Road To Wellville?
Will Measure N fix our roads or spur growth?
Thursday, October 15, 1998
"Shall a one-half of one percent...sales tax be imposed in Monterey County, for a period of nine years, to fund local contribution to construction of the Highway 101 Prunedale Bypass and to repair potholes and make other transportation and road safety improvements on city and county roads...?"
Is Measure N a legitimate and equitable means to fund long overdue traffic, safety and road improvements in Monterey County and along Highway 101 in Prunedale, or a mere ruse on the part of powerful local business interests to help finance road construction to accommodate more development?
As the debate over N plays out in the final weeks before the election, these are the key questions both proponents and opponents are asking Monterey County voters to decide when they go to the polls on Nov. 3, to vote on whether to raise the local sales tax from 7.25 to 7.75 percent.
Over the proposed nine-year time period, Measure N would raise upwards of $200 million, approximately $51-80 million of which would be earmarked for the county''s contribution to the Prunedale Bypass. The state has already set aside $154 million for the project, which awaits the county''s contribution before it can be constructed.
The balance of the revenues, less 0.5 percent for administrative costs, would be distributed proportionately to the county and cities according to local sales tax revenues. Each jurisdiction would have discretion over the type of road repairs and improvements they deem necessary.
Based on Measure N''s estimated revenue flows, the city of Salinas, for example, could receive $37 million, the city of Monterey $17 million, and the county $16 million for road work in the unincorporated areas.
Measure N''s primary backers, the Monterey County Business Council and its campaign coalition, the Community Advocates for Transportation Safety (CATS), argue that the proposed sales tax increase is first and foremost about safety.
Citing two telephone surveys they conducted with registered voters, the Council says a majority of the residents polled support construction of the Prunedale Bypass to ease traffic problems and help eliminate the excessive number of traffic deaths along the existing Highway 101 corridor in Prunedale. The best way to expedite funding of the county''s share for the bypass, say proponents, is through a sales tax increase.
Opponents of Measure N, a loosely based coalition of environmentalists and no-growth activists, counter that the tax initiative and the Prunedale Bypass have less to do with safety than with raising excessive sums of money to accommodate development interests in North Salinas and at Fort Ord. They claim Measure N is an unnecessary tax burden, and that politics and poor prioritizing have tied up funding for less critical road projects that could be used for the bypass as well as for general road repairs and improvements.
Opponents also argue that the proposed operational improvements for Highway 101 are already funded and approved by Caltrans, along with future annual transportation revenues already earmarked for the county. As a result, they contend necessary safety improvements and the bypass itself can be achieved without burdening county residents with an additional tax increase.
In sorting out both sides of the Measure N debate, voters will be making as much of a political decision as they will an economic one. Not only will they have to decide whether the genuine need for road safety improvements along Highway 101 outweighs the potential growth-inducing impacts of the measure, but also whether the financing and planning of road projects appropriately belong at the ballot box instead of being decided by elected officials and the public-at-large working in cooperation with state and local transportation agencies.
Any ballot box tax initiative is an extremely hard sell in the post-Prop. 13 era. For an electorate that perceives itself as overtaxed, and that most tax revenues are misspent and poorly allocated, securing the necessary two-thirds majority for approval remains one of the toughest of political feats.
Knowing how reluctant voters are to tax themselves, Measure N proponents have cleverly framed the tax measure in terms of road safety. Citing the 59 deaths that have occurred between 1982 and 1994 on Highway 101 in Prunedale, backers of Measure N hope that by tugging at voters'' heartstrings, they will be able to get voters to willingly loosen their purse strings.
"I really feel N is legitimate because I live in North County and there isn''t a month that goes by that invariably I pass a terrible accident," says Monterey County Planning Commissioner Carol Lacy, who chairs the Prunedale Bypass Committee. "N would not only save lives, but injuries."
"I used to live out in North County, and when I go through that area I grip the wheel and pray," says Mary Ann Leffel, vice president of community business banking for Comerica Bank and a member of the Business Council. "I feel sorry for the people who live out there."
(N opponents point out that during the same time period cited by Measure N supporters, there were also 130 deaths along Highway 101 from King City to Salinas, and 87 deaths along Highway 1 from Moss Landing to Marina. Yet, say opponents, these sections of county highway warrant as much concern, if not more, than Prunedale.)
Long regarded as one of Monterey County''s most critical highway improvement projects, the seven-mile Prunedale Bypass would essentially parallel the existing Highway 101 corridor, running just to the east of 101 from North Salinas to just beyond Prunedale.
