A little over a year ago, 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, students from Montecito Union School, and county officials from the Public Works Department gathered near the intersection of San Ysidro Road and Santa Rosa Lane to cut the ribbon on a new footbridge over Oak Creek. Prior to the bridge’s opening, Montecito Union students were relegated to traversing over a temporary bridge, and before that, over Santa Rosa Lane itself, a dangerously narrow byway that didn’t allow for pedestrian traffic. Now, walkers, rollers, bicyclists, rollerbladers, and anyone else are free to cross the bridge, safely separated from traffic, and have a more direct path to San Ysidro Road. At a cost of $300,000, the bridge was funded by the Safe Routes to School program and Measure D funds.
Six months later, in March, officials gathered at the other end of the county, in Buellton. The old Jonata Park Road Bridge over Zaca Creek Road, originally built in 1916, had seen its day. Throughout time, the bridge had deteriorated and, with the August 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis fresh in people’s minds, it was identified as a structurally deficient bridge that needed to be prioritized by the county. The total projected cost to construct the 96-foot-long, 37-foot-wide reinforced concrete bridge was $1.65 million. Of that, the county pitched in $189,170 in Measure D funds. With the county contributing roughly 11.5 percent, the federal government gave the other 88.5 percent, or $1.46 million, needed to build the bridge.
Fast forward to a press conference just a few weeks ago at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Next to the arch of the historic building gathered a group perhaps never before seen in the same place, all agreeing on the same thing. Led by Carbajal and 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone-who rarely see eye-to-eye on the board-conservatives like COLAB’s Andy Caldwell and the Taxpayers Association’s Joe Armendariz stood among PUEBLO’s Belen Seara and Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum and Councilmember Das Williams in support of Measure A, a transportation sales tax. “Did I say we have a broad coalition?” Carbajal said at one point, emphasizing the point by jokingly asking Caldwell to pause for a photo next to him. “It may only happen once,” he explained, encouraging media to capture the opportunity while they could.
The measure they all gathered to support would be a continuation of Measure D, a one-half percent transportation sales tax that was voted on in 1989 and will have raised about $500 million for transportation projects throughout the county, like the two mentioned above, when it sunsets in 2010. Measure D also funded 17 major regional projects, the most recent of which is the widening of Highway 101 from Milpas Street to Hot Springs Road occurring right now. Officials are quick to remind that Measure A- which would impact county residents to a tune of roughly $15 a month-would not increase taxes, but rather renew an existing tax.
The only way the measure will pass is if these leaders rally their respective followings, since it will take unprecedented voter support to get the tax passed-never before has a two-thirds vote been reached to pass a sales tax. A recent survey indicated only 12 percent of likely county voters described themselves as well-informed about Measure A, while 44 percent indicated they weren’t informed at all before the survey.
And leaders have been rallying support. For example, Caldwell and Armendariz-both opponents of a 2006 transportation tax ballot measure-are busy rallying the North County conservative vote with a radio spot that features the two of them lauding the measure. Caldwell also has been quick to advocate the measure on his radio show and in op-ed pieces in North County newspapers. “This is local money, spent on local projects, under local control,” he said. Leaders on the South Coast are bringing up the importance of Measure A most every chance they get. “Everyone you could think of is on board,” Carbajal said.
But not quite everyone. Lompoc’s Ann Ruhge and Goleta’s Jean Blois both cast ballots against endorsing Measure A when it came in front of their respective city councils. But that leaves 43 who voted in favor, plus the five supervisors who unanimously supported it. Also against the measure are members from the groups Cars Are Basic, Fix101.org, and the Santa Barbara Republican Party.
They argue that the plan is unbalanced and will hit seniors and working families too hard for too long a period. “This measure is too big and too long,” said Scott Wenz, president of Cars Are Basic. Uneconomical ideas like commuter rail need to be eliminated in light of “projects of real benefit,” they argue, and a new measure needs to be drawn up to go on the ballot next year.
A transportation sales tax was on the ballot two years ago when voters turned down a measure that would have continued Measure D and also increased the tax to three-fourths of a cent. Though the measure received a majority of the vote-54.47 percent-it was still a sizeable distance away from the necessary two-thirds majority.
Several reasons could be given for the downfall of the 2006 Measure D, including the abundance of statewide transportation measures on that ballot. But perhaps the largest reason the 2006 measure didn’t make the cut-outside of the fact that it was an increase by one-quarter of a cent-was because many residents felt they were buying things they didn’t support. For example, alternative transportation carried little to no weight in the North County, so when the 2006 Measure D proposal set aside $42 million for bike lanes and $126 million for a proposed commuter rail system, voters in that region balked.
Voters also were turned off by the promise, which turned out to be an empty one, to expand Highway 101 from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara. For that reason, county officials voted to make the expansion a priority. Of the estimated $1.05 billion that would be raised during the next 30 years through Measure A, $140 million of that would be lopped off the top to go toward widening the 101. The funds can’t be raided by the state or federal government, and will be even more localized, with the remaining money to be divided equally to be used between North and South County, and the local agencies in each deciding what projects to put the money toward: Lompoc residents will know exactly how much money Lompoc will get, while Carpinteria folks will know exactly how much their city is receiving, etc. The localized funds could also lead to as much as $522 million in matching state and federal funds.
Santa Barbara County is one of 19 counties around the state of California with similar transportation tax measures. Measure A proponents hired Bay Area consultant John Whitehurst-an expert on political campaigns whose slogan reads, “Only one outcome is acceptable: winning”-to run the show in Santa Barbara County. His firm worked on the 2006 Props. 1A-1E, all transportation measures. Recent polling by his crew shows solid support for the measure, despite high gas prices and difficult economic news. True North Research has conducted two polls in 2008 for SBCAG: Most recently, a July poll indicated 73 percent of county voters likely to vote this November were inclined to vote for Measure A, a 5 percent increase from a January poll. North County voters supported the measure at a 67 percent rate, while South Coast voters weighed in at a 77 percent rate. The polling also indicated that voters were onboard with the way the money was going to be spent-tailored to the interests of each part of the county.
The impacts of not having Measure A pass-in addition to the inability to complete widening of the 101 from Carpinteria to Montecito-could put the county and six local governments in a lot of trouble, to the tune of $35 million a year. The Metropolitan Transit District, for instance, which just raised bus fares to keep up with increased fuel costs, would have to reduce its bus service by about 20 percent. Cities-which could pass their own individual tax measures-would be on their own to find money to fix potholes, pave streets, and replace bridges. But perhaps hit hardest by a lack of a measure would be the county, which, already working on a tight budget, would have nowhere to pull money from for road maintenance. “We don’t have enough money to cover basic services,” Firestone said. “Without this, we are in real trouble.”
When it comes to county roads, Public Works Director Scott McGolpin would rather not be known. “If you don’t even think of us, we’ve done our job,” he said. “If you back out of your driveway, drive to work delay-free, and don’t hit any potholes or problems with the road, we’ve done our job.” Measure D, which provides the county about $7 million annually to work on roads and various projects, has helped the county make vast improvements to roads that had been in severe disrepair. In 1989, the pavement condition index, which measures the condition of roads, was below 50, with more than half the roads in a fail condition. By 2007, the public works department hit 70-the industry standard-on the pavement condition index.
But should the county-which has a backlog of unfunded road maintenance projects to improve drainage, repair bridges, and restore pavement totaling $214 million-lose the tax dollars, it will be back where it started in half the time. “If there’s no Measure A, we lose in 10 years everything we gained in the last 20 years,” McGolpin explained. “Without Measure D, you’re going to be thinking of us a lot more in the future.”