Thursday, May 25, 2006
THE PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPINNINGS OF MEASURE A ESSENTIALLY BOIL DOWN TO THIS: As more people come to live and work in Monterey County, they will create more gridlock on already crowded roads. To cope with the impending vehicular nightmare, new highway interchanges must be built to minimize dangers for drivers. Extra lanes must be built to relieve traffic bottlenecks. Intersections must be upgraded with more sophisticated traffic signals. And, naturally, all those potholes on the streets should be filled right quick.
The Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC—pronounced “Tamsee”), the agency responsible for managing and funding regional infrastructure solutions, doesn’t have the $1 billion it estimates it will need to address the bulk of these upgrades over the next 14 years. So the TAMC board is asking voters to approve Measure A, a half-cent sales tax increase that will levy $350 million over 14 years. That money is expected to leverage the remaining $650 million from federal and state programs that are targeted to counties with their own transportation funding mechanism.
Proponents say Measure A is nothing short of necessary. “It’s all about safety and traffic congestion relief,” says Chuck Della Sala, a Monterey councilman, TAMC board member and spokesman for Measure A.
“If Measure A fails,” Della Salla says, “then what will happen is that traffic congestion will worsen, there’ll be more vehicle accidents, and there’ll be an overall degradation to the quality of life in Monterey County.”
Seaside Mayor Ralph Rubio concurs. “The longer we wait to make necessary road improvements, the more these repairs and upgrades will cost,” Rubio says. “We’ve already waited too long as it stands.”
The priority projects listed in TAMC’s 14-year transportation plan were selected with the consent of representatives from all 12 of the county’s cities and the County Board of Supervisors. A prime example of an infrastructure project high on the priority list, TAMC officials say, is the construction of left-turn lanes off Highway 101 in Prunedale.
“That corridor has one of the highest accident rates in the county,” says Bill Reichmuth, TAMC executive director, citing 244 accidents and two deaths there in 2003. Reichmuth adds that if Measure A is approved, TAMC would be able to build three new overpasses along Highway 101 near Prundale, which would help avert accidents.
Measure A enjoys the backing of all the cities’ mayors and councils, as well as the County Board of Supervisors and political heavyweights like Leon Panetta, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP).
NOT EVERYONE IS ON BOARD the Measure A bandwagon. Matthew Sundt, a Monterey-based urban planner, is voting “no” on Measure A on election day. Unlike the organized opposition, made up primarily of activists who believe that taxes are inherently evil, Sundt says he wouldn’t mind paying more in sales taxes if TAMC tweaked its funding priorities. Namely, he wants to see TAMC earmark a larger chunk of Measure A funds to upgrade public transit options in Monterey County.
“Measure A funds a totally visionless plan that does everything to encourage people to keep driving their cars,” Sundt explains.
Unlike an identical transportation tax recently passed in Marin County that dedicates 55 percent of its revenue to public transit, Measure A would funnel only 13 percent of its monies to bus and rail transit projects. The bulk of Measure A’s revenue would pay for new highway interchanges and road improvements. That includes funds for a $63 million project to expand lanes on Highway 1 between Sand City and Seaside; a $60 million interchange to ease access to Highway 101 along Airport Boulevard in Salinas; and a $250 million route-widening along Route 156 between Castroville and Prunedale. (For a complete list of projects, see page 28.)
“What you need to do is make public transit a viable option for people so any dunce could just show up at a transit stop and it’d be easy for them to use,” Stundt says. “Instead, they’re pouring more money into roads and leaving chump change for mass transit.”
Public transit advocates face a difficult choice over Measure A, however.
If it passes, bus and rail projects will in fact receive some badly needed funds. Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) is again in financial straights. The MST Board last week started looking at cost-cutting measures to produce a balanced budget next year. Under Measure A, however, MST would receive about $2 million a year for the next 14 years. Without that money, a seventh-straight year in bus-service reductions would be likely for MST, as well another increase to the current bus fare of $2 (already the highest in the state).
Without Measure A, a much-anticipated rail project allowing people to ride a Caltrain from Salinas to San Francisco in 3 hours and 30 minutes probably wouldn’t be completed by 2009 as planned. Instead, planners would lack critical local matching funds needed to attract large state and federal monies to finish the project on time.
What’s more, a planned rail line connecting Monterey to Castroville may well vanish from the planning radar for years to come without Measure A.
Both of these rail projects would share about $17.5 million under Measure A.
MIKE WEAVER, HOWEVER, ISN’T FRIGHTENED by scenarios of cuts to mass transit. Weaver chairs the Committee Against Measure A and has a long list of reasons why he’s passionately opposed to the tax proposal. “The plan just isn’t specific enough,” Weaver says. “It’s pork...about 20 percent of Measure A funds ($70 million) will go to individual cities who can spend it on any projects they want.”
Measure A’s backers point out that the money is earmarked for improvements—all of which, they argue, are desperately needed.
But Weaver still isn’t comfortable with the fact that consumers are being asked to pick up the tab for one third of TAMC’s $1 billion transportation plan, while agriculture and hospitality industries might contribute only $3 million each (totaling less than 1 percent of the TAMC 14-year transportation plan’s cost).
Bill Reichmuth, as TAMC’s executive director, isn’t allowed to take a position for or against Measure A. While he concedes that taxpayers are indeed being asked to fund a larger portion of the 14-year transportation plan than originally envisioned, he promises that TAMC will leverage that money wisely.
“If we had local money, we could use it to draw money from other sources,“ Reichmuth says. Specifically, Reichmuth envisions $200 million in federal matching grants for projects if Measure A passes.
Stopping short of endorsing the measure, Reichmuth adds that the developments on the former Fort Ord will put a big strain on local roads that are already being maxed to capacity, such as Highway 68. There, TAMC plans to add two lanes between CHOMP and Highway 1 (at a cost of $16.7 million) to ease congestion.
Della Sala points out once again that the 16 projects selected in TAMC’s transportation plan are the end result of a consensus reached among officials from all 12 cities in the county plus the County Board of Supervisors. “There’s something in it for everyone,” he says. Indeed, even King City, Soledad and Greenfield will get highway improvements funded under Measure A. But even Della Sala admits that TAMC’s transportation plan isn’t an end-all solution to transit concerns.
“This plan admittedly doesn’t take care of all the transportation issues in Monterey County,” Della Sala says. “But it will take care of those that are most critical. And there is no other plan.”