The Alameda County Transportation Commission is proposing next year to ask county voters to renew early -- or possibly increase temporarily -- the half-cent sale tax for transportation.
The current sales tax, approved in 2000, raises about $100 million annually for road, highway and public transit improvements, road repairs and bus operations. The tax, which took Alameda County sales tax to 9.75 percent, will expire in 2022 unless two-thirds of the county's voters renew it or make it permanent.
Renewing the measure in November 2012 -- a decade early -- would enable the commission to begin new road, freeway and public transit projects to relieve traffic congestion.
No projects have been picked yet, but options up for discussion include carpool lane extensions, electric car charging stations and a long-discussed multibillion-dollar BART rail extension to Livermore, officials at the congestion management agency said.
"We were able to deliver all the projects from the 2000 ballot measure because the competitive bidding climate lowered the costs dramatically," said Art Dao, the commission's executive director. "Now the issue is do we go to voters soon with a new list of projects to relieve congestion, or do we wait 10 years."
The commission also may ask for more than a renewal. It might ask voters to raise the sales tax three-quarters of a cent from 2013 to 2022 -- to 10 percent -- and then drop it back to 9.75 percent, Dao said.
This would raise money to help bus systems stave off more service cuts, and help struggling city and county road crews catch up with pothole repairs and other deferred road maintenance, he said.
Before making a final decision on the ballot measure, the transportation commission must determine the length of the renewal period, or whether to ask voters to make the tax permanent.
If the tax were made permanent, the commission would adopt long-range spending plans for the money at regular intervals, and might consider putting those spending plans on the ballot as advisory measures, Dao said.
Cuts in state assistance and declines in sales tax collections during the economic hard times have hit transit systems and road maintenance hard.
The question remains, though: Will two-thirds of Alameda County voters approve an early sales tax renewal in tough times when many people have suffered layoffs, pay cuts and home foreclosures?
Greg Harper, an AC Transit board member on the county transportation commission's board, said he think voters would be receptive.
"I think voters would consider it if we have a well-thought-out plan to reduce congestion, fix up roads and help public transit," Harper said.
"I'm speaking in generalities, because we're in the early stages of developing a plan to explain how we would spend the money."
AC Transit gets $25 million a year in operating subsidies from the existing sale tax.
Despite that, the transit agency last year cut bus service twice as a result of declining sales tax collections, cuts in state assistance and rising labor costs.
About 61 percent of the existing sales tax money goes to programs such as road repairs and subsidies of operating costs for bus lines, the transportation commission says.
The other 39 percent goes toward capital projects, such as BART's light-rail extension to Oakland International Airport, the new express toll lane on Interstate 680 from Pleasanton to Fremont, the widening of Interstate 238 in the Castro Valley area and studies on the proposed BART extension to Livermore.
Genesis, an Oakland-based coalition of faith-based groups, has suggested that some of the money from a tax extension should fund a free pass for Alameda County youths, many whom rely on public transit buses to get to school.
The transportation commission -- made up of 22 elected city, county and transit district officials -- intends to devise the ballot measure by the end of the year after holding several meetings and workshops.
To encourage public participation in the ballot decisions, the commission has scheduled five public meetings in the next four weeks, starting with one at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Oakland City Hall.
The Alameda County Transportation Commission will hold five public workshops about its long-term spending plans and a proposed 2012 ballot measure to renew its half-cent sales tax for transportation.