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Petaluma offers guarded support to transit tax


Sonoma County transportation planners are getting generally positive feedback from city leaders about putting a $10 vehicle registration transit tax on the November ballot, but several potential roadblocks remain.

Tuesday night, Petaluma's City Council supported putting the tax before voters, but expressed concern that it would pass, how the money would be spent and who would control it.

Santa Rosa and Sebastopol's councils were scheduled to hear the issue Tuesday night, but their discussions were running late into the night.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority proposed a ballot measure in March, but dropped it amid concerns that it was being rushed onto the June ballot and questions about how spending priorities would be set.

Another consideration is exactly how the money, an estimated $5 million a year, would be divided among local governments, and what type of projects would qualify.

Only projects that have a demonstrable affect on congestion and air pollution could be considered, according to agency staff reports.

Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt suggested polling residents on how much they would agree to levy themselves, whether they preferred a regional pool of money or local control, and how important the inclusion of street maintenance or a sunset clause would be.

The SCTA is expected to make a decision this month on whether to put the new fee to a vote. The SCTA meets Monday. The deadline for qualifying for the November ballot is Aug. 6.

In meetings over the past two weeks, council members in Healdsburg, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Cloverdale and Windsor all showed at least some support for the tax. Several council members said they doubted taxpayers are inclined to tax themselves during such uncertain economic times.

Healdsburg and Cotati wanted a 20-year sunset clause to the tax, which would be added onto vehicle owners' annual DMV registration fees. Rohnert Park and Windsor wanted a guarantee that road maintenance projects could be funded through the measure.

Cloverdale wanted assurances that it would receive some benefits from a regional master transit plan.

"We have the months of May, June and July to fine tune any measure that might go on the ballot and desires that councils might have," said SCTA chair and Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie.

The full transportation board will consider how monies would be spent — with a regional approach, a "return to source" that would allow each jurisdiction to determine its priorities or a hybrid of those.

Of the first year's funds, the original proposal had allocated $3.63 million for Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Petaluma bus systems, $398,729 for the Safe Routes to Schools program and $697,775 for bicycle paths.

The SCTA is also considering whether to spend an estimated $30,000 to poll residents about the likelihood of a tax measure passing given the gloomy economic climate. There appeared to be little support for a poll during most city councils' discussions, although Petaluma felt it was prudent.

SCTA Executive Director Suzanne Smith said other Bay Area counties considering similar ballot measures have received positive polling numbers, suggesting Sonoma County's would also.

She said seven other counties — Marin, Napa, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Solano — are likely to put local vehicle registration fees on the November ballot.

Legislation that was signed into law last year allows transportation authorities to go to the ballot with the registration fee requests, which need only a simple majority to pass.