Transportation sales tax measure will not be on Nov. 2012 ballot

The county’s regional transit agency voted unanimously Wednesday against putting a transportation sales tax measure on the November 2012 ballot, after reviewing a poll that told them the proposal would not receive the two-thirds vote necessary to pass it.

Consultants D.J. Smith and Monte Ward told the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) that more than 60 percent of voters would support a half-cent or quarter-cent tax. But in California a minority of voters can override the majority on such a tax measure, and the consultants did not find two-thirds support for the proposal.

SLOCOG is a regional agency that includes all five members of the Board of Supervisors as well as a representative from each of the county’s seven incorporated cities.

The consultants’ message was grim. Money for transportation is shrinking, they said, and is not likely to increase any time soon, even as signs appear that the need for it will increase.

“The transportation system is fundamentally broken,” they wrote.

Counties have been in budget-cutting mode for years, and “we’re not seeing rescue from the state or federal government,” Ward said.

Smith said gasoline taxes are “a declining revenue source” as consumers turn more to hybrid and electric cars and use less fossil fuel. He estimated that there will be a million such vehicles in 2012 or 2013.

Smith said the county’s aging demographic also is worrisome. As the county’s population ages, he said, people are living longer and many will be unable to drive cars “for as long as 20 years at the end of their lives.”

Yet they will still need to get to the doctor or the grocery store, he said, and will need public transportation.Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chairs SLOCOG, said elected officials and organizations such as SLOCOG need to do a better job of letting the public know the consequences of their choices. He said “there is a gulf between what folks want and what they’re willing to pay for.”

Smith said as road and transit conditions get worse, the public will come to understand the situation. But he, Gibson, and nearly all the other SLOCOG members agreed that educating the public will be a key component of any future successful tax measure.

In particular, they agreed, the public needs to learn more about SLOCOG, through which millions of dollars are funneled each year for transportation projects throughout the county. The consultants’ poll showed that a majority of people have no idea what SLOCOG is, let alone how it works.

Morro Bay Mayor Bill Yates objected to the board discussing what must be done. He said SLOCOG had asked the consultants to find out whether a sales tax would pass and the rest was “beyond the scope” of the assignment. “Now it has turned into a sales deal.”

“The branding issue is critical,” replied Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara. “It’s important for the general public to understand COG and what it does.”

Supervisor Frank Mecham and others agreed.

Consultants also found that the level of trust in government has shrunk. Many voters don’t believe the government will spend their money wisely or as promised, they said. That phenomenon is greater at the federal and state levels, but “your numbers are going south,” Smith told the local leaders.

The consultants said they initiated 200 contacts, held 40 meetings and met with representatives of all the cities and the county as they conducted their study.

They asked 300 people if they would support a half-cent sales tax and 500 if they would support a quarter-cent sales tax. They reached 60 percent approval in both cases, but fell short of a two-thirds majority.

Among the other findings:

Congestion is “not a big issue” in San Luis Obispo County.

There is support for reducing fares for seniors, the disabled and college students and keeping fares from home to school and back affordable for K-12 students.

Respondents favored expanding carpooling, ride-sharing and van pool programs.

No local project received as much as 50 percent as a “high priority” item. Those with the greatest public support were the Los Osos Valley Road-Highway 101 interchange and widening Highway 46 from Paso Robles east to the county line.

Many other projects received less than 25 percent “high priority,” including relieving congestion at Price Canyon Road, Price Street and Highway 101; relieving congestion at the interchanges of Highway 101 with Grand Avenue and Brisco Road in Arroyo Grande; and improving Highway 101 interchanges in Atascadero and Templeton.