Half-cent sales tax would bring money to SLO County roads

Repeal of the state gas tax could delay regional projects in San Luis Obispo County, including congestion relief for Highway 101 through Shell Beach, as seen here.
Repeal of the state gas tax could delay regional projects in San Luis Obispo County, including congestion relief for Highway 101 through Shell Beach, as seen here. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Among the many decisions San Luis Obispo County voters will make on the Nov. 8 ballot is whether to pay more in sales tax for nine years to relieve traffic congestion, make road improvements, add bike lanes and perform other transportation upgrades.

Measure J, which would add a half-cent to every dollar of an item purchased, would also make San Luis Obispo County into a “self-help” county with its own funding stream — rather than relying on state or federal dollars — that can only be used on local transportation projects.

If approved by two-thirds of voters, the measure would generate an estimated $25 million a year over nine years, for a total of $225 million.

The money would be divvied up to regional projects throughout the county; to each city in the county as well as the unincorporated areas for projects selected by each jurisdiction; to bike and pedestrian safety proposals; and to enhanced public transportation for seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.

The measure has received the support of all seven cities in the county as well as the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, the county’s transportation planning agency.

State and federal transportation funding has dropped sharply in recent years, according to the transportation investment plan approved in July by the SLOCOG board. The primary funding source, the gas tax, hasn’t been raised in 20 years, and cars have become more fuel-efficient.

But opponents of Measure J say Sacramento politicians have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

“Instead of fixing our roads, Sacramento politicians have taken our local gas tax dollars, as well as other transportation funds, and carelessly spent those dollars on failed programs and bureaucracies,” wrote opponents Andrea Seastrand, president of the Central Coast Taxpayers Association, Terri Stricklin, secretary of the association, and Walter Nielsen, secretary/treasurer of the SLO County Cattlemen’s Political Action Committee in the ballot argument against the measure.

“They want you, the forgotten and overburdened taxpayer, to pay yet again.”

The opponents argue billions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on programs such as the high-speed rail project, and that Caltrans is overstaffed.

“Another tax increase is not the solution to our problem,” they wrote. “Sacramento politicians need to prioritize spending, cut the waste and bureaucracy and fix our roads.”

Measure J supporters agree that Sacramento politicians have failed to respond to local transportation needs.

But, “do we honestly think that those elected by Los Angeles and San Francisco voters are suddenly going to see the light and start fixing our local roads and highways?” Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham, Paso Robles Councilman Fred Strong, Grover Beach Councilwoman Barbara Nicolls and Noreen Martin, past president of Visit SLO County, wrote in a rebuttal to that argument.

“Local Republicans and Democrats agree we have to take charge of our crumbling infrastructure, and bypass the state bureaucracy,” they wrote.

Delaying repairs will only make eventual costs skyrocket, they added, and repairs and improvements will be made in every area of the county. They say about 50 percent of the money will come from sales tax paid by visitors who use San Luis Obispo County roads.

Some of those larger improvements include congestion relief on Highway 101 through Shell Beach and Pismo Beach; on Highway 227 and Prado Road in southern San Luis Obispo; on Highways 101 and 46 East in the North County (including areas of congestion at interchanges through Atascadero and Templeton); and at the intersection of Main Street and Highways 1 and 41 in Morro Bay.

The measure requires public reporting of an annual audit and would form an Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee to ensure the plan for the revenue is carried out.

Campaign contributions

Citizens for SLO County Self-Help Local Transportation, the committee formed in support of Measure J, has raised $130,670 so far this year, according to the most recent campaign finance statement. It has spent about $117,506 as of Sept. 24.

Some of its contributions have come from construction companies including Papich Construction of Pismo Beach; CalPortland Co. of Glendora; Souza Construction Inc. of San Luis Obispo; Toste Construction Inc. of Arroyo Grande; and Madonna Enterprises LLC of San Luis Obispo. The largest contribution of $45,000 was given by the Southern California District Council of Laborers’ Issues Political Action Committee, from Sacramento.

Other organizations in support include the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, the San Luis Obispo Bicycle Club and the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council.

The Central Coast Taxpayers Association filed a statement allowing it to raise money to oppose the measure but did not report any campaign contributions. A statement must be filed if more than $2,000 is raised during a calendar year, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

On its website, the association noted other organizations against the measure, including the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business; the San Luis Obispo Property and Business Owners Association, and the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County.

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO