SLO County voters should pay more for roads now — or suffer consequences later

Traffic is often bumper to bumper on southbound Highway 101 along the Shell Beach Straits.
Traffic is often bumper to bumper on southbound Highway 101 along the Shell Beach Straits. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

We aren’t fans of new taxes, but sometimes a little pain in the pocketbook is the lesser of two evils.

We believe that’s the case with the half-cent transportation sales tax that appears headed for the November ballot. It would be far better to shell out a little more money now than to let our roads continue to deteriorate to the point where repairs become far more expensive.

If approved, the San Luis Obispo Countywide tax would generate approximately $25 million a year for nine years. Finally, notorious bottlenecks that are making portions of our beautiful county look more and more like a mini-L.A. could get some attention.

Enacting the tax will be a heavy lift; it requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass. But given how important this is to our county’s future, it’s past time that voters were given the chance to decide this for themselves.

Yet two county supervisors, Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold, want to deny voters that opportunity. They’ve consistently voted against putting the sales tax measure on the ballot, and will likely do so again when it returns to the county Board of Supervisors one last time Tuesday.

Compton and Arnold believe Sacramento should be contributing more dollars to transportation.

So do we. However, just wishing it were so will not make it happen.

It’s time Arnold and Compton climbed down off their conservative soap boxes and faced facts:

Fact: Gas taxes that fund road repairs and improvements have declined on account of falling gasoline prices and more fuel-efficient cars.

Fact: Counties that have already passed a sales tax to fund transportation projects have been able to make substantially more progress on improvements. Santa Barbara County, for example, has a transportation tax, and that helped Santa Maria expand Highway 101 to three lanes in both directions.

Fact: Even if our state legislators start acting like adults and find a way to increase funding for transportation, it’s going to take years and years to address the backlog of needs.

In San Luis Obispo County alone, we’ll require $4 billion to take care of local and regional transportation needs over the next 20 years, according to Ron De Carli, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG). Yet SLOCOG has identified only $1.7 billion in revenue over the next couple of decades — less than half of what’s needed.

A half-cent sales tax wouldn’t fill that gap, but it would be a start. Under SLOCOG’s spending plan, it will, for example, provide $20 million to relieve congestion on southbound Highway 101, between Avila Beach and Shell Beach, and $8 million to improve Highway 227 south of San Luis Obispo.

Again, no one likes new taxes, but voters in this county have recognized they are sometimes necessary for the common good.

In every incorporated city, voters have approved a half-cent sales tax increase to augment city budgets. (And no, these are not transportation taxes, as Compton described them. The taxes are general, though some cities have made road repair and maintenance their priority.)

Voters also have stepped up and approved bond measures at several local school districts and at Cuesta College to build new facilities and renovate buildings that are worn out.

They’ve also turned down taxes they believed were unjustified, such as the Cayucos fire tax on the June ballot.

Voters are smart enough to think for themselves when it comes to new taxes. They don’t need county supervisors deciding that for them.

We strongly urge the county Board of Supervisors to place a half-cent transportation sales tax on the November ballot.

Facts about the tax

▪  Requires two-thirds majority approval to take effect.

▪  Sunsets in nine years.

▪  Requires a citizen oversight committee.

▪  Limits administrative costs to 1 percent.

▪ All revenue raised stays in San Luis Obispo County.

▪  Distributes revenue according to a set formula: 55 percent to local jurisdictions; 25 percent to regional highway improvements; 20 percent for bike and pedestrian safety and public transportation.