A desperate measure

Even the people who are supporting Measure A call it flawed. While doling out some money to various projects, it overlooks the sprawling big picture.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Grant Line Road is on the edge of Sacramento’s wild frontier of suburban sprawl. Much of the time, it is a laid-back rural highway, meandering through the flat, open grassland and farm fields of east Sacramento County. But twice a day, the back road becomes a suburban expressway—connecting workers to their homes in the booming suburbs of Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Folsom and El Dorado Hills.

On the west side of Grant Line Road, drivers see proliferating tracts of new subdivisions and billboard advertisements for many more homes on the way.

On the east side, one sees corn fields, vineyards and cows. Beyond that, the oak-tree curtain along the Cosumnes River that signifies the area of the county that, for now, is off-limits to development.

The two-lane blacktop was never made to handle the kind of traffic generated by all the new growth in this part of the county. And at peak times, Grant Line is plagued by the kind of maddening stop-and-go traffic endemic to much of Sacramento County that was until recently rural.

Enter Measure A, the complex and sweeping transportation plan on this November’s ballot that aims to rescue commuters on Grant Line Road and millions like them throughout Sacramento County.

Measure A would extend a half-cent sales tax on all goods and services in the county—raising around $5 billion throughout the next 30 years to build new roads, fill potholes and help keep the city buses running. The measure is not a new tax at all, but an extension of a similar half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 1988. Not unlike a big budget bill at the state or federal level, the measure attempts to spread its largesse around a whole array of interested parties. There’s a little something for each city in Sacramento County: a $58 million down payment on Sacramento’s Intermodal Transit Facility, a new bridge over the American River for Folsom, and improvements to main arterials and freeway interchanges throughout the county.

In some ways, the measure reflects how regional thinking about transportation has changed since 1988. The new Measure A includes $1 million a year for the American River Bike Trail. There are some incentives for “transit-oriented development,” the kind of higher-density development close to transportation hubs that was nearly unheard of a decade ago in Sacramento. And unlike the Measure A ordinance of 1988, developers would be expected to pay fees on new construction, in order to help offset the impacts of new development on area transportation funds.

But there’s plenty of old-fashioned road building in the package, as well. On the long list of new projects and programs, one provision of the measure would turn Grant Line Road into a 30-mile-long “Cosumnes Parkway,” four to six lanes of suburban beltway connecting the communities on Sacramento County’s suburban edge: Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Folsom. It’s a popular project among the elected officials and many commuters in those communities. And there’s no doubt these folks need some congestion relief. But that relief could come at the cost of encouraging even more of the same suburban sprawl that created the mess on Grant Line in the first place.

That’s just one of the controversial aspects of Measure A. It uses local sales taxes (nearly a half-billion dollars’ worth) to build carpool lanes on Highway 50 and Interstates 5 and 80. Environmentalists say carpool lanes do little to reduce—and in fact ultimately worsen—traffic congestion and air quality. And they believe that because the carpool lanes largely will be used by people from other counties—like Placer and El Dorado—those lanes, if built at all, should be funded by state gas taxes instead of local money.

Photo By Larry Dalton

And by all accounts, the spending plan also falls well short of the funding the Sacramento Regional Transit (RT) agency needs to build a 21st-century public-transportation system.

For these reasons, Sacramento’s most outspoken environmental organizations—the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS), Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates and Walk Sacramento—are actively working to defeat the measure. They have made unlikely allies with the fiscally conservative Sacramento County Taxpayers League, which supported Measure A in 1988 but argues that the new proposal can’t deliver on all its promises.

The plan requires support from two-thirds of voters to become law—a high hurdle to clear for any tax measure. But with opposition from the right and the left, and the feeling even among many of its backers that the proposal is flawed, the prospects for Measure A seem dim.

Opponents point out that the sales tax doesn’t have to be renewed until the current sales tax expires in 2009. And those trying to defeat this Measure A believe there is time to draft a new proposal that would garner broader support from environmentalists and the business community alike—perhaps in time for the ballot in 2006.

But trends in election turnout suggest that a presidential election is the best time to get the two-thirds vote needed to pass a tax measure. Waiting until the next presidential election in 2008 would be cutting it too close. And officials at RT say that without getting assurances soon that Measure A funding would be there in 2009, they would have to start preparing now for deep cuts in service. For that and other political reasons, the plan was rushed to the ballot, ready or not. And that may be exactly where Measure A went wrong.

