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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, October 15, 2012, 7:00 am

Advocates hopeful for passage of Napa road tax

Measure T half-cent sales tax would replace flood-control tax, set to expire in 2018

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    NAPA COUNTY — Supporters of a proposed half-cent sales tax for road repairs in Napa County are optimistic that voters will approve the measure this November, six years after a broader measure failed at the ballot box amid arguments that funds would flow to projects beyond the county’s ailing rural roads.

    While current backers have pledged less funding in campaigning for Napa County’s Measure T — up to $150,000, versus a half-million-dollar campaign for 2006′s Measure H — proponents said that the measure is likely to inspire broad appeal by requiring nearly all new revenue be allocated to much-needed repairs.

    Maintenance costs climb exponentially as roads deteriorate

    Maintenance costs climb exponentially as roads deteriorate (credit: MTC Pothole Report 2011)

    The measure comes at a time of increased awareness towards a looming crisis for roads in the North Bay, with hundreds of miles in both Napa and Sonoma County facing steep reconstruction costs if current deterioration is not halted with preventative maintenance.

    “In Napa County, we are at a critical junction right now,” said Keith Caldwell, chair of the Napa County Board of Supervisors and Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency. “If we don’t do this maintenance now, more and more of the roads will have to be rebuilt from the ground up at a much bigger expense.”

    If enacted, Measure T would take the place of a half-cent sales tax to fund flood control in Napa County, maintaining the current sales tax rate of 7.75 percent when the flood tax expires in 2018. The measure would generate approximately $11 million annually for road repairs and $252 million over its 25-year lifespan, with revenue divided between the county and municipalities. Napa and Solano are the only Bay Area counties that lack a so-called “self-help” road tax.

    Even with that potential revenue boost, planners in Napa County estimate a $2.8 million annual shortfall for maintaining nearly 450 miles of unincorporated roads. County staff are currently developing a five-year plan to close that gap, with hopes for increased tax revenue amid economic recovery and the gradual implementation of any possible cuts, Mr. Caldwell said.

    The county’s business community has rallied behind the measure, with endorsements from organizations including the Napa and American Canyon chambers of commerce and the Napa County Vintners, as well as Democratic and Republican political groups.

    Opposition has been silent, with no counter argument in ballot materials. The Napa County Taxpayers Association has remained neutral on the new measure, after convincing many voters in 2006 that revenue from Measure H would fund road projects that were rightfully the responsibility of the state.

    While planners have since obtained funding for those projects, including widening the two-lane pass on Highway 12 known as Jameson Canyon, limited funding for road upkeep has been largely allocated to core roads such as Silverado Trail.

    Meanwhile, conditions on many rural roads have remained imperiled. After hosting a September fundraiser for Measure T supporters at his St. Helena Winery, Vineyard 29, Chuck McMinn said that increased road quality would have a direct impact on his business.

    “Our controller hit a pothole on Highway 29 and had to have her rim replaced,” said Mr. McMinn, who also chairs the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition. “We’re a small staff with 10 employees, so losing one out of 10 is a lot.”

    Indeed, St. Helena was reported as having some of the worst pavement conditions in the Bay Area in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s most recent “Pothole Report.” The report describes six levels from “very good” to “failed,” with the nearly 1,400 miles of unincorporated Sonoma County roads joining St. Helena with an average rating in the second-lowest tier of “poor.”

    The risk, according to the MTC, is the skyrocketing costs for repairing roads past a certain point of deterioration. While restoration costs approximately one dollar per mile for younger roads in good condition, full-blown reconstruction entails more complex drainage and other work that can cost more than five times that amount.

    Officials have long been aware of the looming problem, yet traditional revenue streams for road repair have significantly diminished in recent years. While Sonoma County voters passed a broad quarter-cent sales tax for roads and highway improvements in 2004, Measure M, much of the revenue allocated for maintenance has been exhausted. Contributions from California’s gasoline tax have also waned in value due to inflation and lower consumption, and voters defeated a new tax measure for road repairs in Sonoma County in 2010.

    As officials in both counties have been forced to focus limited resources on the most heavily travelled routes, the poor road conditions in more rural areas helped spawn a grassroots nonprofit, Save Our Sonoma Roads, to lobby for allocating additional resources in Sonoma County. Informed by those efforts, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors formed a new ad-hoc road quality committee in February to study the issue and recommend new strategies for accomplishing needed repairs.

    “Are we really going to let the rural counties in California sink back into the 19th century?” said Craig Harrison, co-founder of the roads group. “You can still make good wine and ship it out of here, but you won’t get visitors if everyone’s driving around on gravel.”

    With input from the committee, supervisors allocated approximately $10 million in additional funding for road maintenance from the county’s all-purpose general fund in the current fiscal year, for a total boost of approximately $15 million.

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