For a countywide tax measure widely considered to be a long shot, Measure J exceeded expectations in the Nov. 8 election.
The half-cent transportation sales tax was supported by 66.3 percent of San Luis Obispo County voters, but because it was a special tax earmarked for roads and transit, Measure J needed a two-thirds supermajority — 66.67 percent — to win.
Though it ultimately failed, backers of the measure are pleased it did so well.
“Sixty-six percent would be a landslide for any other kind of measure,” said Ron De Carli, executive director of San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) — the agency in charge of allocating funds for regional transportation projects.
The question now is: What next?
Without the funding Measure J would have provided — $225 million over the nine years the sales tax would have been in effect — transportation planners are rethinking their strategy; some regional projects aimed at alleviating bottlenecks may have to be delayed or cut.
Because Measure J came so close to passing, trying again in 2018 seems like an obvious solution to the revenue shortfall, but that may not be so easy next time.
Voters could petition to place a transportation tax on the ballot, but that process is cumbersome. The more expeditious route is for a majority of cities and the county Board of Supervisors to put the tax in front of voters.
For that to happen, at least three votes would be needed on the county Board of Supervisors, and without Frank Mecham, three votes may be difficult to muster in the future.
If 464 “no” votes had gone the other way, Measure J would have passed, according to the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments.
Mecham’s departure leaves only two supervisors — Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill — who would be likely to support putting the question to voters again. The two other returning supervisors — Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold — voted against putting Measure J on the ballot because they believed it would be too burdensome on taxpayers. John Peschong, who has replaced Mecham on the board, has not spoken favorably of the tax, either.
During the campaign, Peschong told The Tribune he didn’t believe the tax measure had enough support to clear the two-thirds hurdle, and for that reason he would not have voted to place it on the ballot.
Although the measure came close to passing, Peschong hasn’t changed his mind. He pointed out that the measure did not do as well in his North County district as it did in other areas of the county.
“I figured I was on the right side of that issue,” he said.
Peschong, like many other opponents of the tax, believes the state failed its citizens by diverting local transportation dollars to state coffers in years past. Opponents also say misplaced spending priorities — not a lack of revenue — are to blame for the continued lack of funding.
Peschong favors uniting with other counties to lobby for improved state funding.
“I think there’s a renewed interest in getting the state to pay for their roads like they have (in the past),” he said.
State lawmakers have been working on a solution, but the fix currently on the table involves increasing fees and taxes, rather than reordering budget priorities. This month, legislation was reintroduced that would:
▪ Raise the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over three years.
▪ Increase the annual vehicle registration fee by $38.
▪ Add a $100 vehicle registration fee for zero-emission vehicles.
As currently written, Senate Bill 1 earmarks the new revenue for addressing deferred maintenance of state highways and local roads. Funds could be used for other purposes only if a local jurisdiction’s average pavement condition index is 80 or higher, on a 100-point rating system. (According to a 2015 county report, the county’s average was 61. That was for roads in the unincorporated areas only.)
And tax and fee increases — which have been debated for many months — are not a sure thing, even with Democrats now holding a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature.
“There are no givens here,” said De Carli, adding that many of the Democrats are moderates who may not favor tax and fee increases. “My prediction is there will be some money for local streets and roads and Caltrans highway maintenance, and little money or none for highway capacity.”
SLOCOG has identified a need for 25 major highway projects over the next 10 years, at a cost of $260 million. Under the current funding scheme, it expects to receive $50 million, meaning there will be a shortfall of $210 million.
A couple of examples:
Fixing the bottleneck on Highway 101 through Shell Beach would cost about $34 million. There’s maybe $10 million available — possibly enough to build an additional lane that would be open only during rush hours.
Relieving congestion on Highway 227 would cost an estimated $11 million; SLOCOG has about $3 million available — enough for one roundabout.
There also are shortfalls in budgets for bike lanes and public transportation — both replacing buses and building new transit facilities.
“We have enough for about half-a-bus a year,” De Carli said.
SLOCOG isn’t giving up. It will join with other counties in continuing to advocate for more state and federal funds for transportation improvements — a tactic it’s been using for years.
It could also broach the subject of another local tax measure, but that’s not on SLOCOG’s radar right now.
“It’s too early to say. It’s going to be up to the elected officials whether they want to,” De Carli said.