Twenty miles away from Grant Line Road, Warren Cushman waited for the light to change on the corner of 21st and J streets in Midtown Sacramento. A blue and yellow RT bus rolled through the light on J Street and barely slowed at Cushman’s stop before revving up and continuing along its route to the east.

“Well, I see I’ve missed my bus,” Cushman said with a chuckle. In fact, Cushman doesn’t “see” a thing. He was born blind because of a condition called congenital amaurosis. He’s completely reliant on public transportation, and the trip from downtown to his home in Arden Arcade takes more than an hour. A visit to his grandmother in Elk Grove requires that he catch two buses and a light rail—two hours each way.

Two years ago, the Sacramento Transportation Authority (STA)—the county’s transportation planning agency—invited Cushman to join the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) to help craft Measure A.

By itself, the measure represents only about 20 percent of the transportation funding the county can expect in the next three decades. But it’s a powerful 20 percent. It is the portion that Sacramento uses to leverage matching funds from other sources. The other 80 percent, culled from state and federal funds, is largely determined by the projects and programs set in Measure A.

Cushman was excited about the opportunity to help shape such an important plan and joined the CAC as a representative of the “disability community.”

Grantland Johnson, who served on the Regional Transit (RT) board for more than a decade, says that under Measure A, “RT is being set up for failure.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was ultimately up to the STA to write Measure A, using extensive polling data to craft a measure that realistically could win support from voters. But it was also hoped that the measure would be shaped by public participation from the diverse array of interests and communities represented on the CAC. The committee also included bike advocates; business interests; environmentalists; representatives of African-American, Asian and Latino communities; and neighborhood representatives from the county’s seven cities.

Cushman found allies among the environmental groups and others in pushing for an expanded public-transit system, and he said a “solid majority” agreed that transportation spending needed to be linked to some sort of policies on growth and development.

Polls conducted early in 2004 found that about 71 percent of registered voters in the county were willing to extend the half-cent sales tax. And 61 percent of voters said they were more likely to vote yes if the measure included some sort of controls on growth. The numbers suggested that more than ever, the general public understood that transportation and land-use decisions were closely linked.

It was an auspicious beginning, but Cushman said a small and powerful minority, composed of representatives of the local building industry and chambers of commerce, balked at the direction taken by the CAC. These included people like David Butler of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce; Dennis Rogers of the state Building Industry Association; and Joe Cruz, a representative of the California Alliance for Jobs, an association of construction trade unions.

“I think they were very upset that the CAC was a level playing field, that all ideas were given consideration,” Cushman explained.

Growth controls became a contentious issue, and a fight emerged over whether to include the Grant Line Road connector.

“At one point, they just said, ‘If the connector isn’t in there, we won’t support it,’” Cushman explained. Losing the support of the building industry and other business groups likely would mean no Measure A. Unlike the local environmental groups and other volunteer organizations, the business groups have the money needed to mount the campaign needed to help pass Measure A.

Soon, Cushman said, it became clear that more was going on behind the scenes than at the table. “All of the sudden, the [STA] staff just handed us this list of projects. And they told us, ‘This is Measure A.’” Several CAC participants told SN&R similar stories of the committee process.

STA Director Brian Williams conceded that the CAC process left much to be desired. But he added that threats came from both sides. Yes, he said, the building interests insisted on the connector being in the package. But he noted that the business groups also initially rejected fees on new development to help fund Measure A, which were ultimately negotiated and included in the plan.

“I think if this were really a developer-controlled initiative, you’d see a lot more freeways,” Williams explained.

Grant Line Road (black) hews closely to the county’s Urban Services Boundary, the current limit line for new growth. Critics of Measure A say that a new expressway proposed in the area would open up the east county to a wave of new sprawl.

Illustration By Chris Doherty

More than any other piece of Measure A, the connector project is emblematic of the deep schism between the business community and the environmentalists. It represents a very small portion of the spending under Measure A (anywhere from $80 million to $200 million out of the $5 billion), but its proponents say it is critical to ease the transportation crisis brought on by the explosive growth in the south and east county. And it seems inevitable that some sort of connector will be built in the area; it is merely a question of how it is done. As it is conceived in Measure A, critics say, the beltway will help open up vast stretches of the east county that are now off-limits to development.

