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Streets will deteriorate without tax hike
Council support for half-cent sales tax hinges on Service/Mitchell interchange funding
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City officials say they desperately need more money to fix roads in Ceres to prevent streets from getting as bad as Nadine Avenue west of Richland Avenue which rates as the worst. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Pavement conditions in Ceres and Stanislaus County will worsen without help promised if the voters approve a half-cent sales tax measure in November.

Officials countywide are being asked to weigh in and support a proposal that would allow voters to increase the sales tax in Stanislaus County by a half-cent for 25 years to raise $970 million for road infrastructure. A similar measure failed by a small margin in 2006 and 2008. The 2008 measure won 66.42 percent of the vote but needed a two-thirds majority.

Ceres councilmembers made it clear last week that they want the Mitchell/Service/Highway 99 interchange project included in the list of projects to be funded if a half-cent sales tax passes on the November ballot.

The agency promoting the tax increase is the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG). In January, the StanCOG Policy Board, comprised of 16 representatives from each city and the county, voted in favor of a framework for the expenditure plan should the tax measure succeed. While the board is yet to vote to place the measure on the November ballot, StanCOG Executive Director Carlos Yamzon said there is growing support of the cities for the expenditure plan.

The plan is to use 47 percent of the funds allocated to highways and corridors of regional significance, another 47 percent to maintain streets, and the remaining six percent to alternative modes of transportation, such as rail, public transit for seniors and the disabled, and bicycle and pedestrian projects.

At its Feb. 24 meeting, the Ceres City Council heard from its own staff that the measure would benefit Ceres streets by bringing in $1.26 million annually for road maintenance.

StanCOG hired Nichols Consulting Engineers to analyze each of the nine cities' pavement conditions. City Engineer/Deputy City Manager Toby Wells said Ceres rated an overall 69, or just beneath "good" condition on a scale of 1 being worst and 100 being perfect. But he said 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 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.

"As you get further along without doing preventative maintenance, the more it's going to cost," said Wells. "So the phrase, ‘pay now or pay more later' is really ‘pay a lot more later.' The longer you wait to do preventative maintenance the more it costs."

He noted that a slurry seal costs $4 per square yard and can prevent streets from sliding into the poor condition category.

In Ceres, the best road condition is Mitchell Road north of Whitmore Avenue since it received an overlay last year. An example of a 75 grade is Fourth Street between Lawrence and North streets. Second Street between Whitmore and Magnolia rated at 60. Wells showed photos of streets rated at 49, which require overlays. He noted that Mitchell Road, south of Whitmore Avenue, is rated at 35 and is scheduled for the next overlay.

Wells explained that a PCI (Pavement Condition Index) of 5 would be considered a "failed situation."

"Currently, per our study, our worst road would be Nadine just west of Richland," said Wells. "That's got a PCI of 17."

Wells said the report's "good news" is that 55 percent of all Ceres streets are classified as being in "good condition." The bad news is that "poor" conditions exist on 15 percent "and that's a pretty big number," said Wells.

When compared to all of the nine cities, Ceres road conditions are about in the middle of the pack. Modesto has the worst condition streets followed by Turlock and Waterford. Hughson is deemed as having the smoothest streets.

Ceres relies on the Local Transportation Fund, derived from its share of gasoline tax, for road maintenance. Wells said the 18-cents-per-gallon federal component of the gas tax has not changed since 1994 and some experts are calling for an increase to 30 cents per gallon. As cars become more fuel efficient, less gas is purchased and less tax paid per mile.

If Ceres continues to only spend $400,000 annually on street maintenance, the PCI would fall to 52 in 10 years and raise deferred maintenance to $63 million.

"That's a pretty significant need," said Wells.

Passage of a half-cent sales tax measure would allow Ceres to keep up with roads by raising $1.1 million annually for maintenance.

Road maintenance is only 47 percent of the tax and Wells spent time talking about regional road projects in the county that would be funded. They include the north county corridor of Kiernan Avenue, the central corridor of State Route 132 and the south corridor, specifically West Main Street from Turlock to Patterson.

The failed 2008 sales tax measure included $31 million or more for the Service/Mitchell interchange project. The city is "strongly pushing" StanCOG to include it in the next measure, said Wells.

No projects have been identified for the next measure but StanCOG staff believes the Ceres project should be included.

Wells said if the Service/Mitchell interchange is not included "I'd say we are not getting our money's worth. In essence we would be contributing $2.4 million per year and we'd only be getting $1.2 million back."

He said the project is key to good traffic flow in the county since it's used as a connection to multiple areas of the county.

Ceres resident Len Shepherd told the council that he would support the measure if it's guaranteed to be used only locally.

Renee Ledbetter of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce said she is curious about a local rail project that could develop from the tax and if Ceres can pressure for a stop between Turlock and Modesto. She also expressed concern about the 25-year duration of the tax.

Another benefit of passing the tax, said Wells, is that Stanislaus County 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.

Councilman Mike Kline, a member of the StanCOG Policy Board, said he supports the tax measure.

The policy board is to decide on the November ballot measure after seeing how the city councils have weighed in. Wells said details about the projects will be included later.

The council voted 5-0 to support the funding formula for a possible tax with the condition that the Service/Mitchell interchange is included.