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SLOCOG announces funding shortfall, moves ahead on tax measure 

Plans to relieve some of San Luis Obispo County’s traffic congestion may stall or shrivel up thanks to some bad news recently received by local transportation planners.

The California Transportation Commission made a final decision to cut $45.1 million in funds that were scheduled for allocation to SLO County. Those funds, planned for in 2014 during the two-year budgeting process, were sacrificed when the state’s transportation budget was hit by a $750 million shortfall. Now, several ongoing and planned projects in SLO County won’t get the money that county planners were expecting to receive.

That’s put SLO County in a dire fiscal situation, said Ron De Carli, executive director of SLO Council of Governments (SLOCOG), a collaborative regional body primarily focused on transportation matters.

“Now we’ve kind of gone over the cliff,” De Carli said.

Several key factors pushed this crisis forward, he said, primarily becuase the increased use of fuel-efficient and electric vehicles and a drop in gas prices caused a significant decrease in revenue generated from the gas tax. In addition, the state started paying off a $20 billion transportation bond and is feeling the impacts from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s elimination of the car tax in 2003.

Of the $45.1 million that SLOCOG thought it was getting, $25 million was planned for railway improvements to add another train route between SLO and the Bay Area; $19 million was for improvements to the interchange between highways 41 and 46 east, near Shandon; and $1.1 million was planned to fund engineering work to improve the highways 101 and 46 west interchange near the Target shopping center in Paso Robles.

SLOCOG also won’t be able to access $7 million kept in reserves and planned for improvements to the stretch of Highway 101 between SLO and Pismo Beach. The shortfall will also result in a four-year delay to the Brisco Road and Grande Avenue interchange improvement project in Arroyo Grande.

De Carli said this bad news just underscores the county’s need to generate its own revenue to fund transportation projects, which SLOCOG may seek by asking voters to approve a half-percent sales tax measure on the November ballot. The SLOCOG board of directors voted in April to take the measure to local cities and the county to receive input. That’s been done, and the item will go before the board on June 1 for another round of approval.

“We have found that [with only state funding] we cannot address the congestion on the freeway interchanges and we cannot improve our streets and roads,” De Carli said. “With this measure, we’re starting to have the ability to address these needs.” 

If approved by at least two-thirds of county voters, the measure would generate an estimated $225 million over nine years. Fifty-five percent of those funds would be allocated to participating cities and the county to use on transportation projects, and the remainder would be used by SLOCOG for regional projects including major interchange and circulation improvements, bicycle and pedestrian safety, public transportation, and senior citizen mobility.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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