A few hundred voters throughout Stanislaus County soon will be polled to see if they would pay higher sales tax for transportation projects.
A majority of transportation leaders made that decision Wednesday because businesses won’t bankroll a ballot measure without an indication it might succeed.
“I don’t want to jump off a cliff without knowing how far down it is,” said Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh. More important, he and other leaders said, is reassuring private supporters that their money for an expensive campaign won’t go to waste.
Voters could confront a half-cent sales tax hike as soon as November. If more than two-thirds agree, the transportation tax could raise $970 million over 25 years for road and transit projects.
Representatives from the county and its nine cities, sitting Wednesday as the Stanislaus Council of Governments, agreed to collect $400,000 from the agencies. They were not expected to earmark some of it for polling, but threw in that proviso when Marsh and County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said business people would insist on a pre-ballot survey.
Not everyone agreed. County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said relying on polls shows a lack of leadership, and Ceres Councilman Mike Kline also voted against the idea, but 14 other representatives overruled them.
The discussion also revealed continuing disagreement on how proceeds might be spent if voters approve the tax.
Last month, a StanCOG majority approved a plan to set aside 47 percent for street repairs, 47 percent for new freeways, and 6 percent for rail and bicycle projects and improving choices for seniors and the disabled. But Wednesday, some audience members and Oakdale Councilman Mike Brennan said the last category should get a far larger share, noting that transportation taxes in San Joaquin and Fresno counties dedicate 30 percent and 24 percent, respectively, to such transit priorities.
“I want the poll so we don’t go out and spend money on a situation where we don’t know exactly (what) the voters are thinking,” County Supervisor Bill O’Brien said. “I personally think the economy hasn’t rebounded well enough to ask for a tax. Without a poll, how do you know?”
Similar efforts in 2006 and 2008 failed to capture two-thirds support.
On another front, several audience members linked plans for a new Highway 132 freeway segment bypassing Maze Boulevard west of Modesto to that City Council’s eyeing of some Wood Colony farmland for commercial development.
County Supervisor Terry Withrow and others said their support for the bypass always has been intended to improve safety and traffic flow, especially for trucks from Highway 99 to Bay Area businesses, and not as a means of selling out Wood Colony.
Some speakers, including former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino, said government decisions have jaded people. Carol Miller said the Modesto council “effectively turned their backs on” hundreds who pleaded for Wood Colony to be left alone.
“When this (transportation tax) fails, you can thank your City Council members,” said Modesto’s Nevada Terpstra.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.