Officials ponder possible tax measures to fix roads
Published: Monday, April 22, 2013 at 2:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 22, 2013 at 2:51 p.m.
As the county struggles to fund maintenance of its 1,382 miles of roads, both local residents and elected officials are trying to come up with solutions to the ongoing problem — looking at everything from extending the Measure M quarter-cent sales tax increase to a possible county vehicle tax, to a long-shot effort at restructuring the state's gas tax allocation.
Officials are studying these options in response to the ongoing public outcry over the worsening condition of Sonoma County roads — conditions that some say stem from decades of neglect by county supervisors.
“This is a very deep hole that a generation of supervisors not doing their job has dug for us,” said Craig Harrison, co-founder of the countywide citizens' group S.O.S. Roads (Save Our Sonoma County Roads). “We give the current supervisors credit for finally looking at the problem and allocating an extra $8 million to county roads last year, but in the end, how much did it help? It fixed 13.2 miles of the almost 1,400 miles of road that need work. We need a long-term solution now.”
David Rabbitt, Petaluma's representative on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said that certain decisions have left Sonoma County at a particular disadvantage when it comes to maintaining county roads. He pointed specifically to the California gasoline tax revenue allocation as a prime culprit. The way the state's gas tax revenue is distributed means that counties only receive 20 percent of all revenue generated from the sales tax on gasoline. While that typically is enough to maintain county roads to a drivable level, Rabbitt pointed out that Sonoma County has by far the most miles of county roads of any county in the state.
“The county with the second most miles of county roads has half that much,” said Rabbitt.
The funding problem has been exacerbated by declining revenues and increasing personnel and pension costs in recent years, leaving Sonoma County with a backlog of road maintenance totaling between $600 and $900 million.
One of the most talked about and viable options being considered is the extension of Measure M, a quarter-cent, 20-year sales tax passed by voters in 2004, to help fund various transportation projects, including the Highway 101 widening effort. The tax was expected to bring in an additional $17-30 million per year but has fallen short of those projections since the economic downturn. As it stands, funding for the Highway 101 widening project alone is still $110 million short, leaving a stretch of the highway unfinished from Petaluma Boulevard North to the county line.
Many local officials have suggested extending Measure M, possibly through 2036. S.O.S. Roads recently conducted an unscientific online survey with about 625 participants, which showed that approximately half of those polled drive on county roads daily. Results from the survey found that approximately 67 percent of those polled at least somewhat approved of a 10-year Measure M extension on the condition that 80 percent of the funds would be allocated to county and city roads and streets. Currently, only 20 percent of Measure M's revenue goes toward local road maintenance.
Penngrove resident and S.O.S. Roads co-founder Michael Troy said that while the survey was informal, it did show that people are generally concerned about the issue. “If you look at the numbers, people want something to be done about the condition of local roads,” said Troy. “Lengthening Measure M seems like a likely option because it's something people are already living with.”
Rabbitt has been searching for extra funding since he started a county roads committee with Supervisor Shirlee Zane last year. He said that the committee and the supervisors are continuing to look at options to repair county roads, including a Measure M extension. But Rabbitt pointed out that such an extension is not a permanent solution.
Even if Measure M was extended, with 80 percent of the revenue going to local roads, it would only generate an estimated $4 million per year for county roads — enough to repair and maintain approximately 7 miles per year, according to SOS Roads.
“But at this point though, we'll take anything we can get,” added Harrison.
Another option being bandied about is a possible $20 per year vehicle tax. There are about 466,000 vehicles in Sonoma County, meaning a $20 annual vehicle tax would raise approximately $9.3 million per year. According to the S.O.S. Roads survey, approximately 57 percent of those polled approved of this option, falling short of the needed 66 percent required to pass such a specialized tax.
Increasing the county hotel tax from its current 9 percent to 12 percent — as it is in Napa, Healdsburg and Rohnert Park — could raise as much as $2.5 million per year and fared much better on the road survey. Nearly 63 percent of participants at least somewhat approved of that option.
Meanwhile, Rabbitt said restructuring the gas tax funds so that the county would receive more revenue remains unlikely because Sonoma County is alone in lobbying for that. However, he said it won't stop him and the other supervisors from advocating for it.
Rabbitt added that the condition of county roads continues to be a major concern for the board of supervisors, and said that while they are not ready to present any additional tax measure to the public yet, the county will be engaging cities and local governments in order to continue addressing this ongoing issue.
“It took us many years to develop this problem,” said Rabbit. “It's going to take some time to get out from under it.”
(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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