Despite lingering questions of whether the timing is right, the Orange County Transportation Commission took its first steps Monday toward putting Measure M, a half-cent sales tax hike for freeway and rail improvements, on the ballot just one year after it was defeated by voters.
After a rambling, hourlong discussion at the county's Hall of Administration, the commission voted unanimously to hold a pair of public forums in the next two weeks, setting the stage for a decision by the end of the month on whether to test the measure in November or wait until 1992.
Commission Chairman Dana W. Reed and other supporters are pushing for the earlier vote on the half-cent tax, which was defeated 53% to 47% by Orange County voters in November, 1989. They argue that any delay threatens to strip the county of the money it needs to tackle the region's daunting traffic troubles.
"We can solve the transportation problem in Orange County," Reed declared in an impassioned, 10-minute address during the commission meeting. "This is something absolutely critical to the future of Orange County. It's critical for us and our children."
But Supervisors Roger R. Stanton and Harriett M. Wieder, who also sit on the commission, expressed concern Monday that the proposition, which is expected to again be called Measure M, would only end up failing if it is rushed again onto the ballot. The pair noted that Orange County voters were roundly opposed to Proposition 111, the state gas-tax increase that was approved in June.
"I think you have to factor in what happened with Proposition 111 in Orange County," Wieder said. "I perceive that voters will say, 'You already passed 111. Don't you have enough money?' "
Stanton said he would rather see an advisory measure placed on the November ballot offering county voters a menu of options for spending the more than estimated $3 billion that could be raised over a 20-year period by a half-cent sales tax increase. The results of the advisory measure could then be incorporated in a ballot measure sometime in 1992, he said.
Past opponents of the tax have also promised to renew their fight against the half-cent tax hike proposal.
Wayne King, a director of Drivers for Highway Safety, an Orange County-based group opposed to car-pool lanes, called Measure M "a boondoggle that must stop" and complained that "fundamental change is needed" in the county's plans for spending the money generated by the sales tax. King said he would like to see the money go toward construction of new, general-use freeway lanes, not car-pool lanes and rail improvements.
Tom Rogers, an Orange County slow-growth advocate and leader of the Proposition 111 opposition, believes that plans for the half-cent tax hike "need an overhaul" and suggested that many voters have it in the "backs of their minds that this is going to help developers."
But supporters of putting the measure on the ballot in November contend that time is of the essence.
Reed and others argue that sales-tax money is needed not only to help directly finance road and rail projects in the county, but to also attract matching federal and state dollars.
As it is, they argue, the county is hurting for the matching money, putting it in a troublesome position in competing for the dollars that will be generated by Proposition 111 and other transportation measures approved by state voters in June.
If the sales tax is not approved in November, the county could lose upwards of $200 million in state and federal money by 1992, officials with the Transportation Commission predict.
While the sums that would be generated by Measure M are huge, Reed said the impact on a consumer's pocket book would be relatively minimal, amounting to about $5 a month for a family with an annual income between $55,000 and $60,000.
"There's a saying that there is no free lunch. But in this case, lunch is not very expensive," Reed said, adding that $5 is "less than the cost of a movie. . . . I don't think this is a boondoggle."
A poll conducted for the commission between June 15 and 20 found that residents favor a half-cent tax increase by a 52%-39% margin. The poll was conducted by Sacramento-based J. Moore Methods and surveyed a random sample of 600 county residents.
The resurrected Measure M would allocate $1.3 billion to freeway construction, $1 billion to regional and local street and road projects and $775 million to transit improvements.