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Sales Tax Hike Seen as Vehicle to Ease Traffic

Ventura County ballot measure would raise $50million a year for roads and transit. Critics say it is a ruse to encourage development.

August 08, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Moorpark City Councilman Keith Millhouse dreads the start of the school year almost as much as children do.

He knows traffic will get worse when school begins as teachers, students and parents return to their daily routines, clogging surface streets and freeways with more cars.

As a Ventura County transportation commissioner, Millhouse is in a position to do something about it -- at least in time for the 2005-06 school year.

He is promoting a November ballot measure that would raise $50 million a year for 30 years to improve roads, freeways and mass transit in Ventura County. With commuters enduring twice as much stop-and-go traffic as they did a decade ago and the state strapped for cash, transportation commissioners decided they would appeal directly to voters to get traffic moving.

"We have to give people some relief now," said Millhouse, chairman of the Measure B campaign committee. "It's a quality-of-life issue and it's a safety issue."

Measure B would allow construction to begin by June on the widening of California 23 in Thousand Oaks, the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley and Lewis Road in Camarillo, leading to Cal State Channel Islands.

But opponents say the measure is a ruse to encourage development and gives the Transportation Commission too much power over a big chunk of money with little public oversight.

"We think roads are growth-inducing," said Fred Rosenmund, an Oxnard attorney and spokesman for a grass-roots group that opposes the measure. "It's giving $1.5 billion [over 30 years] to the Transportation Commission in Ventura County with no guarantees or outline or map on how the money would really be spent."

But Millhouse said the county's strict slow-growth measures will keep development in check and that the campaign is making every effort to explain to voters how the initial proceeds would be spent. Further spending decisions will be made in open meetings, and the funds will be audited yearly by an independent agency, he said.

"People want to know their money's not going to be squandered," Millhouse said. "They want to know that the money they're paying is going to be spent on what it's intended for. The money stays in the county, and it can't be stolen by Sacramento or Washington."

Of California's 57 counties, 19 have a transportation tax, and Ventura is the only county in Southern California without one, he said.

If the measure fails, Millhouse said, residents will be stuck in traffic for at least five to 10 years more as Sacramento tries to clear up its own financial gridlock.

Under the measure, 40% of the money collected each year would go to freeway projects, 40% to the county and its 10 cities for road and street repairs, and 20% to the county's bus-dependent mass transit system.

Expenditures such as building more bicycle paths, keeping bus fares affordable and expanding bus and Metrolink routes would be covered by the mass transit portion.

Although it's too early to tell if voters are in the mood to raise their taxes to improve their commutes, political scientist Herb Gooch said Measure B will stand a chance if backers make it clear the tax is a real solution to a problem.

"They need to make it specific where the money's going to go," said Gooch, chairman of the political science department at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. "There has to be a general feeling that 'here's the problem, and here's the solution.'

"There's no question traffic is a hot-button issue. It's probably the biggest issue people feel the most right now. There's a lot of anger backers can tap into. But voters need to be convinced it's not just another tax where they won't see the benefits."

A competing measure on the fall ballot that would provide $250 million to buy vacant land and development rights with a quarter-cent sales tax for 10 years would likely benefit from the transportation measure rather than be hurt by it, Gooch said. If voters approve one, they are likely to pass the other.

"If they're in for a dime, they're probably in for a dollar," he said.

If both measures are approved, the county's sales tax would rise from 7.25% to 8%.

The traffic measure enjoys the support of all 10 city councils and numerous business organizations in Ventura County.

Although no study has been done to measure the cost of traffic congestion on local businesses, proponents say current road conditions create higher maintenance and insurance costs for vehicles and lead to lower productivity in the workplace.

"On the practical side, it costs money to have trucks and employees sitting on freeways in the course of trying to do their business," said Bill Buratto, president and chief executive of the Ventura County Economic Development Assn., a key player in the Measure B campaign. "Having cars idling on the freeway is polluting the air."

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