California Commute: Ventura County sees a sales tax hike as a fix for transportation problems

High on Ventura County's wish list of road projects are widenings of Highway 101 and State Route 118, above, better known as the Ronald Reagan Freeway.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, likes to tell a little story about how frustrated people can get with the local highway system.

About a year ago, a motorist left a message on his office voice mail. The driver was trying to reach his daughter’s piano recital in Ojai, Kettle said, but wasn’t going to make it because of severe congestion on Highway 101 — the primary route between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

“Can you fix this?” the motorist pleaded.

Kettle says he would — if only he had the money.

Ventura is the only county in Southern California that does not have a sales tax to raise money for improving streets, highways and public transit.

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Local officials hope to change that in 2016. Encouraged by recent opinion polling, they are exploring a ballot measure for the November election that would impose a small sales tax that could raise an additional $1 billion to $2 billion for transportation projects.


“It’s desperately needed,” said Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark city councilman and Ventura County transportation commissioner. “I’m disappointed that we have not had one before.” Voters had a chance to approve a similar tax in 2004, “but that measure did not pass.”

Should next year’s transportation proposal win the required two-thirds majority, high on the list of projects are widenings of the 101 and State Route 118, better known as the Ronald Reagan Freeway. The 118 runs east from Saticoy in Ventura County to Lake View Terrace in Los Angeles.

The largest project involves the 101 at an estimated cost of $800 million to $900 million. The proposal would add a lane in each direction along 28 miles through the urban heart of Ventura County.

With an estimated cost of $150 million, the 118 is a much simpler project. Depending on the location, one and two lanes would be added to eight miles of the highway between Simi Valley and Moorpark.

Kettle says the widenings are necessary because the amount of delay experienced by motorists annually is projected to increase dramatically by 2035, including a 50% jump on the 101, according to a transportation commission study.

Caltrans figures show that motorists now average up to 190,000 trips per day on the busiest sections of the 101 in Ventura County and as many as 141,000 daily trips on parts of the 118.

The average motorist in the county now wastes about 23 hours a year stuck in rush-hour traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The survey shows that the average motorist in Southern California is delayed 80 hours a year by congestion.

Kettle says Ventura County still needs $300 million to $400 million to build both projects, and local surface streets aren’t holding up any better. The commission estimates that an additional $1.3 billion will be required in the next 30 years just to maintain existing city streets and county roads.

In addition, transportation officials would like to improve transit bus operations, the safety of railroad crossings and the Metrolink commuter rail service, including the addition of midday trains.

“We really need to take care of the fundamentals,” Kettle said.

Part of the problem is that Ventura cannot get as much in matching state and federal funds as counties with transportation sales taxes. Kettle estimates, for example, that the county lost out on $30 million to $40 million from Proposition 1B, a $20-billion transportation bond measure passed by California voters in 2006. About $1 billion had been earmarked for smaller, local projects.

“Transportation funding is a three-legged stool: state, federal and local. If you are a county and show up with your share of funding, you are at a competitive advantage over those that don’t,” said Keith Dunn, executive director of the Self-Help Counties Coalition, which represents 20 of the 58 counties in the state that have transportation sales taxes.

In Southern California, they include Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. All have half-cent sales taxes, which have been used to raise billions of dollars annually for transportation projects.

“It’s a great opportunity for local communities to provide for their needs,” Dunn said, “but the threshold of a two-thirds majority for passage is difficult to get.”

Ventura County officials say they are heartened by an April poll of 802 residents identified as likely to vote in the November 2016 election. It indicates there is growing support for a sales tax measure.

Though still short of the required two-thirds majority, 60% said they would probably vote for a half-cent transportation sales tax. In three earlier polls between 2008 and 2013, 46% to 54% backed the idea.

After poll respondents were told more about the measure, support rose to almost two-thirds, within the margin of error of 3.5 percentage points for passage.

A quarter-cent sales tax fared better, with support slightly exceeding the threshold for passage, though it was still within the poll’s margin of error.

The current sales tax in Ventura County is 7.5% except for Oxnard and Port Hueneme, where it is 8%.

As a result of the survey, the Ventura County Transportation Commission formed a committee chaired by Supervisor Peter Foy to explore a sales tax and make recommendations early next year on the amount to impose and whether to proceed with a ballot measure.

Millhouse said the half-cent tax would cost county taxpayers an average of $29 a year, which would be cheaper than repairing a car damaged by poorly maintained roads, the value of wasted time in traffic and the extra gas used because of congestion-related delay.

He also said the county is missing out on sales tax revenue from purchases made by millions of annual visitors who use local streets and highways. Just in the city of Ventura, visitors spent $261 million in 2014.

“Equity demands it,” Millhouse said. “Without a sales tax measure, Ventura County residents pay 100% of all local highway and transit costs. Instead, we are just falling farther and farther behind.”

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