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Sonoma County officials shaping pitch for early renewal of transportation sales tax in 2020

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Sonoma County’s transportation authority has taken another step toward asking voters in 2020 for early renewal of a sales tax that pays for regional road and transportation upgrades, hoping to guarantee infrastructure funding for decades to come.

A subcommittee for the countywide transportation entity’s 12-member board approved spending up to $75,000 on consulting services from Santa Rosa-based Muelrath Public Affairs and polling through EMC Research, headquartered in Oakland. The two firms will help shape the questions to be asked of likely voters starting next month, offering results this fall to the full board so they can decide whether to place a measure on the ballot in November 2020.

Board members hope the poll also offers insight into voters’ appetite for a quarter-cent tax versus a possible half-cent option, the type of projects the measure might fund and how long it should remain on the books. Measure M, the county’s current quarter-cent sales tax for transportation, was approved in November 2004 and is set to expire in April 2025.

“The whole goal is to reach out and actually know what the public’s interest is,” said Cotati Councilman Mark Landman, chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “It’s important when you undertake something like a tax measure to show clearly to the public the benefits that they’ll receive.”

The survey work comes as several other potential countywide ballot measures appear to be taking shape for the primary or general elections next year. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board members are poised to vote later this fall on whether to seek an early renewal of the quarter-cent sales tax that supports operation of the commuter train system. Sonoma County also is exploring the possibility of proposing a pair of tax measures to bolster firefighting services and mental health care.

By the time it sunsets, Measure M is projected to provide $444 million in revenue toward road projects, including about $180 million for Highway 101 widening, with the last of that work now focused on the Narrows between Petaluma and Novato. Another $180 million of the total pot is going toward repaving and repairs of local roads across the county and its nine cities.

The $1.2 billion expansion of Highway 101 to three lanes, begun in 2001, is set to be finished in Sonoma County by fall 2022, with completion anticipated in Marin County in winter 2023.

With that era coming to a close, proponents of renewal feel the measure’s focus needs to shift to maintaining local infrastructure and transit options.

Whether or not a big-ticket road project is written into a future ballot measure, the key is being specific about where the money will go to receive the backing of voters, board members say.

Projects that could find their way into the measure include more dedicated bicycle lanes, improvements and added subsidies for bus service, and increasing connectivity to public transportation throughout the county. Funds to help plan a solution to Highway 37, the low-lying, traffic-clogged, 21-mile connector between Novato and Vallejo, could also be proposed.

“The Sonoma County community has shown a willingness to support measures when they know where it’s going,” said Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers, a SCTA board member. “And people get how important roads are. If you treat voters like they’re smart enough to understand what critical infrastructure is, they’ll prove to you that they do.”

Measure M narrowly passed in November 2004, with 67.2% support — a margin of just 1,072 votes. It was the fourth time the county attempted to pass a 20-year tax to address regional transportation needs.

The measure’s original estimated return was expected to be about $470 million, but it missed early projections from dips in spending tied to the Great Recession. Through spring 2018, Measure M has provided $256 million in revenues, with another $188 million expected to come in before the measure expires. All of the projected proceeds are committed to existing or future projects.

The transportation authority has touted its record of success leveraging the sales-tax revenue to garner state and federal grant funding on major road projects, with a 5-to-1 return.

“We’d like to continue that success, and not lose the advantage of being a ‘self-help’ county,” said Landman. “The transportation sector affects everyone. I don’t think there’s a better investment that you can make than that.”

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

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