Mike Eaton runs the Nature Conservancy’s Cosumnes River Preserve, which in some places is less than a mile from Grant Line Road. Eaton said that heavy land speculation in the area, anticipating its future development, already has made it difficult for his organization to purchase land to set aside for protection. And though Measure A sets aside up to $15 million to provide an open-space buffer around the proposed parkway, Eaton said that’s not nearly enough. “I think that the proponents of Measure A are over-selling the open-space benefits of Measure A. The funding in the measure is minuscule in relation to the need,” Eaton explained. “And, arguably, some of the transportation projects slated to be funded by the measure will create additional upward pressure on rural land values, making the challenge of protecting our important habitat and agricultural landscapes that much tougher.”

But backers of Measure A say that very little of the connector plan is set in stone. The road could follow Grant Line Road or take a more westerly alignment, in the area of Bradshaw Road. And STA officials promise that the connector would have a limited number of entry points, making it less appealing for developers who would want to build housing subdivisions along the new highway. Scores of details would be fought over in an extensive environmental-review process. “That process gives a lot of ammo to those who want to see that project improved,” explained Bob Waste, a professor of public policy at California State University, Sacramento, and a consultant for STA.

But the environmental-review process offers few guarantees, said David Mogavero with the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS). His group did offer to support Measure A, with the connector included, if it also prohibited Sacramento County from approving any new development east of the county’s existing Urban Services Boundary (USB), the current limit to urban growth.

“But the building industry’s position was that there were to be no enforceable controls on growth,” Mogavero said. And that lost Measure A support among much of the environmental community.

Both sides of the Measure A fight have formed campaign committees, and so far the “yes” side has a tremendous money advantage, as was expected. Proponents have told the local media that they plan to raise about a half-million dollars. But it could exceed that based on the early campaign-contribution reports. By the end of September, the Yes on Measure A committee had already raised nearly $300,000. In contrast, the “no” side has raised about $14,000.

Contributions in support of the measure come overwhelmingly from the building industry. Developer Mike Winn at Reynen and Bardis, which gave $45,000 to the measure, said the connector is really just “good customer service.” Reynen and Bardis already has built thousands of homes in the Elk Grove area, and many of those residents make the daily commute to the east-county cities.

Other contributions include $50,000 from the California Alliance for Jobs. Another $45,000 comes from A. Teichert and Son Inc., which supplies gravel and cement for road and housing construction.

And if you follow the money for the pro-Measure A campaign, you find yourself back on Grant Line Road. Another developer in the area, JTS Communities, has given $25,000. So far, $45,000 has come from companies connected to AKT Development Corp., the region’s largest real-estate developer. One of those, Jaeger Road LLC, is currently grading land just west of Grant Line near Sunrise Boulevard and has contributed $15,000. Another $15,000 comes from AKT spinoff South Folsom Investors LLC. AKT spokesman Steve Capps refused to answer questions about these companies, saying they were a “private business matter.”

If you read your county ballot book, the proponents of Measure A claim that those opposing it come from Sacramento’s “two extremes of the ideological spectrum,” conservative anti-tax groups on one end and the “no-growth” wing of the local environmental movement on the other.

Warren Cushman joined the Citizen Advisory Committee hoping to help craft a visionary Measure A. He says the measure was hijacked by developers instead.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If that is true, then Grantland Johnson presumably belongs in the latter camp. In his baggy T-shirt and sneakers, with his side bag full of papers, he does look suspiciously like some sort of bike messenger, rather than the former state Secretary of Health and Human Services. Being out of Governor Gray Davis’ Cabinet has some definite upsides. “I was following somebody else’s agenda,” Johnson explained. “And I guess I’ve always been more progressive than my bosses.”

Since Davis lost the recall election, Johnson has turned his focus to community development issues in the area, where he served for years as a member of the Sacramento City Council and then as a county supervisor. All together, he spent 14 years on the board of directors of Sacramento RT. And he believes Measure A spells deep trouble for RT.

“RT is being set up for failure. The level of service [provided by RT] is inadequate now. It will be grossly inadequate in the future under this plan,” Johnson said.

Measure A does raise RT’s share of the transportation pie from 32 percent to 38 percent. But that only allows the agency to maintain its current level of service for the next few decades. RT officials had hoped for a much larger sales tax (two-thirds of a cent or a whole cent, instead of the half-cent that is being proposed now).

