Five years ago, Fresno County voters overwhelmingly approved a 20-year extension of the half-cent transportation sales tax known as Measure C.
They were told that the measure would raise $1.7 billion for new roads, better bus service, street repairs, bike trails and scores of other improvements. And it might have, if the economy had cooperated.
Instead, a year after the extension went into effect, the real estate boom went bust. Sales tax revenues collapsed and took Measure C's budget with them.
Now, the Fresno County Transportation Authority projects it will collect at most $1.2 billion from the measure over 20 years -- almost one-third less than what was expected.
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As a result, promises made before the Measure C vote are being broken:
- Highway projects are delayed, such as the Veterans Boulevard interchange with Highway 99. Some have been abandoned outright, including the extension of Highway 180 west to Interstate 5.
- A pledge of 15-minute bus service on major Fresno routes was rolled out, then rolled back. Meanwhile, fares have risen and free rides for people older than 65 -- another Measure C promise -- have been discontinued.
- Some cities facing budget deficits have stockpiled Measure C funds earmarked for street repairs, trails and similar uses. In one city, auditors say Measure C funds may have been been used to cover unrelated deficits.
So what went wrong?
Did the Measure C extension's authors oversell its benefits? Or did they simply fail to predict the future?
Mostly the latter, said Jeff Roberts, a Granville Homes vice president who represented the Building Industry Association in the Measure C extension talks in 2005.
"We might have been a tad optimistic, but we had a lot of experts working on it and I don't think any of them foresaw what happened with the economy," Roberts said. "The measure is working. It's just a little bit slower because of the revenues."
It could have been worse if not for some unexpected federal funding.
The federal stimulus program of 2009 provided $18.4 million for widening Highway 180 between Temperance and Academy avenues, where work was completed in October.
Another funding account is supplying $55 million for an expanded ramp network on Highway 180 between Highways 41 and 168, where construction is scheduled to begin next spring.
Those exceptions aside, projects delayed or canceled because of Measure C's shortfall already include:
- A new underpass for Herndon Avenue at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, canceled.
- Widening segments of Willow, Ventura, Herndon, Shaw and California avenues, delayed by a year or more.
- Golden State Boulevard improvements through Fowler, Selma and Kingsburg, delayed five years to 2021.
- Improvements to the American Avenue interchange with Highway 99, canceled.
- A new bridge over the flood-prone Arroyo Pasajero on Highway 269 north of Huron, delayed five years to 2025.
Many of the delays have real consequences. "It's a nuisance," Huron City Manager Gerald Forde said of the flooding that closed Highway 269 two months last winter. "It means people have to take an alternate route to get into Huron or out of Huron, and both of those routes are about 50 miles."
Still more delays are likely if sales tax collections do not pick up sharply by middecade, as the authority now expects they will.
To make matters worse, a fee on new construction, enacted as part of the Measure C extension to help pay for major highway improvements, has produced one-third as much revenue as expected due to the recession and a delay in its implementation. That leaves another hole of more than $6 million.
It has all led to dashed expectations -- a distinct contrast to the euphoria of election night in November 2006, when the Measure C extension surprised even its strongest supporters by winning almost 78% of the vote.
"Think how bad it would be if we hadn't passed the extension -- I keep telling myself that," said Mary Savala, who represented the League of Women Voters on the Measure C committee.
A winning formula
Like all special-purpose sales taxes in California, the Measure C extension faced an uphill battle from the start, requiring approval from two-thirds of Fresno County voters to be enacted.
A previous extension attempt in 2002 failed to get even 54% after an unusual coalition of environmental and anti-tax groups joined to oppose it.
In early 2005, time was running out before the original measure's June 30, 2007, expiration. So the Fresno Council of Governments -- the county's transportation planning agency -- appointed a steering committee and told it to hammer out a consensus that would attract the needed two-thirds vote.
Organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the Valley Taxpayers Coalition had representatives on the committee, along with elected officials and business leaders. They hired a consultant who ran a poll and told them what Fresno County voters wanted -- things such as well-maintained streets, more bike paths and pedestrian trails, and better public transit to reduce congestion and air pollution.
The committee followed the polling data slavishly. The result was a something-for-everybody spending plan for the expected $1.7 billion in Measure C revenues over the extension's 20-year life span.
