Facing shrinking state dollars for its mass transit projects, the Ventura County Transportation Commission today will consider recommending that the county seek voter approval to collect about $1 million a year from a special gas sales tax fund.
Access to the state money would not require matching county funds nor would residents have to pay additional taxes, said Robert Remen, executive director of the California Transportation Commission.
"This is a fund that is already established," Remen said. "It is up to individual counties to seek the approval of the voters to become eligible."
The public vote is necessary because California voters in 1974 approved Proposition 5, a constitutional amendment allowing individual counties to dip into gas tax money for mass transit projects provided that they win the approval of local voters.
Before Proposition 5 was adopted, the state Constitution required that the 36-year-old tax be used exclusively for highway construction and maintenance projects.
Commission staff recommended placing the matter on the June ballot to satisfy the state requirement. If the commission approves the move, the Board of Supervisors would then decide whether to place the measure on the ballot.
If approved by the voters, the ballot measure would allow Ventura County and its 10 cities to begin collecting their share of the fund, called the Transit Capital Improvement Program. Last year the program doled out about $100 million to local jurisdictions across California.
Money from the fund, which is earmarked for mass transit construction and upgrade projects, could help pay for a new Metrolink station or other public transit improvements, said Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.
If Ventura County voters decide to join the other 31 of California's 58 counties currently dipping into the fund, each participant's share would shrink slightly.
But the reduction to the counties would be negligible compared to the significant gains for Ventura County, Gherardi said.
"Right now we're losing out on money we could use for rail stations, bus stations and other projects we've planned," Gherardi said. "And it doesn't take away from any other programs or cost the taxpayers any more than what they're already paying in gas taxes."
County officials did not previously seek access to the funds because the county qualified for other state funds to pay for its transit projects, including the $36-million Metrolink project, Gherardi said.
She also said that in the past, Ventura County's share of the fund would not have been large enough to warrant the time and expense of placing a measure on the ballot for voter approval.
But in recent years the fund has grown. In the 1992-93 fiscal year, the county could have received $1.2 million--enough to pay for construction of a Metrolink station.
It was those figures that convinced Supervisor John K. Flynn to propose that the Transportation Commission recommend adoption of the measure.
"Everybody who drives a car pays the gas tax," said Flynn, who also serves as an alternate member on the commission. "It's about time we got our share of this fund."
Butch Britt, deputy director of the county Public Works Department, praised the plan to adopt the measure, but pointed out that the fund does not cover the cost of operating transit systems once they are constructed.
"An additional funding source would give us more flexibility," Britt said. "But like anything else, when you expand your operating base, you've got to be prepared to take on the operating responsibility."
Flynn agreed, but said he did not think the county should shy away from supporting the measure out of fear that new transit projects could not be maintained.
"There's always a concern about being able to maintain projects," Flynn said. "But if we let that get in the way, we would never do anything."
In the meantime, the commission has asked the county's Clean Air Fund Committee to pay the $70,000 it would take to put the measure on the ballot.
The committee, which dispenses about $400,000 a year from pollution fees for projects that help improve air quality, will consider the request at its meeting next Thursday, Chairman Jim Lovins said.
If the committee approves the funding, it would be sent to the Board of Supervisors for final consideration.