Alameda County supervisors are expected Tuesday to OK a ballot measure asking local voters to go where no Northern California county has gone before -- raising its sales tax for transportation from a half cent to 1 cent.
What's more, the tax would be permanent if countywide voters were to approve the proposed November ballot measure by a two-thirds majority.
The measure would be a milestone in bolstering county transportation funding, and is certain to be watched by other counties struggling to fix potholes, fight congestion and maintain or expand public transit systems after years of reductions in state and federal assistance.
The vast majority of elected city, county and transit board officials in Alameda County support the measure and the $7.8 billion in extra money it would bring in over 30 years for roads, freeways, public transit and trails.
Projects to be funded include $400 million for a BART rail extension to Livermore and nearly $1.5 billion to help AC Transit restore service cuts.
Pleasanton Councilman Jerry Thorne, however, said he objects to the tax being made permanent, unlike two earlier half-cent sales tax measures for transportation that had expiration dates.
"I support the projects like BART to Livermore, but I don't support the idea of making this tax permanent," he said. "I think you need to give voters the opportunity to decide whether or not to renew."
The League of Women Voters has expressed similar reservations, although it hasn't yet announced a stand on the measure.
Alameda County transportation officials say they stand firm in asking voters to approve a bigger and reliable county tax source.
"This is local money the state can't take way. It gives us more control over our transportation problems," said Art Dao, executive director of the Alameda County Transportation Commission, the agency that crafted the measure. "We can't just sit on our hands and do nothing, because Sacramento and Washington, D.C., aren't going to provide relief."
The shortage of state and federal money isn't about to change, creating a permanent need for the larger local tax, Dao said.
Forty-eight percent of the tax money would be spent on public transit, 30 percent on local streets and roads and 9 percent on unsnarling freeway bottlenecks.
Smaller amounts would be spent to expand bicycle and hiking trails, enhance safe routes for children to walk and pedal to school and to help promote transit-oriented development.
Only Los Angeles County has a 1 cent transportation sales tax.
The current total sales tax in most Alameda County cities is 8.75 cents per dollar of taxable sales.
Without the larger tax, Dao said, Alameda County residents can expect a county harder to get around in, more congested freeways and less mobility.
Although the tax itself would be permanent, voters would vote on a list of new transportation projects once before 2042 and every 20 years after that. A local citizens committee would audit the spending of the tax money.
"There is local accountability," Dao said, "at the same time there is a reliable source of money to do long-term transportation planning."
The $7.8 billion, 30-year spending plan for the tax was approved by the county Board of Supervisors, all 14 city councils in the county, and the BART and AC Transit boards.
TransForm, an Oakland-based transportation advocacy group, and the East Bay Bicycle Coalition also endorsed the measure. No organized opposition has surfaced.
Even though a poll in the fall suggested the tax has a good chance of passing, transportation commission leaders said getting a two-thirds approval on a sales tax is never a sure thing.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the USC Price School of Public Policy, said the fate of the Alameda County ballot measure could depend on the state of the economy and the size of the voter turnout in November.
"Voters have shown they tend to trust local officials more than state ones if they know what the money is being spent on," she said.
projects to be funded by sales tax measure