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Sonoma County transportation tax should be extended

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It seems hard to imagine, but in less than six months we will go to the polls for one of the most consequential elections in a generation.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, it does not feel like a typical presidential election year, and voters can be forgiven for not paying much attention to campaign politics.

But nevertheless, we will vote — most likely by mail, but perhaps in person — sometime on or before Nov. 3. Besides the presidential election, which has former Vice President Joe Biden seeking to unseat President Donald Trump, there will be plenty of action down ballot to hold our interest during campaign season.

In Petaluma, three city council seats will be up for election. The three incumbents — Mike Healy, Kathy Miller and Gabe Kearney — have not yet said whether they will run for reelection.

By November, we may have a citywide tax measure on the ballot. Even before the pandemic, city officials have discussed placing a revenue measure such as a sales tax increase on the ballot to shore up the city’s budget.

Since the economic shutdown induced to stem the spread of the virus, the city’s budget is in further trouble. The city estimates it will lose $4.7 million in tax revenue over the next year because of the shutdown.

Without additional revenue like a sales tax increase, city officials have warned that services may need to be cut. We will be closely watching to see whether the city places a tax measure on the November ballot.

Another local measure that is likely to make the November ballot is an extension of the countywide Measure M quarter-cent sales tax for transportation projects. First passed in 2004, Measure M has been used to repair streets and widen Highway 101 through Sonoma County, attracting outside funding on a 5 to 1 ratio.

Since the measure is expiring in 2024, transportation officials are proposing to renew it with a measure known as the Go Sonoma Act. While it would keep the current county sales tax rate in place, the measure would provide millions of dollars for local road and bike lane projects and is worth supporting.

With the Highway 101 expansion project fully funded through Sonoma County, more money in the renewed measure can be diverted toward city and county transportation projects.

The sales tax is estimated to bring in $26 million annually, and each city would get a share for road work based on a road mile-population formula. For Petaluma, that means an additional $966,000 annually to pave some of the worst streets in the Bay Area.

In addition, 35% of the funding would go towards transportation alternatives to automobiles. Petaluma Transit would get around $600,000 annually. About $3 million annually would go toward bike and pedestrian paths countywide, including Petaluma projects like the Lynch Creek Trail rehabilitation and the Petaluma River Trail.

Another 27% is slated for projects that provide traffic relief and safety measures in cities and the county. These projects would compete for a pool of funding, which the Sonoma County Transportation Authority would award.

There has been some consternation that the Rainier Avenue extension is included in Petaluma’s list of projects to compete for these dollars. Cities are only able to list projects that appear in their General Plans, and they are required to have local matching funds.

The Rainier crosstown connector is in the General Plan and has local matching funds in the form of traffic impact fees. But there is no guarantee that, if the Go Sonoma Act passes, Rainier will be fully funded. It would still have to compete for funding with other projects. And there are other Petaluma projects on the list like the Caulfield Lane Southern Crossing bridge and Washington Street Bridge seismic retrofit.

While the Rainier extension has been a political football in Petaluma, it should not be used to support or oppose a potential countywide tax measure that has much more benefit for Petaluma and Sonoma County.

The one wild card, though, will be the state of the economy come November. Voters in March rejected two county tax measures and turned down several school bonds, and that was before the coronavirus decimated the economy.

To convince voters to continue paying a sales tax increase, transportation officials will need a strong, unified message and a robust campaign. And an improved economy certainly won’t hurt.

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