Nevertheless, the bypass has languished for years. Three previous alternatives were rejected because of design and environmental problems. Funding for the project has also been stymied, with a 1989 ballot measure similar to N being overturned by the Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association after the measure was passed and approved without the necessary two-thirds majority. (Measure N will require a two-thirds majority and the Taxpayers Association has said it will take no position on N.)
But the bypass--a project estimated to cost $48 million back in 1984-- has since ballooned in costs to upwards of $200 million. At current funding levels, it would take at least five years to secure matching funds and another five to build the bypass. Proponents say that with passage of N, construction could begin in three or four years.
From a purely political perspective, the Business Council supporting Measure N wisely structured the measure in such a way that all Monterey County cities and jurisdictions would share in its revenues. By allocating a portion of the revenues to the county and cities, the council hopes voter self-interest and the promise of immediate benefit from moneys not allocated to the bypass, will help garner the necessary support for N.
"We felt a gas tax was punitive to the ag industry, but felt a sales tax was more equitable," explains Leffel, regarding Measure N''s funding structure and mechanism.
According to Leffel, approximately 25 percent of the revenues generated by the tax increase will be collected from non-county residents.
"Having visitors help pay for roads is for me an important issue," says Leffel. "The windfall to cities like Carmel and Monterey for street improvements is tremendous, and by having visitors pay as well, we''re not just putting the burden on all of us."
Nevertheless, opponents of Measure N challenge the legitimacy of the "safety" issue as it regards the Prunedale Bypass as a basis to push through a voter-approved tax increase.
Chief among their arguments for opposing Measure N is the fact that the design, funding and scheduling of operational improvements to the existing 101 corridor have already been approved by Caltrans.
According to Caltrans Engineer Jose Ponce, Caltrans should begin construction of several operational improvements to 101 beginning in 2000. Among the improvements are an interchange at Russell and Espinosa roads near North Salinas, a fly-over ramp at San Miguel Canyon Road, and an interchange at 101 and Crazy Horse Road. Irrespective of whether Measure N passes, Caltrans officials confirm that the operational improvements will be put into place. Those same officials also admit that even with the necessary funding, the Prunedale Bypass will require an approved Environmental Impact Statement before they can proceed with construction.
"If in fact the operational improvements are already funded and scheduled by Caltrans to improve safety, then the bypass becomes little more than an accommodation for growth," contends Mike Weaver, a former District 2 supervisorial candidate and member of the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) citizen''s advisory committee. "The bypass is as much, if not more, about increasing highway capacity than safety."
From a political perspective, opponents also question why, if safety is such a critical concern, Caltrans and the TAMC have made the Hatton Canyon Freeway, and not the bypass, the county''s priority road improvement project.
Opponents argue that if the safety issues in Prunedale are of such concern and magnitude, TAMC and Caltrans should free up the tens of millions of dollars earmarked for the Hatton Canyon Freeway and use it for Highway 101 and the bypass instead.
One reason money remains tied up in the Hatton Canyon freeway, says outgoing District 3 Supervisor and TAMC member Tom Perkins, is that TAMC felt it couldn''t get crucial support for the half-cent sales tax from Peninsula residents if it didn''t continue to support the Hatton Canyon project.
Opponents also question why the county hasn''t spent existing funds for pothole and road repairs.
"I don''t go for that argument that the money is there and not being spent," says District 2 Supervisor Judy Pennycook. "The thing that is important to remember is we are leveraging county dollars and getting a tremendous bang for the buck by becoming a self-help county. That makes us eligible for an abundance of matching dollars. It''s time to step up to the plate."
Lacy maintains the Prunedale Bypass won''t be built from existing county funds, since to do so would undermine all other road projects in the county.
"You can make the argument that if N didn''t exist, you could pledge the county minimum for the next five to 10 years and eventually build the bypass, but what that does is hamstring the county from doing anything for every other road," says Lacy.
Who To Trust?
Whether legitimate or not, much of the opposition among the environmental community to Measure N is based on a deep-seated mistrust of the character and motives of the Business Council, a private, dues-paying organization whose membership includes the California-American Water Co., Kaufman and Broad, Las Palmas Ranch Development Co., the Pebble Beach Corporation, and both the Californian and the Monterey County Herald.
The Council, an alliance of business executives, was formed three years ago and has about 60 members. It costs $2,500 to join the Council as a board member, and $1,000 as a regular member.
