Desperate for Transportation Funds, Monterey County and Others Turn to Ballot Box
California's counties are desperate for transportation funds as state and federal dollars dry up. Eleven have put tax measures on the November ballot, including Monterey County. Transportation officials there are asking voters to raise the sales tax to fund an array of improvements.
Measure X would approve an increase of three-eighths of a percent over a 30-year period. The revenue would go to the county's Transportation Safety and Investment Plan to maintain local roads, reduce traffic, make walking and biking safer, and improve mobility for seniors and the disabled.
One major project would be to build an interchange at Highway 156 and Castroville Boulevard. It's one of the top locations for car crashes in the county. There cars zoom by as people try to merge on and off, and the plastic safety posts designed to protect a turn lane at the stoplight are all bent and broken.
“A stoplight at a fast-moving highway is not a good idea because not everyone stops,” says Debbie Hale, executive director of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County, or TAMC.
She adds that the condition of the county’s roads rank among the worst in California.
“The number one need is for road repairs, and we’d like to see road repairs happen in a way that does a better job of accommodating people who are walking and people who are biking,” she says.
But there’s no money. TAMC gets a majority of its funding for road improvements from the state and federal government. And the government gets its money from us through a gas tax, which fluctuates with how much gas we buy.
“You’ve got also a lot more alternative fuel vehicles here in California,” says Hilary Nixon, Chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Department at San Jose State University and researcher with the Mineta Transportation Institute. “With electric vehicles and some of the hybrid electric vehicles, they travel considerably further per gallon of gasoline.”
So they’re paying less of the gas tax but inflicting the same wear and tear on roads. And there’s another factor causing this steep decline in gas tax revenue.
“Inflation,” says Nixon. “Certainly since many of these fuel tax rates were set, inflation has gone up.”
The federal and state gas taxes were last raised in 1993. Meanwhile, Sacramento lawmakers have been discussing raising the gas tax and levying new fees on car owners. However, doing so requires a two-thirds vote.
And the county is tired of waiting. So TAMC is asking the public to chip in with Measure X, which will generate $600 million. Yet that’s enough to fund only about half of the county’s needs.
However, Hale says that money can be leveraged to get state and federal grants because with a tax, Monterey would become what’s called a self-help county.
“What’s happening now is that counties like Monterey are losing out to counties that have had their local sales tax, which have been self-help for a long time,” she says.
Earlier this summer in Salinas, TAMC brought community leaders to an event called Party at a Pothole. They ate cute transportation-themed cupcakes like “Rocky Road” and hosted a press conference. The pothole highlighted the work that needs to be done. The people were invited to show that TAMC has broad-based support for Measure X.
There were elected officials, the Monterey County Farm Bureau and even the normally anti-tax Salinas Taxpayers Association.
“We concluded that there was indeed a need, that the expenditures were generally appropriate and that there would be excellent oversight and checks and balances for taxpayers,” said the group’s president, Kevin Dayton.
But not everyone supports Measure X. A survey by polling firm EMC Research found 26 percent of voters currently do not support the tax, while 66 percent do. Measure X needs a two-thirds vote to pass.