Although the Turlock City Council voted unanimously to support a countywide transportation tax expenditure plan developed by the Stanislaus Council of Governments, the county’s regional transportation planning agency, council members expressed skepticism as they moved forward, questioning whether or not the generated funds would truly benefit Turlock.
While the council members all agreed that there are certainly advantages to the 25-year countywide transportation tax, such as qualifying Stanislaus as a self-help county that would allow the region to use local dollars to leverage millions of federal and state funds, much of the Council questioned whether Turlock’s roadway and infrastructure improvement projects would receive ample prioritization – a concern echoed by Turlock residents.
Noting past actions made by StanCOG that seemingly prioritized Northern County projects over others that would have helped support Turlock and other southern cities, Turlock resident Lloyd Blackman urged the Council to examine whether Turlock would receive equal attention in project prioritization and funding distributions.
“Based on past StanCOG Policy Board votes, I have zero confidence that our money would be spent here in Turlock,” said Blackman. “I’m not anti-tax, and I am in full support of this body and that group as well. But what spurred my attendance this evening was a vote taken by the StanCOG Policy Board in October 2013, when a very well thought-out and much needed project in Turlock was pushed aside by the board, but both McHenry Avenue and Modesto’s Highway 132 projects were approved. I don’t find that equal…There’s been a lot of talk about having fair and balanced representation in the county, and I would submit to this Council that’s not entirely true.”
Pointing to San Joaquin County as an example of equal representation, Blackman explained that on their county boards similar to that of StanCOG, each member city has an equal number of votes. StanCOG’s Policy Board, which is made up of elected officials from each of the nine member cities, has three representatives from the City of Modesto, and only one representative from each of the other eight city councils throughout Stanislaus – a makeup that Blackman says “needs to change.”
“Until the voting makeup changes on that board, I don’t believe any support by this body would be wise,” said Blackman. “If this council would adopt a local road maintenance tax, I would actively campaign and knock on all the doors in Turlock to persuade our citizens to get behind that.”
Understanding Blackman’s concerns, members of the City Council also stressed the importance of making sure Turlock received a fair share of the funds generated by a countywide transportation tax, telling StanCOG Executive Director Carlos Yamzon that projects impacting Turlock must be watched closely.
“I think the concern from the Turlock community is that half of the funding will go to other projects that may not benefit Turlock, when those are funds raised in Turlock, and when Turlock is the second largest economic generator in Stanislaus County,” said Councilmember Steven Nascimento. “StanCOG must pay very close attention to the South County Corridor project. Keep that in mind if you want to continue having our support, if this moves forward.”
With 47 percent of the total collected half-cent sales tax going towards major corridors of countywide significance, the framework for the expenditure plan is set to generate nearly $456 million to be distributed amongst the North County Corridor, running from State Route 108/McHenry Ave. to east of the City of Oakdale, the Central Corridor widening from the San Joaquin county line to Highway 99 and operational improvements from Highway 99 to the City of Waterford, and the South County Corridor running from the City of Turlock to Interstate 5 in the City of Patterson. Although a similar tax measure that failed in 2008 planned to distribute the funds allocated to the three corridors equally, StanCOG has yet to determine how the funds would be distributed should the transportation tax measure be put on the November ballot.
Yamzon confirmed that as the proposal moves forward, StanCOG and planning officials would examine the individual projects in more detail, determining the specific amounts for each corridor as the measure continues to move forward.
“How much money we get will determine how much money we put in these projects,” said Yamzon. “We would look at the specific improvements that are needed in each corridor, look at the numbers in the Stanislaus Regional Transportation Plan, and build from there.”
County Supervisor Vito Chiesa echoed Yamzon’s explanation, saying that the distributions for the corridor projects would be based on what the needs are, alongside the impacts of traffic and congestion.
“That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get your fair share,” said Chiesa to the Council. “I would consider it an absolute failure if we didn’t finish all three projects…We’re going to make sure the projects are equitable.”
In addition to the Major Corridors Program, the expenditure plan would include an additional 47 percent allocated to the local street and road program, which would provide the City of Turlock with an annual $2.7 million for local roadway improvements. Comparatively, the City of Modesto would receive $7.1 million annually – the highest distribution amount amongst the nine cities.
The remaining six percent of the expenditure plan would be dedicated to alternative modes, including a $46.5 million allocation to regional rail projects, $8.7 million to mobility management for seniors and the disabled, and $2.9 million to bicycles and pedestrian projects, over the next 25 years.
“All that we’re seeking is support of the expenditure plan, which will be brought back to the policy board in March, and then the finance committee would really nail down the numbers,” said Yamzon. “The only way to be successful though is if everyone is in the same direction.”
StanCOG representatives and Yamzon will continue making their way throughout the county garnering support for the expenditure plan, before moving forward with any further actions. Should they believe there is enough support from the local cities, and from community polls, the StanCOG Policy Board could decide whether or not to put the half-cent sales tax initiative on the November ballot as soon as March.