Sonoma County officials consider 2020 renewal of sales tax for road upgrades

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Sonoma County’s transportation agency is considering whether to pursue early renewal of the 20-year sales tax that pays for regional transportation upgrades.

The agency’s staff recommended its board seek voter approval with a ballot measure in 2020.

The quarter-cent sales tax is part of the county’s “self-help” approach to making roadway improvements and regular street repairs, with the largest portion of the revenues designated for the Highway 101 Marin-Sonoma Narrows lane-widening project.

Money from the tax that generates tens of millions of dollars a year toward the county’s transportation budget also helps pay for bus and passenger rail service, and bicycle and pedestrian pathways.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority has used the guaranteed Measure M revenues, which totaled $256 million through spring 2018, as matching funds to secure state and federal grants for high-dollar projects. Since the ballot measure passed in 2004 with the necessary two-thirds voter approval, the agency has been able to garner significant grant money for major road improvements.

“For every $1 spent, we’ve brought $5 in of outside money,” transportation authority executive director Suzanne Smith said. “We want to be able to continue that proactive approach to bringing in funds from outside of the county for important infrastructure projects. We’ve kept our promises and delivered on our Measure M plan, but there’s still work to be done.”

The sales tax is projected to provide another $188 million through its expiration in April 2025, for a total of $444 million. That amount would miss the original estimate of $470 million expected, because of dips in revenue during the Great Recession that began in December 2007, but it has caught up in recent years and brought in $24.8 million in fiscal year 2017-18.

The county’s transportation agency formed a subcommittee of six board members to consider staff’s recommendation for renewal on the November 2020 ballot. The group will meet next week to consider the proposal and review which road projects would receive dedicated funding should the board move forward with an early tax extension and get voter support.

If the agency’s board eventually decides to go to voters in 2020 to extend the sales tax, it would be the second transportation-related tax measure seeking early renewal.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit also is mulling going back to voters next year in the March primaries, when voter turnout is expected to spike, to extend its main funding stream well before it sunsets in 2029.

In the case of SMART, the passenger rail agency’s staff wants the board to restructure outstanding debt by locking in guaranteed public funding early for at least another 20 years. Doing so would allow the transit agency to maintain operations as work continues to finish the planned 70-mile line, as well as speed completion of extensions north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, said Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer.

Last week, the SMART board unanimously approved a plan to draft an updated strategic plan that will examine extending its quarter-cent sales tax nine years before it expires.

The strategy of pushing for early sales tax renewal often is used with an understanding it may take more than once to convince voters to back the public funding mechanism, said David McCuan, chairman of Sonoma State University’s political science department. It took SMART two attempts before it received the two-thirds vote from the two counties with Measure Q in 2008, and four tries for the county’s transportation authority to finally get Measure M over the finish line.

“If you can go to the ballot and have two trips, you have a fail-safe,” McCuan said. “And as part of the ‘two-tripper’ strategy, you don’t argue the house is on fire, but prime the electorate” for future passage.

McCuan said there’s also a question if there’s voter appetite for two transportation taxes in a single election cycle — even if on separate ballots — or if competition between the two could lead to both failing. That’s in addition to any other local or state measures that could be on the ballot in 2020, including one the county is considering for fire emergency services and possibly another to build a behavioral health and homelessness fund.

“There’s a cumulative effect, and we do know that voters pick and choose,” he said. “They’re looking at accumulation of a whole host of building ballot measures that increase their taxable basis. It’s harder to get a yes vote than a no vote, and it’s harder still to get a yes vote when there is competition.”

Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers, who sits on the SMART and county transportation boards, will help both agencies make their decisions. He’s yet to make a determination on one or both proposals, he said, and sees the challenge of selling two transportation tax extensions — especially in light of a failed bid to repeal the most recent state gas tax with last year’s Proposition 6 still fresh on voters’ minds.

“There’s an impact on voters when they’re voting on the same thing over and over again,” Rogers said. “SMART has a harder case to make about not just the extension, but why right now. SCTA (the county transportation authority) is a little more urgent because it will expire in four years. Does that mean that SMART should wait? I don’t know yet.”

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

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