Higher gas tax will generate millions to fix local roads — if it survives repeal effort

Bill Mavety stands on a patchy piece of Amapoa Avenue in Atascadero — a road that was never accepted into the city’s system.
Bill Mavety stands on a patchy piece of Amapoa Avenue in Atascadero — a road that was never accepted into the city’s system. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Editor’s note: This is one of three stories on the state of SLO County roads. Find out what it will take to get them up to grade, and search our databases for your street to see how it rates.

Every jurisdiction in the county wants better roads, but it’s going to cost big bucks to bring worn-out pavement up to acceptable standards.

Collectively, local agencies will have to spend roughly $43 million per year over the next decade to reach their road improvement goals, according to the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG).

Some financial help is on the way, but because that means higher gas taxes and vehicle license fees, not everyone welcomes it.

SB 1, a 10-year, statewide transportation tax approved this year by the Legislature, will generate an estimated $10 million per year for road repair and maintenance in San Luis Obispo County when it’s fully implemented, reducing the shortfall to $33 million.

The revenue is not a sure thing, however.

Opponents — who include the local Central Coast Taxpayers Association — are trying to get a measure on next year’s ballot to repeal SB 1. They see the tax and fee increases as a rip-off, especially for lower-income Californians. They believe the state should live within its means, and they don’t trust Sacramento to allocate additional tax revenue to local agencies.

“Although the revenue from this new tax and fee increase is supposed to be dedicated to transportation, history has demonstrated that Sacramento will find ways to spend these resources on other things,” said Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who voted against SB 1.

“In regard to the statewide initiative that would repeal the gas tax and increase in vehicle registration fees by up to $175: If the initiative qualifies for that ballot, then the voters will have an opportunity to make the decision. I trust their judgment,” he added.

Atascadero Mayor Tom O’Malley — whose city needs an estimated $11 million more each year to fix roads — was also skeptical: “We’ve not had good luck with the state keeping its promises.”

So far, he’s stayed out of the political battle over SB 1, he said. If it does survive, “our job is to be as frugal and effective as we can” with the funds, the mayor said.

Even so, it won’t generate nearly enough revenue to complete all road repair projects in Atascadero.

And it won’t touch the huge backlog of new projects needed to keep traffic flowing smoothly — though SLOCOG is applying for up to $25 million in SB1 funds to work on the bottleneck on Highway 101 through Shell Beach.

So where will the additional money come from?

A countywide transportation sales tax is the most obvious source of revenue. Last November, a half-cent sales tax increase almost passed in San Luis Obispo County. It captured 66.31 percent of the vote — but just missed the two-thirds majority (66.66 percent) required for passage.

So far, there’s been little public discussion of launching another campaign to pass a countywide, half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. Ron DeCarli, executive director of SLOCOG, believes that will change if SB 1 is overturned.

For now, though, public works officials continue to plug away, trying to make the most of limited resources. There has been progress. Morro Bay, for example, has raised the citywide average Pavement Condition Index — a 0-100 rating system for roads — to 66 from 63 over the past three years.

But sometimes, it’s two steps forward and one step back.

San Luis Obispo County, for instance, overall has a PCI of 64 — tantalizingly close to its goal of 65 — but that’s projected to drop to 62 by next summer.

“We have been (paving) quite a bit, particularly in Nipomo, but the 5-6 miles we pave each year is not moving the index upwards,” noted David Flynn, deputy director of county Public Works. “In addition to the 60 miles we seal coat each year, we need to be paving about 15 miles each year to (reach) the county’s target PCI of 65.”

Stephanie Finucane: 805-781-7933, @SLOTribOpEd

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