards transportation system improvements. According to Yamzon, the expenditure plan approved by StanCOG in January would generate nearly $970 million over the span of 25 years.

Although the Policy Board has not yet decided whether or not to put the tax measure on the November ballot, Yamzon says that should the agency feel there is enough regional support for the local transportation tax, the board could make a decision by March.

"We're just seeing if we can get support," said Yamzon. "We're calling it a resolution of support. Based on what we find, the Policy Board will make a decision no later than the March meeting."

Yamzon said that 81 percent of state residents pay a local sales tax for road improvements, which places Stanislaus County in the minority.

He said congestion in the county will only get worse if no additional road revenues are generated. He gave as an example the Briggsmore overpass in Modesto. He said the current configuration was intended to serve traffic needs for 20 years and said "it's going on 40."

Jeff Benziger contributed to this report.