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Placer County faces bleak transportation funding future

Is a sales tax solution feasible for regional roads?
By: Eyragon Eidam of the Auburn Journal
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Dwindling state and federal funding sources are leaving many counties in a lurch when it comes to keeping up with their region transportation needs.

In Placer County, like many others in California, the demands of a growing population and ailing or outdated infrastructure weighs heavily on the pocketbook of the agency responsible for regional transportation.

The once well-funded state transportation agency, Caltrans, has fallen on hard financial times as federal and state cash streams continue to trickle in short of the need.

For Celia McAdam, executive director of the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency, the lack of capital draws a stark line in the sand for many of the projects in the region.

McAdam said the county is expected to see as many as 70,000 new homes and 180,000 new residents using local streets and highways within the next 30 years.

“I’m looking into the future and seeing that the needs and the money don’t match,” she said.

To offset gaps in funding, several California counties have opted for regional sales tax measures to spur revenues.

Though these counties do not make up the majority in the state, McAdam said the option could be part of a last-ditch solution for Placer.

“Everybody is feeling the pain,” she said. “It’s really acute in counties that don’t have a transportation sales tax.”

Other options, like toll roads and high occupancy toll lanes, have been discussed, but implementation and operational costs outweigh the intended benefits.

Mark Watts, legislative advocate for Transportation California, said the problem in the state reaches far beyond having money to fill potholes – it reaches deep into the support structures below them.

While Watts said PCTPA did well in solidifying bond dollars towards improvements to the Highway 65/Interstate 80 interchange, getting future transportation bonds passed would be an uphill battle with the voters who approved the California High Speed Rail bond.

“The voting public is shy about using bonds for infrastructure projects,” he said.

As for sales tax measures, Watts said counties with a history of both tax measures and successful project delivery with the funds have the best luck with voters when it comes time to renew the initiative at the polls – newcomer counties could run into stiff opposition.

At the hyper-local level, Auburn Mayor Keith Nesbitt, who is also sits on the PCTPA Board of Directors, said a transportation sales tax could do a lot to reduce some of the financial pressures regionally.

In the city of Auburn, dollars for regular road maintenance come in roughly $350,000 short of the necessary $500,000 needed for road maintenance and overlay projects annually.

Nesbitt said, much like Auburn’s regional and state partners, projects in town often get deferred based on priority.

Though Auburn receives only a small portion of regional funding for transit and transportation projects – roughly 4 percent – Nesbitt said money from a tax initiative would help the city in the broader sense of residents’ mobility.

“Normally, I would be the last one to suggest a tax, but people don’t comprehend how transportation is funded,” he said.

A PCTPA initiative is being discussed and could be proposed in 2016 for voter approval. According to McAdam, early polls are showing support near 60 percent.