Nearly 75% of Sonoma County voters support renewing road sales tax, according to poll

Measure M, the quarter-cent tax voters narrowly passed in 2004, is expected to land on November 2020 ballot for early renewal and needs a two-thirds majority for passage.|

Roughly three of four voters would vote to renew Sonoma County’s quarter-cent sales tax that pays for local roads and transportation infrastructure if the measure was placed on the November 2020 ballot, according to polling results released Monday.

The county transportation authority paid for the poll to explore if it has backing countywide to seek renewal of the sales tax four years before it sunsets in April 2025.

About two of three respondents said they would vote yes on the tax if the county transportation authority’s current Measure M was increased to a half-cent tax. But support for both tax amounts waned tax residents heard opposition statements to the extension campaign and were presented with other tax measures on the ballot, with the quarter-cent option hovering around the two-thirds majority of county voters it needs to pass.

The quarter-cent tax is estimated to bring in revenues of $23 million a year toward upgrades to the county’s extensive road network, adding or maintaining bus and other transit services and building more bicycle and pedestrian paths. At a half-cent, the tax would provide about $45 million annually for the 20-year life of the proposed extension, including helping reach regional goals on greenhouse-gas emission reductions.

EMC Research, based in Oakland, conducted the phone and online polling of 600 residents during the last week of September, as part of a $75,000 contract that a transportation authority board subcommittee approved with Santa Rosa-based Muelrath Public Affairs in August.

Given the positive results, several board members at their monthly meeting Monday expressed intrigue at the prospect of pursuing the half-cent tax. However, mixed with the poll’s 4% margin of error, each also recognized the likelihood of a ballot packed with other financial asks of voters and said they would probably veer toward the safer bet of proposing no increase to their current tax rate.

“It’s just continuing what they’ve been paying and what they’re used to,” Petaluma Councilwoman Kathy Miller said. “If we were able to get to a half-cent and we could reach some of these aspirational goals, that would be great. But I think that the reality of it is that the ballot is going to be so crowded with competing tax measures that I don’t want us to fail.”

In addition to the road tax, the cities of Petaluma, Sonoma and Cloverdale each have signaled they’ll also pursue their own tax measures with residents. The county of Sonoma has shown interest as well in seeking a quarter-cent tax in November 2020 toward behavioral health needs, and a half-cent next March for countywide fire safety.

Also on the March 2020 ballot, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is expected to seek renewal of its own quarter-cent sales tax about a decade early or face significant budget woes. The SMART board will consider approving the ballot measure at their meeting on Wednesday. The results of a separate poll released last month showed that 69% of voters favored the early 30-year extension of the tax for the commuter rail agency.

Voters narrowly passed Measure M in November 2004, with 67.2% support. It marked the county’s fourth attempt to pass a 20-year tax measure toward transportation and infrastructure needs before finally achieving success.

The measure was initially projected to offer about $470 million, but missed some early annual returns due to the Great Recession. Since passage, it has now netted more than $270 million through spring 2019, with another $174 million in revenue expected for a variety of road and transit improvement projects before it expires.

The big-ticket item in the original measure was the Highway 101 lane-widening from Windsor to the Marin County line. About $180 million in tax revenue went toward the project, to pay for it and garner outside grant money at a ratio of better than 5-to-1.

The major highway project has been fully funded and is in the homestretch after construction began earlier this month on the last portion - a 3.3-mile segment from Corona Road to Lakeville Highway in Petaluma. As a result, county transportation authority board members Monday emphasized their ability to shift 40% of the money to other needs with a new measure instead of chasing the larger tax amount and risking losing it all.

“Because we’re now done with the freeway project, it opens up a lot of dollars to be reallocated,” said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County supervisors. “I’m sure we can spend a half(-cent). I’m sure we can spend a full cent if we really wanted to on roads and other transportation projects, but you have to go with the sure thing. The polling tells us the sure thing here, knock on wood, is a quarter-cent.”

The county’s transportation authority board is expected to make a final decision on the sales tax by early next year. Agency staff will then move through the approval process with each city before the county supervisors would affirm placing the measure on the November ballot no later than the first week of August.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

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