District 5 Supervisor Dave Potter has been quoted as characterizing the group as "...a special-interest group...with a developmental agenda," and it is this perceived agenda that has the environmental community suspicious of the Business Council''s motives for supporting and bankrolling Measure N.
To date, the Council''s CATS has raised $55,498, and spent $55,331 in support of Measure N. Of that amount, $40,000 was in the form of a loan from the Council to CATS.
Nevertheless, members of the Council insist their support for N isn''t driven by a pro-development agenda. Instead, they say the measure reflects the wishes of Monterey County voters at large who want more immediate action taken to improve local roads.
As a private organization, the Council is not required to release the results of its polling, but they claim two telephone surveys conducted in ''97 and ''98 of 400 registered voters show unmistakable popular support for Measure N.
According to the Council, 60 percent of voters support the bypass, yet additional polling shows that the bypass and road improvements only rank fifth among a list of priorities that include water, education, crime, and affordable housing. Opponents question whether it''s worth taxing residents for what appears to be a non-priority item when it might be necessary to tax voters on higher-priority projects.
"Within the last couple of years, the Council worked to identify critical issues in the county," says Mike Chihak, publisher of the Californian. "Transportation was one of the key issues, and through a series of workshops and facilitated sessions we keyed in on those things and talked with people at all levels of government, including TAMC.
"County officials were in agreement that we needed to find a way to capture local tax dollars to augment what we could get from the state," adds Chihak. "As I understand it, we can''t get Caltrans money for significant road projects for non-emergencies unless we have matching money, so we decided that if we were to get help from Caltrans on transportation, including maintenance, bike paths, and public transportation, including rail service, we would need a local funding source."
What concerns Measure N opponents the most about the Business Council is its seeming influence to stifle public debate on the issue of the tax increase.
Both the Herald and Californian have come out with editorial page endorsements of Measure N arguing in support of the need for "safety" improvements, but neither paper spoke with opponents before writing their endorsements and neither paper informed readers they were member organizations of the Council.
Of particular concern to opponents is whether tax revenues generated by N can and will be used to finance road improvements at Fort Ord and elsewhere in the county, and whether the bypass is being pushed to accommodate a new, 3,000-home development proposed in North Salinas called Rancho San Juan.
According to Weaver, it is the developers behind Rancho San Juan who have been "pressuring" Caltrans to change the alignment of the proposed bypass to its current configuration, and have agreed to fund entrance and exit ramps to and from the project.
"Without the bypass, Rancho San Juan cannot go in," says Weaver.
Although the Business Council insists new road construction would not be allowed under Measure N, wording to the effect that Measure N will fund road "improvements" has opponents asking how improvements are defined--whether it''s a matter of road resurfacing and repair, or whether widening a two-lane road to four lanes can be construed as an "improvement."
For Fort Ord planners, Measure N might just be the windfall they need to fund road projects to accommodate planned growth at the former Army base. In documents from an August 1998 planning session on Fort Ord development and financing, consultants for FORA expressed the belief that, "...if Measure N passes, Fort Ord transportation projects will have funding."
It is questions over the allocation of excess moneys from Measure N that has prompted the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club to formally oppose N.
"We feel [Measure N] is designed to get us to fund infrastructure improvements for a building boom, which is why it is being sold as a safety issue," says Ventana Chapter Chair Gillian Taylor. "We already pay taxes for pothole repair now and are not getting it. Looking at how money and projects have been managed in the past, we''re skeptical. The history [of such measures] goes to projects more for pro-development than existing needs."
"If you look at our roads now, you can''t tell me we don''t have a lot of catching up to do," responds Chihak. "We''re not talking about expansion but meeting our current needs. Caltrans, the local chambers of commerce, many residents, the ag industry, and local government agencies and politicians all recognize this is a need."
Although they claim to be optimistic about the outcome, Measure N supporters admit they face an uphill battle at the polls.
"In any election you''re always concerned with the 25 percent who won''t vote for any new tax on general principles," says Lacy. "Whether a majority of voters is currently for or against N, polls tell us that it''s a do-able thing. There are enough people who support it and enough undecided that I''m optimistic. If this doesn''t pass, another whole generation will grow up with the highway like it is."
"This is something the community has been behind so long because it is a matter of life and death," adds Pennycook. "The accident injury rate is seven times the statewide average for a similar stretch of highway. People in Prunedale and Monterey County residents know the danger and drive with extra caution. They are tired of being threatened on that highway." cw