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Survey ordered for road tax
County leaders to gauge voter support for road tax hike
Potholes like this one on Nadine Avenue will only get worse if the county doesnt pass a half-cent sales tax in 2016. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo

A ballot measure to increase sales tax by a half-cent in Stanislaus County to help pave roads and pay for much-needed new road projects barely failed in 2008. County leaders agreed last week to spend $50,000 to gauge whether there is enough community support now to place a similar measure on the November 2016 ballot.

A majority of voters in the county supported a road tax measure in 2006 and 2008 but both measures failed to garner a two-thirds majority, or 66 percent plus one, for passage. Members of the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG) decided to spent $50,000 to conduct focus groups and surveys to see the firmness of support and decide by the end of summer if a measure next year is worth the effort.

A voter research firm determined that a 2014 measure would have been doomed to pass with a 61 percent support level. Plans for the measure were dropped, believing it will have a better chance of passage during the presidential election of 2016 as presidential elections tend to draw more voters who tend to have less cynical views on taxes.

Focus groups, which will start being held this month, will help gauge where tax funds should be spent. It's estimated that a half-cent sales tax would generate $970 million over a 25-year period. A measure could benefit Ceres if it includes an allotment for the Service/Mitchell/99 interchange in Ceres. It's also expected that Ceres and the cities would get millions of dollars to fix existing roads.

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.

Carlos Yazmon, executive director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG), said the measure should be pinned to the issue of the quality of life in Stanislaus County, noting that the more people are stuck in traffic, the less time with the family.

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.

Before it was dropped, the 2014 measure 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.

Prior tax allocation formulas called for $1.8 million to be spent 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. Proposed stops would be in Modesto and Turlock. Yazmon said ACE's three trains per day would help give Stanislaus County an economic boost.

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. Yazmon 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."