Usual Suspects

Shifting Alliances

By Yosha Bourgea

TO WIDEN or not to widen? That is (once again) the question for Sonoma County voters, who on March 7 will decide the fate of a ballot measure that would add a two lanes to the much-traveled Highway 101. If this seems like déjà vu, it should; in 1998, voters approved a similar highway-expanding measure, but rejected the idea of paying for it with a half-cent hike in the sales tax.

The hue and cry over traffic congestion remains as ubiquitous as smog, however, and backers of the new Measure B are hoping that, this time, road rage will outweigh frugality at the ballot box.

The measure is one of two transit sales-tax initiatives facing voters in March. A third, addressing rail improvements, may appear on the November ballot.

This year, the Measure B camp has a brand-new ally in the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, which in 1998 joined with other organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Russian River Task Force, to denounce that year’s freeway-widening measures as a misuse of taxpayers’ dollars.

Foes of 1998’s measures B and C argued that the proposed sales tax increase was unnecessary because the 1998 Bay Area Regional Transportation Plan, or RTP, which allocated $440 million to widen Highway 101 in Sonoma County, would cover the costs.

“The passage of the regional gas-tax expenditure plan means that Sonoma County can get everything that’s being proposed for Highway 101 . . . without raising the county sales tax,” Jean Marie Foster, then-executive director of the SCTA, said at the time.

Doug Kimsey of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional planning agency, confirms that the 1998 RTP update, adopted a few months ago, provides for an investment of regional funds to widen Sonoma County’s stretch of the highway over a 20-year period–regardless of any sales tax increase.

BUT FOSTER’S successor, Spencer Flournoy, says the SCTA now “strongly supports” Citizens 4 101, the group formed by ex-Sebastopol Mayor Sam Crump to initiate this year’s Measure B–a campaign heavily financed by highway construction firms. Crump’s measure would raise the local sales tax by a half cent for eight years to pay for two more lanes.

“Our primary problem in the 1998 election was that this group of people [a coalition of environmentalist and business leaders] decided what would be a nice package for us to have in terms of transportation,” Flournoy says. “We thought the voters should have a chance to decide.”

Although the SCTA is against the idea of paying taxes twice for the same thing, Flournoy says, the sticking point is the question of time.

“If we live long enough,” he insists, “I have no doubt the gas tax will add additional lanes on 101. But it’s coming back very slowly. We believe that the situation is getting dire enough that we can’t wait entirely for the state and Caltrans to take care of it themselves.”

NOT EVERYONE has switched sides. Meg Krehbiel, policy analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, says her organization is “adamantly opposed” to Measure B, as are most environmentalist groups.

“Using sales taxes to fund highway projects is bad transportation policy,” Krehbiel says. “It subsidizes automobiles, which encourages more pollution, more congestion, and more sprawl developments.”

Environmentalists aren’t the only ones opposing Measure B; the list also includes the League of Women Voters and the city of Sebastopol, which recently voted 4-1 against the measure.

“There’s so much intelligent opposition to these measures that even the $500,000 to $750,000 campaign that the road builders intend to wage will be difficult,” says Rick Theis, chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

But Crump says recent polls by his Citizens 4 101 indicate that the measure has a very good chance of netting the two-thirds majority of votes necessary for passage. Over the next two months, he says, supporters of Measure B will be campaigning through direct mail, radio, and possibly cable TV ads, and walking door to door.

“We’ll be doing pretty much everything we can financially,” Crump says.

What voters need to know, Crump adds, is that if Measure B passes, the money will be raised and will be spent on highway improvements. In 1998, many voters expressed skepticism that funds would be allocated appropriately.

“This is the simpler plan, the necessary first step to any transportation plan,” Crump says.

But he takes exception to the statement that RTP gas-tax funds are already committed to widening Highway 101. Crump asserts that the RTP is not yet finalized and provides no guarantee of extra lanes.

“If you can prove to me that this [RTP] is a done deal, I’ll be happy to quit the campaign,” Crump says.

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From the January 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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