Under Measure A, no matter how much population growth occurs, no matter how high gas prices climb and no matter how bad congestion gets, the measure leaves RT more or less static—with no significant expansion in bus service.

The measure does include money to build a light-rail extension to Cosumnes River College and funds to further study a proposed light-rail line to the Sacramento airport. But asking voters to approve what is essentially a “flat-line budget” for RT operations, Johnson said, is shortsighted and dangerous. And, just as bad, he said Measure A allows—and even promotes—the kind of low-density sprawling development that undermines any sort of effective mass transit.

“This measure is not going to reduce congestion. It’s not going to increase mobility or clean up the air,” Johnson added.

RT officials acknowledge that the measure falls far short of the agency’s needs. Mike Wiley, assistant general manager at RT, said the agency hopes to dramatically expand the system throughout the next 20 years—adding significantly more bus service; dedicated bus lanes on major roads like Florin Road and Watt Avenue; and light rail to Elk Grove, West Sacramento and Roseville.

“This Measure A is a positive step, but our interests go beyond that,” Wiley explained. Indeed, RT had been counting on the new Measure A to be a two-thirds sales tax, with half of that dedicated to RT. Under the measure now on the ballot, RT gets only about half as much.

Still, Wiley said RT supports the measure, partly because it at least guarantees enough funding to continue its current level of operations. If Measure A isn’t renewed by the time it expires in 2009, Wiley said, RT will have to make cuts of up to 40 percent of its existing service. And those cuts would have to begin sometime before 2009, so that they could be phased in throughout two or three years. If Measure A doesn’t pass this year, Wiley said, the agency will have to at least start planning for cuts next year. Meanwhile, officials at RT and STA already are talking about the possibility of trying to pass a Measure B some years down the road, to make up the difference in RT funding. But a second sales-tax measure could be a harder sell on the heels of Measure A.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Measure A’s backers have presented the threat of service reductions at RT in a most dramatic fashion. Waste accuses ECOS and other groups of being “buccaneer environmentalists.”

“They would make RT walk the plank, in order to get a better RT,” Waste said. Then, trying a more dire simile: “Voting against Measure A at this point is like saying we have to destroy the village to save it.”

From where opponents of Measure A sit, the choice is just as stark. People like Mogavero say this plan is little more than an extension of the “old paradigm,” and he sees Measure A as “a major plebiscite on how we are going to grow.”

“It’s really a watershed event,” Mogavero explained. “What is our vision, and who gets to call the shots? Are we just going to get more of the same?” These are the questions at the center of the fight over Measure A, he said.

Mogavero usually has a lot in common with Earl Withycombe, who serves as chairman of the Sacramento chapter of the American Lung Association (ALA). But last month, the ALA decided to back Measure A, a decision Withycombe was “deeply ambivalent” about.

He worries that in the not-so-distant future, our current transportation system will look to us something like ancient American Indian mounds, “monuments to a past civilization, constructed at great expense and now entirely unused.”

Withycombe is also a member of ECOS, and he shares concerns that this Measure A, which sets Sacramento’s transportation priorities for the next 30 years, still looks a lot like a 20th-century plan.

“But the question was: If Measure A goes down in defeat, will a better deal come forward in two or four years?” It was a “roll of the dice” that Withycombe wasn’t willing to risk.

“No one would argue that it meets RT’s vision. But it is an increase,” Withycombe explained. The measure does increase funding for paratransit, transportation services for the elderly and disabled who are unable to use RT. And he noted that this measure dedicates funds to bike and pedestrian facilities and transit-oriented development that, though modest, weren’t in the last Measure A at all.

If the plan is defeated, it may be difficult to glean what voters meant when they voted no. “I would suggest that the STA do some exit polling on this one,” said Withycombe.

It seems Measure A’s chances might have been better if people like Cushman didn’t feel shut out of the process, if the business and environmental groups had managed to negotiate a deal that they all could live with. Cushman and the other opponents still believe there is time to craft a more inclusive, “more visionary” transportation plan, perhaps passing a better measure in 2006. But that means first defeating the one on the ballot in two weeks.

“I never wanted to be in the position of opposing Measure A,” he explained. “But we have to send a message to the powers that be, to the chamber and the elected officials, that we aren’t going to buy into the power game.”