Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Taxing Transportation

Taxing Transportation - Measure Would Raise Money to Fix Highways, Fill Potholes, Run Ferries
By Barry Eberling

Traffic rolls down Highway 12 just west of Interstate 80 on Tuesday. Measure H will expand Highway 12 to four lanes. (Photo by Zachary Kaufman/Daily Republic)

Editor's note: A Measure H story tomorrow will explore why counties started turning to transportation sales taxes.

FAIRFIELD - Solano County is expected to get $2 billion in federal, state and regional transportation money during the next 25 years - far short of the $5.7 billion it wants.

That's not enough money to widen all the roads, fill in all the potholes and run all the buses, trains and ferries, local transportation leaders say. They want to pass a half-cent county transportation sales tax to help fill the gap.

Voters will decide June 6. They'll vote on Measure H, which is to raise an estimated $1.57 billion over 30 years.

County transportation tax measures failed in 2002 and 2004. Those versions got 60 percent and 64 percent of the vote. They needed 67 percent, or two-thirds of the vote, to pass.

Now comes Measure H, with a retooled spending list, trying to prove the third time's a charm.

Looking for more federal money

Measure H's spending list allots 40 percent of the measure's proceeds - an estimated $625 million - to highways.

Included in this category are dozens of projects including big-ticket items, such as improving the Interstates 80 and 680 interchange and widening Highway 12 in Jameson Canyon to four lanes. It also includes an array of ramp and lane improvements on highways and freeways all over the county.

But for all of this to get done, that $625 million in sales tax money would have to do the work of more than $2 billion. That's how much money is needed to complete all the eligible highway projects. The sales tax alone can't come near to doing the job.

"The intent is not to fully fund the highway program," STA Executive Director Daryl Halls said. "This is the local match."

By offering some local funds, the STA hopes to attract more federal and state funds.

Getting matches doesn't always go as planned. Napa County in 1998 passed a sales tax for a flood control project along the Napa River. It lobbies for state and federal money every year. The project was to be finished this year, but the date has been pushed to 2011 because the state and federal governments have paid less than expected.

The STA already has a good record getting federal, state and regional funds, Halls said. For example, he said, it's already pulled together $150 million for the interchange.

"That's been our aggressive pursuit of state and federal money," Halls said.

Having the local tax would allow the STA to keep projects moving forward during tough fiscal times for the state and federal governments, Halls said.

Plus, the local money can pay to get the projects ready to build, Halls said. It can pay for such things as the environmental studies.

"It's a lot easier to get state and federal dollars for construction," Halls said.

The interchange

Improving the I-80/I-680 and Highway 12 interchange is a flagship - and complicated - project. Autos can back up for miles here, especially on Friday nights and holidays. A design dating back to the 1960s doesn't work well in 2006.

It's still unclear what a reconfigured interchange would look like, beyond extra lanes and better connections between the two interstates and nearby Highway 12. Details will emerge during the next few months and years, as options are explored, an environmental study is completed and design work is done.

An additional $702 million to $1 billion is needed to fix the interchange. The local tax is to provide about $250 million to $300 million, Halls said. That is to be the local match to secure more state and federal dollars.

"The interchange will attract the most federal and state attention," Halls said. "It already has. It's not very difficult to explain. It's a link between the Bay Area and Sacramento. People understand that back in Washington."

With the tax, construction could be done in phases between now and 2030 as the various improvements are needed, Halls said.

Without a local tax, renovating the interchange could take 30 to 50 years, he said.

Highway 12 in Jameson Canyon

Another major project is widening Highway 12 through Jameson Canyon from two to four lanes.

This highway links Solano and Napa counties. The daily commute between the two counties continues to grow. The six-mile-long stretch of highway in the canyon can become a parking lot Friday evenings.

Solano County will need some help from Napa County to get this project completed because the county line is in the canyon. Napa County also has a transportation sales tax measure on the June ballot.

The project is to cost $112 million. Solano County, Napa County and the state are each to pay $30 million, with the rest of the money already available.

But it's possible Solano County could pass a tax for its share and Napa County won't, or vice versa. In such a case, does only half of Highway 12/Jameson Canyon get fixed, with the improvements stopping at the county line?

"It wouldn't solve any problems," said John Ponte of the Napa County Transportation Planning Agency. "It doesn't make any sense."

If one county and the state each put up $30 million, the county without the tax would have a big incentive to put up the remaining $30 million - even at the expense of other projects, Ponte said. That's because the money will have a multiplier effect with the other money on the table.

That county might be able to borrow against future state dollars for other transportation projects to come up with its share, Ponte said. But he sees a steep price, with those other projects possibly going by the wayside. Such planned projects as an interchange at highways 12 and 29 in Napa might not get done.

Both the Solano County and Napa County sales tax measures are called Measure H. That's no accident. Highway 12 in Jameson Canyon is the link.

"That was done because of that joint project," Ponte said.

Caltrans has estimated the project could be done by 2016. Ponte thinks completion could come sooner.

