PD Editorial: Yes on DD: Upgrade county roads and transit systems

In 2004, on the fourth try in 14 years, Sonoma County voters narrowly approved a 20-year, quarter-cent sales tax to widen Highway 101.

Money was set aside for mass transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects and local road repairs, but 40% of the proceeds were earmarked for one signature project: adding a freeway lane in each direction between Windsor and Petaluma.

The new lanes are open, and North Bay officials delivered more than they promised, using progress on projects funded by Measure M as leverage to secure state and federal money to open the remaining bottlenecks through Petaluma and the Novato Narrows.

By the end of 2022 — two years before the tax is scheduled to expire — the final segment of the Sonoma County widening project will be finished.

As politicians like to say, promise made, promise kept.

On the strength of that record, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority is asking voters to pass Measure DD on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Measure DD would renew the quarter-cent sales tax for 20 more years, generating an estimated $26 million annually, but with a substantial revision of the spending plan.

With the highway widening project complete, Measure DD emphasizes local road repairs and climate-friendly alternatives to automobiles, including bus service and bike and pedestrian paths. Revenue would be divided between the two categories, with 65% for roads and 35% for everything else.

Almost $10 million would be allocated annually among the nine local cities and Sonoma County to pay for road work, with shares ranging from $125,500 in Cotati to $4.2 million for the county. Santa Rosa would receive $2.7 million a year, with $966,000 for Petaluma; $616,000 for Rohnert Park; and $455,000 for Windsor.

That would fill a lot of potholes.

Approval requires a two-thirds majority. That’s always a high threshold, and a coalition of local business groups including the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau is opposing any tax increases and renewals in 2020, citing economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re very, very concerned about the sustainability of the economy and the workforce,” said Cynthia Murray of the North Bay Leadership Council, a group representing large employers.

If a large number of people opt to work at home permanently, Keith Woods of the North Coast Builders Exchange argued, less money may be needed for buses.

Opponents say the county can put a renewal on the ballot again when the pandemic has passed and the economic landscape is clearer.

Supporters counter that there is no nexus between the pandemic and the renewal vote. The existing tax will remain in effect until 2025 — “two presidential elections from where we are now,” said John Bly of the Northern California Engineering Contractors Association — regardless of the outcome of Measure DD.

Renewing the tax now, supporters say, would help put people to work because transportation officials could borrow against future revenue to seed work now. Moreover, renewal would provide a source of matching funds if Congress passes an infrastructure bill.

Two dozen other California counties have transportation sales taxes they can tap for matching funds.

“If we don’t have a local transportation tax, we’re going to lose out to the 24 counties who do,” said Suzanne Smith, the executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

The opponents have legitimate concerns, but a well-maintained transportation network is a cornerstone of a healthy economy. That’s true now, and it still will be after the pandemic. Sonoma County desperately needs to improve its roads and transit, just as it improved Highway 101. Measure DD would help achieve those goals. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote.

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