Bite the bullet for Measure B sales tax

By the Editorial Board

September 27, 2016 02:05 PM

Crews work in February on a joint project between Caltrans and the city of Sacramento on a connector bridge between Second Street and Capitol Mall. Without a federal or state funding package, local officials are promoting a half-cent sales tax increase to repair roads and boost Regional Transit. Rich Pedroncelli The Associated Press
Crews work in February on a joint project between Caltrans and the city of Sacramento on a connector bridge between Second Street and Capitol Mall. Without a federal or state funding package, local officials are promoting a half-cent sales tax increase to repair roads and boost Regional Transit. Rich Pedroncelli The Associated Press

Increasing a tax should never be done lightly, especially one that will last for 30 years. And Measure B – the Sacramento County half-cent sales tax for transportation on the Nov. 8 ballot – isn’t perfect; sales taxes hit hardest on the poor and don’t directly tie to transportation.

But the measure is the product of rare agreement among the county’s elected officials and recognition that neither a gridlocked Congress nor Legislature has seriously tackled transportation funding.

Given the decrepit condition of so much of Sacramento County’s transportation infrastructure, it would be foolish to wait. We recommend that county voters approve Measure B.

If it wins the two-thirds majority necessary to pass, Measure B would add on to the existing half-cent transportation tax, Measure A, which was approved in 1988, renewed in 2004 and goes until 2039.

While Measure A was weighted toward major new projects, Measure B rightly focuses on fixing and maintaining existing roads. In the first five years, at least 75 percent of proceeds are required to be spent on whittling down the estimated $1 billion maintenance backlog across the county. The same goes for Regional Transit, which must use three-fourths of its money to replace light rail cars and buses and improve service on existing lines, not on new lines.

The Sacramento Transportation Authority has flown below the radar with its oversight of Measure A spending, as has its independent taxpayer oversight committee. If Measure B is approved, the authority must recommit to go above and beyond in transparency and accountability – not just making sure that taxpayers have access to up-to-date information, but taking every step possible to make sure that information is widely seen. Roadside signs promoting that a project is “paid for by Measure A” aren’t enough anymore.

Proceeds from Measure B would be kept separate, and officials say they could not be used to backfill what some critics call reckless borrowing for Measure A projects.

If approved, Measure B would generate a projected $3.6 billion over 30 years. While 61 percent of revenue would go to repair and maintain roads, highways and bike paths, and another 9 percent to provide the local match to widen the congested Capital City Freeway and eventually build the Capitol SouthEast Connector between Folsom and Elk Grove, there’s a lot of focus on the 30 percent that would go to Regional Transit because of its well-publicized problems in service and finances, some of them self-inflicted.

Voters should be more comfortable because RT’s new leadership seems to be on the right track, winning over many of its biggest critics in the business community. Also, provisions in Measure B require that RT meet performance standards on increasing ridership, farebox revenue and financial reserves.

Sacramento isn’t the only county where officials have concluded they can’t wait for state and federal lawmakers to get their act together. Twelve others also have transportation sales taxes before voters Nov. 8. Measure M in Placer County, also a half-cent sales tax hike, would raise $1.6 billion over 30 years. We urge support of that measure, as well. It would help unclog the Interstate 80-Highway 65 interchange and add a passenger rail line between Roseville and Sacramento.

That’s a reminder that there needs to be even more coordination on major transportation projects across the region. SACOG is the agency in charge of that, so it’s encouraging that the newly chosen successor to longtime executive director Mike McKeever is James Corless, whose expertise is in public transit and transportation planning.

The Sacramento region’s economy grew at a 3.5 percent clip last year, the fastest increase since 2005, after adjusting for inflation. One sure way to slow growth and prosperity – not to mention worsen air quality – is for a region’s transportation system to get gridlocked for commuters and business.

It’s always painful to pay higher taxes. But the other options are even less appealing.