Voters this November will decide whether to raise Sacramento County’s local sales tax rate by a half-cent to fund transportation projects across the region.
It’s all part of Measure A, which would generate an estimated $8.5 billion over a 40-year period, if passed. The measure is a first of its kind citizens’ initiative in California, which makes its passage easier than previous tax proposals.
Proponents of the initiative say funding will first be given to projects involving basic street maintenance, like fixing potholes, which is often popular with voters.
But also included are several big-ticket transportation projects, like building new roadways, bridges, and growing public transit. Opponents of the measure say these larger projects could jeopardize the county’s progress on environmental initiatives.
See detailed information about two of the largest projects set to get funding if Measure A passes here.
How the initiative came to fruition
Michael Quigley is the chair of the Yes on Measure A campaign and played a large role in getting the initiative in front of voters.
“Sacramento is the first county in California to move forward with a citizens’ initiative for transportation and, you know, I think it’ll be very interesting for the rest of the state to follow our model,” Quigley said.
Typically, transportation tax measures are the product of an elected body, like a county board of supervisors. However, this measure “followed a different path,” Quigley said.
Over 75,000 registered voters in Sacramento County signed a petition to place the measure on the ballot, he said.
In California, when a governmental body puts a tax measure on the ballot — one that spells out how the money will be spent — it would require approval by a supermajority, or two thirds of voters.
But since Measure A started as a petition, it will pass by just a simple majority, 50% plus one vote. The state supreme court ruled in 2017 simple majority citizens’ initiatives are valid.
“With this measure, the citizens are in charge and it’s their priorities that they’ll be voting on in November,” Quigley said.
Environmental groups in Sacramento County say Measure A is not the historic citizens’ initiative it’s made out to be, but instead pushed onto the ballot by developers who want taxpayers to foot the bill for road access to future projects.
Ann Stausboll served as chair of the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change for both Sacramento and West Sacramento. She says she’s not a fan of Measure A.
“It’s a special interest measure posing as a citizens’ measure,” Stausboll said. “It’s funded by wealthy sprawl developers who want to use the measure to impose a 40-year increase in the sales tax for the county.”
Housing is under construction on the Folsom end of the Capital Southeast Connector Expressway on Aug. 25, 2022.Randol White / CapRadio
The initiative would generate money that Stausboll says would go to building roads on undeveloped lands, leading to the extension of Sacramento’s suburbs, specifically along a planned expressway connecting Folsom, Rancho Cordova, and Elk Grove.
The expressway is known as the Capital Southeast Connector. Traffic is already moving along a completed portion near the Folsom end of the expressway, where large housing developments are in the construction phase.
“It’s anticipated that there’ll be 600,000 new people living there over the next few decades,” Stausboll said. “Using our tax money for that kind of development and project is really taking infrastructure investment dollars and tax dollars away from what we should be spending money on, which is protecting what we have … and our parts of Sacramento that aren’t being served properly.”
Stausboll said she acknowledges California’s drastic need for housing amid a dire shortage.
“We need more housing and we especially need more housing that is affordable for working people,” she said. “But the housing should be built near existing transportation, near jobs and resources. And there should be a focus on infill development as opposed to new sprawl.”
One Sacramentan who has led the region’s urban planning efforts for well over a decade agrees with Stausboll. Mike McKeever is now retired, but he formerly served as the CEO of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), a group that works with local legislators to focus on big-picture growth across the region.
McKeever said he has a long list of reasons why he dislikes the measure, but one overrides the rest.
“At the top level, my concern with this proposal is that nearly half of the money … is targeted for projects that are not in the currently adopted regional plan,” he said.
The regional plan is created by SACOG and updated every four years with input by 22 cities and six counties in the area. The plan addresses issues like housing, jobs and transportation.
“All of that [is] to grow the economy, improve quality of life and comply with federal and state environmental regulations so that the money can continue to flow,” McKeever said of the plan. “That’s what the discussion is like when you do a regional plan through the normal process. When this tax measure was put together, it’s instead dominated by unique, local, private interests.”
McKeever says the Sacramento region gets federal and state dollars for hitting air quality targets.
A recent analysis of Measure A by SACOG found that if all of the projects listed in the initiative were to be completed, the region could fall behind in its air quality goals and lose out on funding.
SACOG says it doesn’t have a position on Measure A and has signed a memorandum of understanding to help clarify its role, should the initiative be approved.
This memorandum could serve as a fix for those worried about runaway development because it gives SACOG the power to keep projects within the regional plan and environmental goals.
While McKeever is still opposed to the initiative, with or without this memorandum, he does say the document has very strict environmental mitigation protections and if those hold up, a worst-case scenario under Measure A could be avoided.
He gives credit to Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg for making the memorandum happen.
Steinberg says he supports the initiative now that the memorandum between SACOG, the Sacramento Transportation Authority and the proponents of Measure A has been signed.
But those who are against the measure argue that the memorandum could become unenforceable under future leadership at these organizations.
“Let’s put it into statute,” Steinberg said in response to the concern. “And let’s put it into statute not just to cover the Sacramento example here, but let’s make the process that we laid out in the memorandum of understanding applicable to all local transportation projects statewide.”