Slightly more than one-third of the pie went directly to local governments for street repairs, bike paths and other uses. Almost another one-third went to regional highway projects. About 25% went to buses, van pools and the like. The rest was earmarked for smaller programs such as replacing old school buses.
It was a plan most on the committee could support, even if some had to swallow hard to accept parts of it. The only dissent in the committee was from the Valley Taxpayers Coalition. The only major external opposition was from the Clovis Chamber of Commerce, which wanted a larger share for streets and highways.
Polling before the election showed 70% supported the extension, a comfortable margin for passage. Few predicted it would win nearly 78%.
"I think my initial reaction was, 'Wow,' " said Mark Keppler, who represented trail advocates on the committee. "A two-thirds vote is extremely hard to get, and to not only get that but to demolish it was a sign of how important the community thought Measure C was."
The euphoria lasted for a while after the vote.
The 2007 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2007, was the last year of the original Measure C's 20-year term.
Revenues for that year ran 24% higher -- $61 million vs. $43 million -- than the projections that were used for the extension. That gave the Fresno County Transportation Authority one last burst of money to close out unfinished projects from the old measure's list.
"It was like Christmas there for a little while," said Ron Peterson, the authority's executive director.
The money provided a local match for state and federal funding on two Highway 180 projects -- from Hughes Avenue to Brawley Avenue and from Temperance Avenue to Academy Avenue -- as well as the ramps project between Highway 41 and Highway 168. It also paid for design work and right-of-way purchases on other projects.
In fiscal year 2008, the first year under the extension, revenues dropped by $2 million, but they were still $7.5 million over projections. The next year, fiscal year 2009, revenues fell another $4.5 million but still slightly exceeded the projection.
But the bottom fell out in fiscal year 2010 as revenues dropped almost 11% to $49 million. That was 20% below their 2007 peak and 14% below projections.
"That was our wake-up call," Peterson said.
Together, the boom followed by the bust -- along with a slow and unsteady recovery -- threw the Measure C plans into disarray. There was less money available for the long list of highway projects, less money available to support public transit systems, less money available to help cities fill potholes and repave streets.
"There's nothing in my experience, and I've been in this business 40 years, that would compare to it on the upside, and there's also very little that would compare to it on the downside," Peterson said.
When the magnitude of the decline became obvious, the authority ordered a new series of projections on how much revenue Measure C would produce.
The new forecasts were as downbeat as the earlier ones had been optimistic: No growth at all in fiscal year 2011 (which ended June 30) and fiscal year 2012, only 1% growth in the next two fiscal years, and 2.5% to 4% growth annually after that.
Under the most optimistic of those scenarios, Measure C would raise only $1.2 billion over 20 years, instead of the $1.7 billion forecast before the November 2006 vote.
Less than a year earlier, with the mid-decade boom still fresh in everyone's mind, the authority and the Fresno Council of Governments had amended the Measure C plan to build several major projects ahead of their previous schedules, including the Veterans Boulevard interchange, which was advanced to start construction in late 2018.
Now, much of that was undone. Construction on Veterans Boulevard was moved back to 2022. Ramp improvements on Highway 41 between Tulare and O streets were rescheduled from 2021 to 2023. A number of projects on Willow Avenue between Barstow and Copper avenues also slipped by two years, the last of them being rescheduled for 2016.
Still, there is at least some hope that the current revenue projections -- and the resulting project schedule -- will prove too pessimistic, Peterson said.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Measure C revenues came in more than $2 million over the new projections, though still more $8 million below the 2005 projections.
Construction bids for recent projects have been lower than expected, and those savings could be applied to future projects.
Some thought also has been given to borrowing against future Measure C revenues by issuing bonds, in hopes of starting some projects earlier. But Peterson said that wouldn't help much because the backlogged projects aren't ready for construction yet.
And Fresno city officials hope the proposed statewide high-speed rail system will help them with Veterans Boulevard.
So the promises of Measure C may be delivered late in some cases and not at all in other cases. That leaves transportation advocates in Fresno County wistful for the prosperity of 2006 -- and hopeful that recovery is just around the corner.
"There are always ups and downs in the economy," Keppler said. "We could have the economy come roaring back in the next few years and we will be in much better shape. ... The law of averages says it will come back."