Sonoma County considering sales tax increase to fix ailing roads

Sonoma County voters this November may be asked to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to repair much of the county's ailing road network.|

Sonoma County voters this November may be asked to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to repair much of the county’s ailing road network.

The proposed tax would raise an estimated $537 million over 20 years, or about $20 million annually, with the proceeds divided between the county and its nine cities through a formula weighing population and the number of road miles in each jurisdiction.

The move is primarily driven by the county, which has faced a political firestorm at least since 2010 over the degrading condition of its road network, consistently rated among the worst in the Bay Area. County officials say they don’t have the money needed to fix the problem as quickly as the public demands.

“We can continue with the status quo, which is slow and steady,” said Board Chairman David Rabbitt. “Or we can bump it up, accelerate it, and get the road network into good condition and keep it there.”

The Board of Supervisors is set to decide whether to place the measure on the ballot at its July 29 meeting.

The tax measure would be the long-sought puzzle piece to shore up the county’s beleaguered road network, which has suffered under dwindling or flat funding levels for years.

Last month, supervisors approved a long-term plan that would address the issue by committing $200 million over the next decade to improving more than half of the 1,370-mile county-controlled road system. The plan lacked details on a funding source but mentioned a sales tax as one option.

The draft ballot proposal was released this week in an agenda packet for the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, which could administer the new sales tax program if it advances to the November ballot and passes. It would need a two-thirds majority for approval.

Sonoma County already has two quarter-cent sales tax measures for transportation infrastructure - Measure M for highway improvements, commuter rail and local road projects, and Measure Q for commuter rail - as well as a quarter-cent sales tax to fund open space preservation. On top of those countywide taxes, cities have their own sales tax measures.

The Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association has not taken a formal position ahead of the Aug. 8 deadline to place a measure on the November ballot. Members of the group say they will back a sales tax for roads if the county agrees to certain conditions, including a commitment from the county to continue to rein in pension costs tied to county employees.

“There are circumstances that we could consider supporting a road tax,” said Jack Atkin, president of the group. “Our view is that no matter what the county or cities say taxes are for - parks or roads - they’re really for pensions.”

The tax money should be dedicated for roads funding, Atkin said.

The draft proposal says the 20-year sales tax measure would be used to “maintain, resurface and pave local streets and roads; fill potholes; improve traffic flow and mobility; and enhance safety.” It would require an audit to ensure the funds are being spent as mandated and would allow officials to issue bonds to finance road work.

Advocates for more road funding were happy to hear that the sales tax measure was moving forward, but encouraged the county to continue to fund road maintenance and not count on a sales tax as the only revenue source.

“What I’m hearing now sounds good to us, but I haven’t heard what (the Board of Supervisors) will put in from the general fund,” said Craig Harrison, co-founder of Save Our Sonoma Roads, an advocacy group. “To not put in money from the general fund is not sending the right signal to the electorate.”

In the past three years, the Board of Supervisors has injected an additional $8 million from the county general fund to repair about 100 miles of county roads. That work, however, has addressed just a small fraction of the overall county network, which has a maintenance backlog estimated at $268 million.

For the county, the proposed tax would generate an estimated $235 million over its lifetime, offsetting some of the chronic underfunding that has fueled the problem in the past decade. County officials say much of the problem lies with flat revenues from the statewide tax on gasoline and the way that money gets distributed to counties such as Sonoma, with a large number of rural road miles but a relatively smaller population.

Supervisor Mike McGuire, who along with Rabbitt worked on the county’s long-term roads plan, said the county is committed to using general funds and other county money along with state and federal funds to fix the roads. Those funds, added to the revenue from a potential sales tax and bond proceeds, would provide $30 million per year for the county’s road network, he said.

“To ensure that we are permanently turning the corner, it’s going to take a continued commitment from Sonoma County and a revenue measure,” McGuire said.

He said officials are still gauging public opinion and exploring whether to place the measure on the ballot this year.

The draft ballot measure lists funding levels that the county and cities would receive in sales tax revenue based on a formula that puts half of its weight on population and half on road miles.

Sonoma County would get 43 percent of the revenue, with Santa Rosa receiving 27 percent, or about $147 million over 20 years. Petaluma would get nearly 10 percent, or $51 million. Rohnert Park would get 6 percent, Windsor, 4.5 percent, Healdsburg, 2 percent, Sonoma, 1.7 percent, Cloverdale, 1.5 percent, Sebastopol, 1.2 percent and Cotati, 1.2 percent.

The formula used to generate the funding split is the same one used for Measure M, the 20-year tax passed by voters in 2004. Twenty percent of Measure M funds already go to cities and the county for local road maintenance. That allocation would continue if a new tax measure is passed.

At its Monday meeting, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, which administers the Measure M sales tax, is set to consider acting as the administrator for the proposed new sales tax. The authority already has staff in place that could handle the additional work, said Suzanne Smith, the transportation authority’s executive director.

“I think there is a clear outcry from folks about the need to fix local roads,” Smith said. “Our pavement condition is not really what it should be. The ability to rely on local funding to fill that need is huge.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or

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