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Taxing Traffic

Ballot measures seek to improve North Bay transportation woes

By Joy Lanzendorfer

In November, an old issue will pop up again on the Sonoma and Marin ballots. If passed, two new measures would, among other things, widen Highway 101 from Windsor to Larkspur in exchange for higher sales tax.

Adding a lane to 101 has a bad history with voters. Sonoma County residents have already said no to paying for highway widening three times--in 1990, 1998 and 2000. In Marin County, a similar measure was shot down in 1998. Given the repeated rejection by voters, some may wonder why the issue is up for vote yet again.

"Why is it needed?" rhetorically asks Suzanne Wilford, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, with a laugh. "Do you live in Sonoma County?"

Such transportation problems as clogged freeways, traffic jams and potholes confront locals every time we get behind the wheel. But at the same time, these measures face competition from other government bodies seeking to clot their hemorrhaging budgets with an extra tax here and there (and there and there), putting pressure on proponents to explain exactly how the money will be used.

If Marin's Measure A, or the Traffic Relief and Better Transportation Act, passes, sales taxes will increase a half-cent from 7.25 percent to 7.75 percent. Sonoma County would only see a quarter-cent increase, from 7.5 percent to 7.75 percent.

Currently, Marin County has the lowest sales tax in the Bay Area. The proposed tax increase is estimated to generate $14 million a year for 20 years, equaling some $280 million. Over half of that amount, $154 million, would go to public transit, in particular the bus system, which was seriously affected by the recent Golden Gate Transit cuts. The next biggest chunk of 26.5 percent ($74.2 million) would improve local infrastructure like roads, bikeways and sidewalks. Another 11 percent would alleviate the traffic problems caused by parents taking their kids to school, which accounts for almost a quarter of Marin County's morning traffic. And finally, 7.5 percent ($21 million), would go to widening Highway 101's carpool lane from Terra Linda to Larkspur.

However, thanks to what is arguably the most controversial component of Measure A, the county will have to wait until 2015 to get that portion of the freeway widened if it doesn't pass, according to Marin County Supervisor Cynthia Murray.

"We saved for 15 years, collecting the money to widen that part of the freeway, and we still ran short," she says. "Waiting another decade is just not acceptable."

Sonoma County's Measure M, known as the Traffic Relief Act, would raise an estimated $470 million over 20 years. Of that, 40 percent ($188 million), would go to widening 101 from Windsor to south of Petaluma. Another 40 percent would go to roadway improvement, from fixing potholes to widening and extending important roads. Finally, 19 percent ($89.3 million), would go to bus routes, local transit and passenger rail.

Of the $89.3 million allocated to alternative transport, $23 million would go to the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), the project to create a rail system from Sonoma County through Marin. That money wouldn't be available to SMART until 2006. At that time, a new ballot measure will propose raising sales tax another quarter-cent to fund the rest of the passenger rail project.

If Measure M fails, SMART will run out of money next year.

"If it doesn't pass, it will be very difficult to keep the rail project from going into hibernation," says Steve Birdlebough, co-chair of Taxpayers for Better Transportation.

Marin's measure has seen "unbelievably light" opposition so far, according to Murray. Much of that may be because the people who drafted the bill paid close attention to why the last bill failed.

"The accountability we're offering the public helps, but it's also what's in the plan," says Murray. "We took out the more controversial parts of the last plan and pared it down to the most critical projects. So there's nothing in the plan for rail, nothing for open space, nothing about the Marin-Sonoma narrows."

With three rejections under its belt, Sonoma County will have to jump more hurdles than Marin in order to pass the bill. Many locals don't want to pay for widening 101 because California's gas tax, one of the culprits of California's higher gas prices, is supposed to pay for road improvements like widening major freeways.

"It's double taxation," says Fred Levine, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers' Association. "The state has already funded the widening of Highway 101, even though the state shifted the money to the general fund."

In the last few years, the state has taken money out of transportation and put it into the general fund, citing tight budgets. The state has also suspended Proposition 42, which requires it to put the money back into transportation within a certain amount of time.

But even if that had never happened, there still wouldn't be enough money to widen 101 because, says Wilford, the gas tax has not increased since 1990.

"As the cost and needs go up and the revenue stays the same, the gap is getting wider and wider, and it's harder to meet the needs," she says.

With state funding becoming unreliable, 17 counties accounting for 80 percent of the state's population are now so-called self-help counties, meaning they have taken on more responsibility for transportation issues through local taxes.

Since state government has repeatedly broken promises as to how and when it would use tax revenues, some critics worry that the taxes proposed by measures A and M won't be used for their intended purposes. To combat this concern, both counties plan to establish citizen oversight committees to ensure the funds go where they are supposed to.

In Sonoma County, some residents are upset that after years of waiting, the newest highway lane between Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa was a carpool lane. With few people using the lane at rush hour, many feel that it has had little impact on traffic problems.

The county was required to make the third lane a carpool lane because of environmental strings that came with federal funding. Despite appearances, Wilford assures that the lane has reduced traffic.

Though widening 101 continues to be a sore spot, the real controversy for the Sonoma County measure may lie in maintaining SMART. While there's support for the rail project in theory, some bristle when it comes to paying for it and others are flat out against it.

"The county didn't consider a sales tax until they were sidetracked by SMART running out of funds," says Levine. "I think Measure M is a ruse to keep the SMART bureaucracy going. But I think the taxpayers are smart enough to know when they are being had."

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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