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Sacramento’s Tax Proposal Could Trigger Climate, Funding Risks

The $8.5 billion tax increase would help fund county infrastructure projects for the next 40 years. But a regional planning agency claims it conflicts with a climate law, risking funding and progress on emissions reduction.

(TNS) — Inside the sunny conference room of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office at City Hall, well-paid political lawyers and transportation experts have spent two months trying to prevent a $8.5 billion tax increase from becoming a boondoggle.

The talks concern the “Sacramento County Transportation Maintenance, Safety, and Congestion Relief Act of 2022,” a developer-backed half-cent tax hike proposal that would help fund most of the county’s long-envisioned infrastructure projects for the next 40 years, from street repairs and pedestrian paths to highway expansions and mass transit improvements.

If only it were that simple. The ballot initiative is written in a way that would violate a climate-focused planning law Steinberg authored 15 years ago as a state senator, which would compromise the entire six-county region’s ability to secure funding. If the discrepancy isn’t resolved, state and federal agencies would likely cut off access to public dollars that are essential to most transportation and affordable housing projects.

That’s just the financial risk. The larger threat is that the initiative’s keystone project could move the region’s center of gravity for development, unlocking a new suburban growth frontier in the pastoral periphery. By completing the controversial Southeast Capital Connector, a 34-mile expressway linking Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom, it would encourage sprawl and fundamentally alter the metropolitan area.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the chief planning agency for 28 cities and counties, detailed the risks in a scathing analysis last month. With a peer-review panel including faculty from UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UC Irvine, SACOG determined that “the region would likely fall short of meeting its state-mandated 19 percent per capita greenhouse gas reduction target by nearly 2 percent.”

Failure to do so, the analysis concluded, “would jeopardize the region’s ability to compete for state transportation and housing funding programs.”

Measure proponents scoffed at the analysis. Michael Quigley, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, a labor advocacy group, took aim at the methodology and timing, calling it “disingenuous.”

“They were trying to do this for political purposes, and it’s blatantly wrong for them to take opinions on measures that have not qualified for the ballot,” Quigley said in an interview — though he anticipates the initiative will secure enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot by next week.

Steinberg, who relishes “the art of a principled compromise,” is trying to negotiate peace between the oversight agency and influential business and labor groups that believe the voters know better than the experts. The mayor’s goal, he told me, is “to do everything in my power to avoid a failure. To me, it would be a failure — pass or fail — under the current construct.”

If the eventual deal preserves the connector and enables sprawl, however, it will negate the environmental benefit of long-sought light rail extensions. Just as important, expansive suburban growth would pull investment from neglected and more sustainable infill areas that should be the priority — such as Sunrise Boulevard, for example.

“If we’re not careful … (with) our older suburbs and commercial corridors, we’ll set them back even further,” said SACOG executive director James Corless.

Greenwashing A Freeway Measure

The umbrella group behind the measure, the Committee for a Better Sacramento, includes the California State Council of Laborers, the California Alliance for Jobs and the Sacramento Region Business Association. Their path to the ballot exploits a 2017 state Supreme Court decision allowing local governments to work with special interest groups to pass tax increases with approval by a simple majority of voters instead of the previously required two-thirds.

Most of the early contributions to the campaign came from Cordova Hills Development Corp. and entities owned by megadeveloper Angelo Tsakopoulos, both of which stand to benefit from the southeast connector. Campaign finance records show that the developers put up $250,000 and nearly $96,000, respectively, to fund signature-gathering.

The majority of the projects in the initiative are roads and freeways, including $300 million earmarked for the connector.

“The reasoning now is voters are beginning to see the congestion returning to roads” as offices reopen, Quigley said. “They are starting to be concerned about the downturn of the economy. And they’re looking for local ways to fight climate change.”

The campaign’s talking points and the initiative’s climate provisions are textbook greenwashing, designed to make the measure seem environmentally friendly even though it’s not.

The Sacramento Regional Transit District would receive over $2 billion if the measure passed, helping to fund light rail expansions to the international airport, Elk Grove, Citrus Heights, and Folsom, among other projects. But that won’t come close to offsetting the effects of connector construction, highway expansions, and sprawl. The difference in carbon reductions is 0.06 percent, SACOG calculated, showing that “the additional transit infrastructure does not mitigate for additional vehicle emissions enough to achieve the regional (greenhouse gas) reduction target.”

Quigley disputed the sprawl potential, blaming it on a “structural problem” in California’s public discourse.

“Housing and transportation planning is now increasingly being linked, but only focused on infill development,” he said. “We have a mitigation plan for the connector that we think is going to meet or exceed VMT (vehicle miles traveled) increases or anything that opponents think we will create.”

Gambling Gas Tax Revenue

At least 26 major projects listed in the initiative are not included in SACOG’s 2040 planning blueprint. This discrepancy, totaling $3.5 billion in projects, is at the core of the negotiations being led by Steinberg.

The long-range strategy is the product of a years-long effort that involves every local government in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba counties. SACOG vets and analyzes an untold number of projects, determining which are most feasible and meet state-mandated carbon reduction targets. The agency’s Board of Directors, which consists of more than 30 elected officials, adopts the final plan.

“By ‘strategic,’ it means it cannot be a wishlist,” Corless said. “It has to be on a pretty reasonable budget. We can’t take every project or every development. It has to be the projects that make the most difference.”

The 20-year strategy essentially serves as the region’s shared road map for infrastructure and development, and all six counties are bound to it under state law.

The 26 projects that break from the plan “would substantially increase per capita (greenhouse gas) emissions,” SACOG concluded, due to “the impact additional transportation capacity would have on the location of new housing and employment development, substantially altering the region’s land use forecast and travel patterns.”

The biggest potential loss for the region, as a result, would be gas tax revenues for infrastructure. Drivers throughout the Sacramento region would keep paying those taxes at the pump but no longer reap the benefits for the roads they drive most. Over the last four years, gas tax revenues have helped fund more than 440 projects across the region, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Elected officials from the outlying counties are understandably concerned about that.

“We’re a diverse region,” said Colfax Mayor Trinity Burruss. “We cannot, in the scope of this conversation, silo ourselves into local jurisdictions without being aware of the impacts of our actions on each other. We win as a team or we lose as a team.”

Compromise At A Cost

During last month’s SACOG Board of Directors meeting, Steinberg unveiled several provisions that would anchor a potential agreement with measure proponents and give SACOG some semblance of oversight on the southeast connector. The project’s $300 million in funding would be contingent on the Board of Directors proposing a menu of environmental remedies that the connector authority gets to choose from.

SACOG would also have to give the connector authority a pathway to get the project in a future long-range blueprint. In return, the agency would get $300 million for climate protection, and the proponents would give $100 million to the California Mobility Center to help develop a clean energy workforce.

In a February interview, Steinberg shared major concerns with the initiative. Two months later, after an opposition campaign began forming, he started negotiating with the proponents, tilting the axis away from the alternative: defeat the measure and try again in 2024 with a more sustainable list of projects.

Steinberg prides himself on his ability to make difficult deals, but his affinity for compromise could come at a significant cost.

“It’s the reality of politics and the fact that our county has diverse views on all these questions — this is a countywide initiative,” Steinberg said last week, singing a very different tune. “The arc is to achieve something that does not violate your principles and achieves a lot for alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles, i.e. transit, and moves us forward.”

What Steinberg is downplaying — less intentionally than measure proponents — are the consequences of spending the next 40 years hewing to old habits of transportation and land use that have fouled our air, clogged our roads and overheated our planet.

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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