Sass Talk: Funding road rehabilitation, possible ballot questions
February 25, 2017
When you pray for snow and water to fill up the lake be careful what you ask for. In all of my years in Tahoe I have never seen this much snow and rain at lake level in the same winter season. Mother Nature sure was listening and we are now in the midst of the wettest winter in the recorded history of weather tracking in Northern California.
The numbers are staggering with the lake gaining close to 4 feet since the summer and our mountain tops having over 530 inches of snow. I love the white snow on our peaks juxtaposed against the blue sky and the blue lake, and I think we will be seeing that well into summer. How lucky we are to have these views!
Of course with tremendous precipitation come issues with our roads. You know the history. Dirt roads first, then dirt roads covered with oil, and then asphalt put on top. No real foundation and in many cases nowhere for the water to go once in gets under the asphalt. Thus it freezes and pushes up causing potholes and larger cracks. On top of the weather, we have lots of vehicles with chains and it's just not a good recipe for our streets.
The issue is also compounded by a history of not budgeting sufficient road rehabilitation funds within the city. This is the same issue that every state, county and city faces — a lack of sufficient funding for all of its needs, priorities and goals coupled with a staggering increase in the cost of materials, supplies and benefit plans. Looking back over the 50 year history of the city there were always funds for repairs like the potholes but never a prolonged dedicated funding to tear up the asphalt and build the roads correctly.
Today, the cost to redo the 260 miles of city streets is staggering. Like our vehicles, if you don't maintain them bigger issues arrive and the repair bill gets much more expensive. Our current backlog is at over $40 million and that's why the City Council asked the voters to approve a sale tax increase last November. We need that dedicated funding source so we can rehabilitate the streets.
It's easy to say just find the money in the current budget. I'm here to tell you, it's not there. There is no line item to eliminate and shift the funds to a long-term road rehabilitation program. The key verbiage is long term. It's just not there. So now the question council needs to ask itself is: Do we go back to the ballot and ask you to approve a tax increase to pay for the work that needs to be done? We need to hear from you. Do you want our streets repaired and are you prepared to bear some part of the expense through something like a sales tax increase, while remembering that the majority of taxable purchases within our city are made by visitors?
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Speaking of the November ballot, election law only allows for a special election in an off-City Council election year for initiatives that require a 66 percent voter approval. So whether we ask you to vote on roads or a cannabis tax to pay for administration and enforcement of legalized retail sales of recreational product, it will require a large majority of your support. By the way, if council decides to legalize retail sales and commercial grows, I'm thinking I could only support it if the tax revenue also goes to funding a drug task force to deal with the heroin and other opioid abuse within our community. With the disbanding of our local SLEDNET team(South Lake El Dorado Narcotics Enforcement Team), we need resources to defeat the bigger abuse problem in town. I look forward to seeing how my fellow council members think about these issues and possibly agendizing for the future.
I spent a lot of time this week at TRPA (Tahoe Regional Planning Agency) meetings. The biggest issue we talked about was traffic, parking and transportation solutions. Looking at the following metrics and our own experiences with traffic, we all know there has to be a better way. The facts: The Tahoe Region has over 55,000 full-time residents. New data shows that on an annual basis we have close to 24 million visitors and 10 million vehicles travel to Tahoe every year. Think of how much of the lake is single lane travel and try to wrap your head around the numbers. It does not seem to compute. All of these vehicles produce a ton of carbon emissions and contribute to the particulates that end up in our beautiful lake in addition to angering all of us locals whose 10-minute drive becomes hours.
The answer is more multi-use trails and bikeways coupled with free transportation to key scenic and recreational trailheads and getting people out of their vehicles. At the end of the day, it's about funding — how do you pay for free transportation? Personally, I don't believe 66 percent of locals basin-wide will support a dedicated tax for this purpose because they believe it's a tourist caused issue. So I'm leaning toward a user fee for anyone entering the basin with some caveats. Locals should not have to bear the burden and folks living in Truckee and the Carson area who call Tahoe their recreational backyard should not either. At let's say $5 a vehicle that's about $50 million to earmark for transportation. Any user fee requires approval by the California and Nevada legislatures because of how the TRPA compact was written. Politically, this may be tough, but I just don't see another viable funding source at this writing. As the TRPA staff investigates the other options and the probability that we could obtain the dollars, I hope another solution rises up.
Finally, kudos again to our road maintenance team and supervisors. Your efforts in a relentless and record setting winter are truly remarkable. Chins up! More people in town appreciate you than the few voices who choose to denigrate your work.
Have a great March and try to get outside and enjoy the snow. After all, Tahoe is Your Outdoor Capital of the World.
South Lake Tahoe Mayor Austin Sass can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook by searching Sasstalk.