State lawmakers will soon consider legislation to clear the way for ballot measures in Alameda and Contra Costa counties to increase sales taxes for transportation.
The extra money would be used to improve and maintain aging roads, freeways and public transit systems and to fight traffic congestion. Alameda County leaders say they are anxious to ask voters again to double the county transportation sales tax from a half-cent to 1 cent -- the highest rate in Northern California. The increase lost at the polls in November by fewer than 700 votes.
Contra Costa leaders haven't proposed an increase but say they may opt to do so and want to keep their options open. The current tax is a half-cent, and it was last renewed by voters in 2004's Measure J. Without an act of state lawmakers, however, neither county can seek a sales tax increase because doing so would push some cities above a sales tax cap set by the state.
Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, has introduced a bill that would exempt both counties from the cap through 2020, opening up a window of opportunity to seek the increase. Assembly Bill 210 passed the Assembly's Local Government Committee on a 7-2 vote earlier this month.
"This bill will give both counties the ability and flexibility to put critical infrastructure projects before the voters," Wieckowski said in a statement.
Some anti-tax crusaders are unhappy.
"I'm appalled," said Kris Hunt, the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association's executive director. "It's asking too much to consider pushing through a tax increase when so many people are unemployed."
Meanwhile, a bill by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, would lower the voter threshold for passing county transportation sales tax measures from 66.67 to 55 percent. SCA No. 8 by Corbett is set for a May 15 hearing before the Senate's Governance and Finance Committee.
"SCA 8 lowers the voter approval threshold and would provide Alameda County another chance to secure much needed funding," according to a statement from Corbett's office.
A similar bill has been proposed by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, over the opposition of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The bills to exempt the two counties from the sales tax cap initially were aimed at Alameda County. Contra Costa was later added to the bill at the request of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.
With the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore nearly done and the Highway 4 widening in East Contra Costa well underway, the transportation authority by 2015 will have spent about 86 percent of the Measure J capital funds, said Randy Iwasaki, the agency's executive director.
The question emerges: Should the transportation agency stand pat or go for a sales tax increase for other new projects to fight congestion?
"We have made no decision but want to have our options open if we decide to try to increase our investment in transportation," said Janet Abelson, an El Cerrito city councilwoman who heads the transportation authority board. "Right now, we don't have an option."
Before deciding whether to seek an increase, the Contra Costa agency would conduct more studies and hold extensive public meetings, Abelson said.
In Alameda County, transportation leaders already have a list of defined projects they want to fund with a tax increase that would raise $7.8 billion over three decades. Those include a $400 million down payment on a BART extension to Livermore, improvements on interchanges on Interstates 680, 580 and 880, and partially reversing service cuts for AC Transit and other bus systems.
Alameda County leaders say a sales tax increase is essential to provide local help for a transportation system beleaguered by cuts in state and federal aid.
Not every agrees, though.
Bob Feinbaum, of Oakland, said the November sales tax measure shouldn't have funded BART to Livermore but instead should have devoted more to improve bus service in the county.
"I think they're putting the cart before the horse," Feinbaum said. "They need to improve the plan before getting a state law passed to put it back on the ballot."
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.