New 1% sales tax won’t be on Riverside County ballot

Officials cite uncertainty over voter approval; billions in projects needed


A proposal to fund transportation projects across Riverside County through a new 1% sales tax won’t be on the ballot in November after all. A commission made up of local elected officials voted Wednesday not to put the measure before voters.

The one-cent-per-dollar tax increase had been discussed recently by the Riverside County Transportation Commission, which includes a council member from each of the county’s 28 cities, along with the county’s five elected supervisors and one person appointed by the governor.

The proposal was estimated to generate roughly $25 billion over the next 30 years, including $5 billion in the Coachella Valley to fund road, bridge and rail projects. The measure, which still could go to voters in a future election, would’ve been in addition to the existing Measure A, a half-cent sales tax first approved by Riverside County voters in 1988 and extended in 2002 through 2039.

With Riverside County projected to add another half-million residents to its population by 2050, the measure emerged after the commission recently approved its traffic relief plan, which identifies key projects across western Riverside County, the Coachella Valley and the Blythe area.

The measure would’ve raised the countywide sales tax from 7.75% to 8.75%. That’s how much people pay on purchases in unincorporated areas or in cities that have chosen not to tack on their own surcharges. Cities that have already raised their sales tax, including Cathedral City, Coachella, Indio, La Quinta and Palm Springs, also would’ve seen a one-percentage-point increase from their current rates.

A few valley cities, including Palm Desert and Desert Hot Springs, have already opted to place their own sales tax proposals on the November ballot to fund local services, while Cathedral City officials are also mulling the option.

The ballot proposal would’ve required approval from two-thirds of voters to take effect. Initially, it looked like that two-thirds threshold might change: A statewide measure to lower the approval threshold for many local tax measures from 66.7% to 55% will also be on the November ballot, but it was recently revised to no longer include local sales tax proposals.

What the commission said

Commission executives and city officials largely agreed that the county’s transportation needs are urgent, but they decided to follow a ad hoc committee’s recommendation to hold off for the upcoming election.

The traffic relief plan adopted earlier this year identifies roughly $30 billion in needed transportation upgrades. Similarly, an assessment in 2016 found the county was facing capital funding needs worth $23 billion, and only $6.1 billion in existing funding streams, or 26% of the identified needs, is expected to be available by 2040, according to a draft ordinance included with the RCTC agenda.

“This funding gap has widened and will continue to do so, considering the uncertainty of competitive federal funds available, as well as declining state funding resulting from increased fuel efficiency,” the draft ordinance states.

David Knudsen, a deputy executive director for the commission, noted its staff conducted surveys in 2023, which showed initial support at 64%, and in June 2024, which showed initial support at 60%. Both of those figures got a bump after additional voter education.

“I do want to share that in our recent June survey, 79% of Riverside County voters believe there is at least some need for transportation funding in (the county), and that has been consistent over time over multiple surveys,” Knudsen said.

He added that while there’s strong community support for additional transportation funding, “the support does not confidently meet the high voter approval threshold needed to pass a new sales tax measure under RCTC’s authorizing statutes.”

“Your staff is not confident that a measure would be approved by Riverside County voters in 2024,” he told the commission.

RCTC Executive Director Aaron Hake echoed the comments and compared the funding timeline to a marathon race.

“I think today, we need to recognize what mile we’re in and know that miles 25 and 26 are still ahead,” Hake said. “We’re going to still keep running in that direction, but we need to pace ourselves appropriately, and when the time is right, we’ll accelerate toward the finish line.”

Beaumont City Councilmember Lloyd White, who chairs the commission, described the traffic relief plan developed over several years as a “significant milestone” that shows local officials are listening and looking for ways to reduce traffic congestion and invest in public transit.

“(But) timing is everything,” White said. “Based on what I’ve heard and my observations, from connecting with people and communities throughout my city, now is not the time to seek voter approval on a new measure to fund the traffic relief plan. But I think that time is coming soon.”

The commission unanimously agreed to follow the staff’s recommendation while reviewing its spending plan. Five voting members, including the ones from Cathedral City, Coachella, Indio and Rancho Mirage, did not cast a vote.

Tom Coulter covers the cities of Palm Desert, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells. Reach him at [email protected].

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