Voters in 2004 were promised many transportation solutions in exchange for passing a quarter-cent sales tax. The marquee item on the list was an expansion of Highway 101 to include carpool lanes from the Sonoma-Marin county line to Windsor.
Voters agreed that creating a modern, safe freeway in Sonoma County was vital to the economy and quality of life, and they passed Measure M with more than two-thirds support. Sure enough, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority made good on its promise.
In the nearly two decades since the passage of Measure M, the SCTA has used the local sales tax to attract five times the dollars in state and federal funding. The $1.2 billion highway widening project is nearly complete, with just two more years of work left on the final Petaluma segment.
The end of the freeway widening project nearly coincides with the end of Measure M’s life. It expires after 2024 and most of the remaining revenue is earmarked for debt service.
But new infrastructure challenges still remain in Sonoma County, including making our transportation system resilient in the face of climate change. The SCTA is seeking to extend the sales tax, which is on the ballot this year as Measure DD. Voters would be wise to approve.
Without Highway 101 consuming a large portion of the revenue, the tax money can be spent on other priorities. Indeed, 35% of the annual estimated $26 million it will generate will go toward efforts aimed at fighting climate change, according to the spending plan.
This includes 12% for bike and pedestrian pathways — think of a rebuilt Lynch Creek Trail or a new Petaluma River Trail — as well as 23% for bus service — that’s about $600,000 annually for Petaluma Transit.
The rest of the funding will go towards filling potholes, fixing roads and improving safety in the transportation network, with funds divided between the county and the nine cities. In Petaluma, that equates to nearly $1 million each year to fix the worst streets in the Bay Area.
There is also funding for big ticket items for which each city can compete. With the infusion, Petaluma could finally realize the Caulfield crosstown connector or reconstruct East Washington Street.
The measure also has provisions that should put taxpayers, who are facing tough financial times, at ease. For one, it is an extension of an existing tax, so voting in favor will not increase taxes. At a quarter-cent, it is hardly noticeable — a penny added to a $4 purchase — and a bargain for the amount of dollars leveraged. Like its predecessor, Measure DD has a 20-year sunset, so voters will have another chance to evaluate it in two decades.
But the main safeguard in this tax is the agency that administers the funds. The SCTA, under the leadership of Executive Director Suzanne Smith, has been an excellent steward of taxpayer money for almost 20 years. Its officials have kept all of their promises, which is rare for a governmental agency.
Indeed, the Sonoma County Taxpayer’s Association (the other SCTA) has remained neutral on the measure, mainly because of the fiscal responsibility the transportation authority has shown.
The transportation sales tax makes us a so-called self-help county, meaning that we have skin in the game when we go asking for state and federal grants. It is vital for our transportation system that we continue to be a self-help county.
The Argus-Courier recommends a yes vote on Measure DD for a modern transportation network.