Other freeway projects

But getting rid of the big, most infamous traffic knots isn't enough. STA studies show the bottlenecks would move to other areas on the highways and freeways. For example, traffic going north through an improved I-80/I-680 interchange could come to a halt from Fairfield through Vacaville.

The STA in 2004 completed a master plan for I-80, I-680 and Interstate 780. These projects are eligible for sales tax money.

Highways in other parts of the county could also benefit. The STA completed a plan for Highway 12 between Suisun City and Rio Vista in 2001. A plan for Highway 113 is to come. Projects from these various plans would also be eligible for tax money.

Mass transit

Nineteen percent of the tax, an estimated $305 million, is allotted to mass transit. This is less than transit advocates initially wanted.

The county gets money for mass transit from the $1 toll hike on regional bridges that started last year, Halls said.

County Supervisor Barbara Kondylis had wanted more tax money for mass transit. But she considers the carpool lanes, which are in the highway spending category, as a mass transit project. Buses use carpool lanes to avoid congestion.

"It seemed to me silly to buy all those express buses and have them sit in traffic," Kondylis said at the Feb. 28 board meeting.

About $190 million is to go to commuter mass transit. This is to pay for three commuter trains from the Bay Area to Sacramento, express buses on Highway 12 linking Rio Vista, Fairfield-Suisun and Napa, additional express buses to the Bay Area and an additional Vallejo ferry.

Another $115 million is to go to senior and disabled transit. Projects could come from the STA's 2004 "Solano County Senior and Disabled Transit Study." They could include expanded paratransit services and transit to medical offices, shopping centers and senior centers.

The study sees the need as being there. About 9 percent of the county's population is 65 or older. This could grow to 19 percent by 2030, the study said. The older population tends to drive less and depend more on mass transit that can meet its special needs, it said.

Whether the money will be there is the question. Halls sees none available without a local sales tax.

"If you want to expand you senior and disabled transit services, this is your opportunity to do it," he said.

Street maintenance and safety

Twenty percent of the tax, or as estimated $315 million, would go for street maintenance. This money would essentially help get rid of potholes in Solano County's seven cities and in the rural areas.

Each city and the rural county will get an annual amount that is determined by a formula. This formula looks at population and how many miles each county must maintain.

Fairfield for years has tried to spend $4 million annually on street maintenance. However, it seldom meets the City Council-approved goal and more often spends about $2.8 million. The city would receive about $2.2 million annually from the sales tax.

Supervisor Duane Kromm has expressed concerns that cities might simply replace their own maintenance money with the sale tax maintenance moneys. Then citizens would get a fiscal shell game instead of fewer potholes.

To address this, the tax measure says cities must keep spending the same amount of their own money on street maintenance as they did in 2005-06. If a city failed to do so, it wouldn't get the tax money. The intent is that the tax money supplement, not replace, the existing money, the measure says.

The tax gives 10 percent, or $155 million, to safety projects such as improved intersections and safer routes to schools. Projects eligible for the money are included an STA safety study.

Money to the county and its cities

Solano County and its seven cities would also get some transportation money from the tax that they could control. They would split 10 percent of the tax, or an estimated $155 million.

Once again, the allotments would be made according to a formula. Fairfield would get $40.2 million, while smaller Suisun City would get $10.4 million.

Projects could range from road improvements to building transit centers. Whatever is done is to follow the goals of the STA's Transportation For Livable Communities program. This program encourages pedestrian-friendly developments where residents depend less on cars.

Vacaville needs such things as more parking and an intermodal station for different types of mass transit, Mayor Len Augustine said at a May 2 forum on Measure H. Other cities have other needs, he said.

"It's not one size fits all," Augustine said.

The STA will determine if the goals of the Transportation For Livable Communities program are being met.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

Transportation tax spending list

Highway improvements and safety: $625 million, 40 percent. For highway projects throughout the county, including improvements at the Interstates 80/680 interchange.

Local streets and roads: $315 million, 20 percent. This money would fight potholes. Over 30 years, Fairfield would get $69.8 million, Suisun City $17.7 million, Vacaville $64.2 million, Vallejo $78.1 million, Benicia $19.4 million, Dixon $11.9 million, Rio Vista $5.1 million and the rural county $47.8 million.

Commuter mass transit: $190 million, 12 percent. For express buses, commuter trains and ferries.

Safety projects and safe routes to school: $155 million, 10 percent. Eligible projects include bike routes to schools, improved crosswalks, railroad crossings and traffic signals.

Money to county and cities for their own transportation projects: $155 million, 10 percent. Over 30 years, Fairfield is to get $40.2 million, Suisun City $10.4 million, Vacaville $34.3 million, Vallejo $47 million, Benicia $8.4 million, Dixon $7.4 million, Rio Vista $5.2 million and the rural county $4.1 million.

Senior and disabled mass transit: $155 million, 7 percent. Projects include more evening and weekend service, subsidized taxi services and fare discounts.

Solano Transportation Improvement Authority administration/finance: $15 million, 1 percent

Note: Based on 30-year revenue estimate of $1.57 billion

Source: Solano Transportation Authority

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