Steinberg said he’s confident such legislation would be well received by state lawmakers and passed.
If you’re riding Sacramento Regional Transit District’s light rail Green Line, 7th and Richards/Township 9 is the last stop, just north of downtown Sacramento.
Sacramento Regional Transit District’s Green Line ends at 7th and Richards/Township 9, just north of downtown Sacramento, pictured here.Randol White / CapRadio
But, if Measure A passes, funding could extend the Green Line up through Natomas and all the way to Sacramento International Airport.
If it doesn’t pass, SacRT General Manager Henry Li says the future of that extension could be in danger.
“As you know, the light rail is the backbone of the transportation system within the region, so it’s so important to get this done,” he said.
But Li said without a source of local funding, like Measure A, he doesn’t see a future for the project.
Light rail service to the airport has been in the planning stages for decades, and millions of dollars have already been spent on the project. But SacRT still needs a couple of billion to complete it.
Li says if Measure A is passed, the department could have a quarter of the money needed to finish the project.
“The infusion of local funding through this measure will provide SacRT the opportunity to leverage those dollars and secure up to two or even three times more funding from federal and state sources,” he said.
In total, Measure A is expected to bring in an estimated $8.5 billion over four decades.
A big chunk of that would go to SacRT — estimated at roughly 40% — but not all of it would benefit the airport extension. The department also plans to extend light rail lines to Elk Grove and potentially Citrus Heights, Li said. Funding would also be used for maintenance and system improvements, like modernizing bus stops.
Li says the benefits of expanding SacRT services could positively impact the region by adding more jobs, reducing congestion and lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
But representatives with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) say they worry the transit portion of this package is not enough to mitigate the increase in air pollution caused by other projects that focus on building or expanding roadways.
Capital Southeast Connector Expressway
If approved, Measure A would give funding to the Capital Southeast Connector Expressway project. The project will convert two-lane rural roads into a four-lane expressway connecting Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Folsom and El Dorado Hills, once construction is complete.
Derek Minnema is the executive director of the expressway’s Joint Powers Authority, the agency that oversees the project’s progress.
“If voters approve Measure A in November, I think it’s a game changer for the project because it makes it almost a certainty,” Minnema said. “I think it certainly opens the door to completing the entire thing in 10 years.”
Minnema says the connector is roughly 30% complete, with most of that work done on the Folsom and Elk Grove ends of the expressway.
The intersection of White Rock Road and E Bidwell St., one of the newly completed portions of the Capital Southeast Connector on the Folsom end, pictured on Aug. 25, 2022.Randol White / CapRadio
Once construction is complete, he said the project could be beneficial to the region’s environment.
“We have studies that we’ve published and we’ve shared with the public that say, hey, the connector is part of this regional transportation plan that reduces vehicle miles traveled, and it improves air quality, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to the congestion relief that exists today,” he said.
But a big portion of the project, the undeveloped stretch of roadway in between Folsom and Elk Grove, is not in the Metropolitan Transportation Plan adopted by SACOG in 2019.
Jennifer Gress, Chief of the Sustainable Transportation and Communities Division at CARB, said that’s one portion of the initiative she takes concern with.
“Measure A includes a number of highway capacity increasing projects that we know will increase driving, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution,” she said.
Gress said this may prevent the region from hitting air quality targets set by the state if actions aren’t taken to reduce pollution through costly additional projects known as mitigation.
“So, at this point, we have not seen any analysis of the cost of mitigation for Measure A or what strategies would be used to mitigate,” Gress said. “So the question is, where will the funds come from, what projects would be funded? There’s a lot of unknowns when it comes to mitigation.”
CARB sent a letter to the Sacramento Transportation Authority (STA) outlining its concerns.
The STA would be responsible for administering the initiative to ensure the funds are being used properly. Measure A supporter and Elk Grove Mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen is the board chair at the transit authority.
On the other end of the planned expressway is Folsom Mayor Kerri Howell. She also supports the measure, and said the expressway would open up mobility options for Folsom.
“It’s another avenue for people to get to other parts of the county without traveling on Highway 50, Highway 99 and I-5,” she said.
W. Bruce Lee is the president of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association and the author of Measure A’s opposition in the state voter guide.
He said he disagrees with the premise from supporters that these projects won’t get completed without the sales tax funds.
“I really don’t think in my heart of hearts that we lack money,” he said. “We have so much money. It is about the issue of prioritization of where we spend our money.”
He said he’s also skeptical about the packaging of the initiative.
“At its core, Measure A is a land-use proposal, not a transportation initiative,” Lee said. “The laundry list of potential transportation projects, in my personal opinion, really is more window-dressing to sucker voters in.”
Mike McKeever of SACOG said the projects that could be funded by the bump in sales tax don’t fall into the region’s long-range goals.
“You’re locking up 40 years of tax revenue,” McKeever said. “For some of the jurisdictions in Sacramento County, like the city of Sacramento, that’s your last half-cent of constitutional authority until the current transportation sales tax expires, which is more than a decade from now. So, my attitude is: it’s important to get this right.”