Budget issues cause San Luis Obispo Council of Governments to poll public on priorities

Facing a $3 billion shortfall to pay for the projects it wants to build over the next two and a half decades, the county’s regional transportation planning agency has decided to find out what the public thinks its priorities should be.

“Revenues are deteriorating dramatically,” Ron De Carli, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, told The Tribune.

“We’ve gone from a fairly huge amount of funding down to a trickle,” he said. “We’ve been living on the resources of the past.”

De Carli said projected revenues over the next 25 years are $1.8 billion, while the cost of the county’s and cities’ many “wish list” projects is $4.8 billion.

In fact, the $1.8 billion for projected income might be “overly optimistic,” De Carli told his agency’s board of directors recently. The board includes representatives from each of the seven cities in the county, as well as all five members of the county Board of Supervisors.

The board gave De Carli the go-ahead to begin looking for a consultant to conduct “a focused public opinion poll” to see what projects county residents consider most important.

State and federal money for roads, interchanges, bike trails, public transit and other local and regional transportation and infrastructure projects flows through the Council of Governments.

Projects that began seven or eight years ago when there was money for them are moving along nicely, he said, citing the Willow Road interchange and extension in Nipomo and widening of portions of Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.

However, federal and state funds have dried up in general during the recession, he said, as governments take in less money. That has been exacerbated by other factors, such as a reduction in gas tax revenue caused by people driving less and converting to electric cars.

Among the projects now being called into question is further extension of Highway 46.

“Funding was expected to widen 46 (East) about halfway to Kern County ... but now funding for all future 46 (East) widening phases (east of Almond) is questionable,” the Council of Government’s James Worthley wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune.

Worthley added that “cost-cutting measures (shorter hours, fewer days, less coverage, increased fares, postponed replacements) and reduction in services in the North County is ... likely” in public transit.

Some desired freeway interchanges also will face new scrutiny, as will bike lanes, trails, park and ride lots, road maintenance and many other projects, Worthley wrote.

The poll would help the Council of Governments set priorities on which of these many proposals should hold sway, De Carli said.

“This will become an unfolding story,” De Carli said of his agency’s fiscal situation.

The dire projections about roads, bike trials and public transit are part of a growing chorus from government agencies delineating the things they cannot do because they don’t have the money.

In recent weeks, for example, the county animal shelter has said it cannot afford to hire a full-time volunteer coordinator or replace unpaid Honor Farm trustees with better-trained paid workers, and the county parks department has told supervisors it cannot conduct a “needs assessment” because it cannot afford the $200,000 for a consultant.

The complaints are forcing elected officials to carefully assess what they consider most important to their constituents and make choices.

Tales of spending restrictions are likely to increase this week as governments and agencies react to Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposals, which, while calling for tax increases, also target community college, mental health, health and social service programs for cutbacks.