A measure to place a half-cent transportation sales tax on the November ballot is dead--for this year at least.
Citing the recommendation of a consultant who urged a slower approach, the business leaders behind the proposal are now considering a vote in 1989.
"It would be questionable if we could get it put together by this year," said Richard L. Fausset, spokesman for the Ventura County Economic Development Assn., the business group backing the additional tax. "It's very important to make sure we have the proper budgets and consensus."
The initiative would generate an estimated $21 million annually for improvements to roads and public transit by raising the sales tax in Ventura County from 6% to 6 1/2%. It could be used to improve state highways and local roads, subsidize transit for senior citizens and the handicapped, build bike paths or take other measures to improve the flow of traffic. To pass, it would require approval of more than 50% of the votes cast.
In the meantime, civic leaders, mindful that Ventura County faces worsening traffic problems, are establishing a public transportation authority that would draw up regional traffic policies, compile a list of urgent projects and disburse funds as they become available.
A bill introduced by state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) to create a Ventura County Transportation Commission has passed the Senate and is headed for the Assembly floor with no opposition. If the bill is approved there and signed by the governor, the seven-member commission would form in January. All 10 cities in the county support the measure.
The authority would be made up of two members appointed by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, three representatives from the 10 cities, and two public members, one appointed by the board and one by the cities.
But there are growing signs that the county must maneuver delicately past some municipal potholes in drawing up a regional transportation policy.
Four of the 10 cities recently opted against contributing to a $30,000 public opinion poll recommended by the Ventura County Economic Development Assn.--the business group spearheading the sales tax increase.
Officials in Ventura, Camarillo, Santa Paula and Ojai said they disapproved of using public funds for the study.
"We didn't think it was necessary or appropriate," said John Baker, Ventura's city manager. "The council does not take positions on political issues."
There is also concern that widening roads, adding lanes and building bridges may pave the way for more development in Ventura County.
"We definitely thought it was growth-inducing and . . . would mean more traffic and more people," said Ojai Mayor Steve Olsen. He said the Ojai City Council is unanimously against raising sales taxes to fund transportation projects.
Then there's the issue of which projects to support in what order. A survey of transportation needs through the year 2010 compiled by the Ventura County Assn. of Governments found more than a $600-million deficit in funds needed to improve streets, intersections and rural roads. The survey did not include state highways or the Ventura Freeway.
Al F. Knuth, the county's deputy public works director, who compiled the report, warns that the county "is headed down the road for disaster" unless it finds new sources of funding.
Victoria Avenue, for instance, a major thoroughfare through Ventura and Oxnard, is two lanes wide at points and will require expansion to 12 lanes to accommodate traffic expected by 2025, according to county planners. And that's based on current levels of annual growth.
Arthur E. Goulet, director of the county's public works agency, says some alternatives to the transportation sales tax include charging higher fees to developers or lobbying for a statewide increase in gasoline taxes. But county officials point out that, in general, federal and state agencies that dole out transportation grants look more favorably upon counties that can generate matching funds.
For a number of civic and corporate officials, however, getting the word out about the burgeoning traffic woes is the priority now.
"The general public doesn't understand the magnitude of the problem and the problem of finding future sources of funding," said Fausset, who chairs the transportation committee of the Ventura County Economic Development Assn.
To pinpoint their specific traffic concerns, the association has commissioned the $30,000 poll to be conducted this summer. The survey will query 800 residents throughout the county to determine whether they would support a tax hike.
If they favor it, the new commission would work with local residents, city governments and the county to draw up the language of the initiative.
Tax Retired in 20 Years