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Ventura County Voters Balking at New Levy for Road Improvements

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County residents don’t like increased traffic congestion on their roads but are not ready to support the additional taxes necessary to fix the problems, a poll released Friday shows.

When asked if they would support a half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for improvements to the county’s major highway and public transit systems, 64% of those surveyed said yes, 30% said no and 6% had no opinion, pollster Jeff Raimundo said.

That result is short of the 67% “yes” margin needed to pass a sales-tax increase, indicating a ballot measure probably would not succeed now, Raimundo told the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

Poll numbers usually need to be at 70% or higher for a ballot measure to succeed, he said.

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Raimundo’s firm, Sacramento-based Townsend, Raimundo, Besler & Usher, questioned 600 registered voters last month. The margin of error for the survey is 4.2%.

Survey results show that while support for a tax increase has grown in the past eight years -- the last time transportation officials had queried voters -- the county needs to do a better job explaining to residents how a supplemental tax source could make their daily commute better, Raimundo said.

A whopping 86% of those surveyed said they had no idea that transportation officials were planning long-term improvements to roads and highways.

“It’s apparent people don’t know what’s going on in the county with regards to transportation,” said Keith Millhouse, chairman of the transportation board.

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Board members commissioned the poll to learn whether a November ballot measure seeking a half-cent sales-tax increase would have a chance to pass.

After hearing the results, the commissioners unanimously agreed to hold off on a decision until May. In the interim, they will launch a program to increase public awareness of the benefits of transportation improvements.

Other counties have had success with education campaigns, said Ginger Gherardi, the transit agency’s executive director. Riverside County, for instance, passed a half-cent sales-tax increase for transportation projects in 2002 after conducting such a campaign, she said.

The commission will consider whether to conduct a follow-up poll after the March primary.

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With a $15-billion statewide bond measure on that ballot, along with continuing financial uncertainty in Sacramento, voters’ willingness to tax themselves could change quickly, Gherardi and Raimundo told commissioners.

The surveyed voters were most interested in seeing improvements to major highways that have become increasingly congested in recent years.

The highest support, 69%, came for widening congested sections of the Ventura Freeway between Thousand Oaks and Ventura. Respondents also strongly supported improvements to the Moorpark Freeway near Moorpark and Thousand Oaks, and the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley.

Better timing of traffic signals, lower transit fares for seniors and citizen oversight of money spent also ranked high among those surveyed.

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Overall, traffic congestion ranked as one of the biggest headaches for county residents. Forty-nine percent cited traffic relief as a priority, surpassed only by the 65% who cited “spending tax money more wisely” as their top concern.

Survey takers were far less worried about preserving farm land from development, with just 27% citing that as a concern.

The Transportation Commission asked about farm land preservation because the county Board of Supervisors is considering whether to place its own sales-tax increase measure on the November ballot.

Supervisors are hoping to create a countywide land-conservation district that would be funded by the tax dollars. Supervisor Steve Bennett sent a letter to commissioners asking them to consider combining the tax measures on the November ballot and splitting the revenue. But that suggestion appeared to receive little support Friday .

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Gherardi said she is “reticent” because the county’s proposed sales-tax increase would be in place for 10 years, while the transit board envisions a tax increment that would last for 30 years.

Raimundo’s poll showed that just 30% of voters would support both if the competing tax measures were on the same ballot. Although his survey did not ask about a combined measure, Raimundo said that in his experience it would be a hard sell.

Commissioner Dean Maulhardt said the measure should focus on transportation issues only. “You start muddying it up with these other things, that’s where problems arise,” he said.

Bennett, however, said he would continue to press for a combined measure. “If they are both on at the same time, then both will suffer,” Bennett said. “So it makes sense for us to consider for a while the benefits of making them one ballot measure where we split the revenue.”

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