County officials met in Santa Maria yesterday to decide the fate of Measure D, and with it, the future of transportation in the county.

County Supervisors and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments decided yesterday afternoon to try to extend, rather than update, Measure D for the 2008 ballot. This strategy is a retreat from last fall’s election, in which the county attempted to increase the Measure D half-cent sales tax to include another quarter-cent tax; however, the ballot measure did not meet the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

Measure D has generated $270 million for public transit and highway repairs since 1989. The sales tax is scheduled to sunset in 2010 – leaving the county transportation fund dry – and officials said the 2008 election will be their last chance to renew the half-cent tax.

Gregg Hart, spokesman for SBCAG, said the money provided by Measure D is integral to transportation throughout the county, and said there would be tremendous consequences if the measure falls short at the polls in 2008.

“That’s 35 million dollars a year that goes directly to local transportation needs,” Hart said. “It’s very, very powerful in meeting our needs here in Santa Barbara. It’s important to maintain the infrastructure we have, it’s essential to the quality of life here in the community.”

The original Measure D passed in 1989 with a scant majority, but now requires a two-thirds vote before it is renewed. Since the measure failed to achieve the 66.6 percent approval last November, members of yesterday’s meeting discussed ways of making the bill more universally appealing. Because of overwhelming success of the measure in southern Santa Barbara, especially among constituents in Isla Vista, Hart suggested developing a separate plan for each area.

“The North County didn’t want to spend tax dollars on it, so we’re going to try to split the county into north and south districts,” Hart said. “Dollars raised in North County will stay in North County. SBCAG is already divided into north and south, so there’s already a natural mechanism in place.”

Some county supervisors at the meeting remarked that they hadn’t observed any notable concern regarding Measure D among their constituents, but Hart countered that people will not mobilize until things start going wrong.

“Supervisor [Joni] Gray expressed some concern that the public hadn’t seemed interested in the measure, but that’s because voters see that the roads are in good shape so they aren’t pounding on the door,” Hart said. “If the roads started to fall apart, you sure as hell would hear from the public. People universally understand the importance of measures like this, counties all around California have approved of similar bills.”

Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone echoed Hart’s sentiment, noting that the only reason the public might not support a revival of Measure D would be because they do not understand how essential the funding is to local transportation.

“Here’s the situation,” Firestone said. “There are a few people in this county who think and know about transportation, but the vast majority doesn’t even know what Measure D is, though they would certainly care if the roads start deteriorating. If we lose, we’re facing a real disaster.”

Firestone has been focused on Measure D since it failed months ago, and has made several attempts to increase funding for transportation beyond the bill. Earlier this year, Firestone proposed a gasoline tax, similar to the state tax already in place, but was met with disapproval.

“It’s very interesting,” Firestone said. “I made an impassioned plea as to why that would be a good way to pay for road maintenance, and that a gasoline tax would be fair and equitable. I asked that this option be studied, but I couldn’t get a single second in the county committee. I was quite amazed that left and right, north and south, I couldn’t get a second; I was surprised because it was only a study. It’s a pretty deep and potent issue, but I think people are afraid of it.”