By Rory Carroll
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Transportation advocates want to ask voters in several northern California counties to decide whether the region should boost sales taxes to fund $500 million a year in road and rail improvements in what would be the first regional effort to fight gridlock.
The Silicon Valley Leadership Group is helping to lay the groundwork for ballot measures in November 2016 in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties. The counties would join Alameda County, which already has a half-cent transportation sales tax in place.
Having contiguous counties vote in the same ballot cycle would facilitate regional improvements, said Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
A major benefactor of the coordinated effort would be Silicon Valley, an economic engine that contributes 13 percent of California's GDP. Traffic has grown worse in the region, as technology titans like Apple, Google and Facebook have crammed fast-growing operations into the southern San Francisco Bay Area along with thousands of start-up companies.
If approved, the ballot initiatives would take a big step toward addressing the state's $59 billion funding gap to fix aging roads and bridges, as Gov. Jerry Brown highlighted in his January address. But they must clear the high hurdle of winning support from two-thirds of voters, because the funding method would be considered a "special tax."
Guardino believes voters will agree to a half cent to a penny sales tax if it means less time in soul-crushing traffic.
"As I sit here going almost zero miles per hour in the carpool lane on Highway 101, it kind of sells itself," he said during a recent phone interview, referring to the north-south highway that's critical to traffic flow in the region. "People are tired of traffic and its impact on their quality of life and on the economy as a whole."
So-called "self-help" counties in California are not new. Transportation sales taxes have been used to fill funding gaps left by federal and state government for decades. Santa Clara implemented its first such tax in 1984.
But this would mark the first times multiple counties have taken a coordinated regional approach to asking voters in the hope of improving highways and transit systems.
Backers are still nailing down which improvements to fund but said voters will know exactly what the money will go to prior to casting their votes.
"The spending will be primarily focused on state highway system and picking up the ball the state has dropped," said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). The group has supported similar ballot measures in the past. If all five counties approve a half-cent sales tax, they will raise nearly $500 million a year for transportation improvements, MTC said.
Guardino said improving Caltrain, a commuter rail system connecting San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, could be another goal.
But not everyone is convinced new taxes are the answer to California's traffic headaches.
"California is already a high-tax state," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax group, adding that low-tax states like Texas and Florida do not suffer similar traffic problems.
He suggested California Governor Jerry Brown abandon the state's "foolish" high-speed rail project and instead expand existing freeways with the money, a portion of which is raised from polluters complying with the state's cap-and-trade program.
"There's nothing more polluting than a freeway full of parked cars that are idled," he said, explaining why he does not think the money should go toward building the state's first bullet train.
Guardino said his group will poll voters in February and again in May or June to get a sense of their appetite for the sales tax and to see what their priorities are.
The deadline for initiatives to get on the ballot is August 12, 2016.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by David Gregorio)