Leaders of the San Diego Association of Governments say they figured out how the agency can finish all the transportation projects it promised voters as part of a 2004 tax increase.

They just need California legislators to raise the gas tax two more times. The gas tax hike lawmakers passed this summer will also need to survive a repeal attempt.

Staffers from SANDAG last month updated their long-term plan for spending tax revenue from TransNet, the voter-approved countywide half-cent sales tax. The agency combines those tax dollars with money from state and federal sources to build major projects like freeway expansions and new trolley lines.

Investigations by Voice of San Diego and a firm the agency hired forced SANDAG to acknowledge that local sales taxes have brought in far less money than staff had thought would come. Project costs also now far exceed initial expectations. Taken together, the agency needs to bring in nearly twice as much money from outside the county to fill the gap as it projected just two years ago.

San Diego will now need to win $18.1 billion in grants from state and federal sources – up from SANDAG’s projection of just $10.4 billion in 2015 – for all the projects promised on the 2004 ballot to actually get built.

SANDAG’s update to its long-term plan sketches out what would need to happen for that to be possible.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The California Legislature’s decision to increase the state’s gas tax this year by passing SB 1, for instance, is a big help. SANDAG says it could bring about $100 million to San Diego per year.

But the region still needs state legislators to raise the gas tax two more times by 2030. If that happens, SANDAG staff says it can still finish everything promised in TransNet, despite forecasting errors that caused the agency to overstate how much money it could bring in from the sales tax.

This year’s gas tax increase, however, was controversial enough to provoke a recall attempt against a vulnerable Democrat who provided a crucial vote for it. And it is facing a statewide repeal attempt. Agency staff told the SANDAG board of directors that their expectations were still reasonable when they presented the plan. The board of directors is composed of elected officials from around the county.

Some board members weren’t convinced. Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey pressed the agency on how it came to its projections of how much it could bring in from outside sources.

To answer him, SANDAG’s staff revealed its methodology for projecting how much money it could win from the state and federal governments.

Essentially, the $18.1 billion is not what SANDAG thinks it can win from state and federal sources in the coming decades. Rather, that’s simply how much money the agency needs to finish TransNet. And since that’s how much it needs, that’s how much it now says it thinks it can bring in.

“Why do we have $18 billion identified as reasonably available now, when we only identified $10.4 billion as being reasonably available in 2015?” Bailey asked. “It seems that we kind of just made stuff up to fill in the gap.”

That’s when Jose Nuncio, the TransNet program director, described how the agency came up with its projection that the state or federal government would pass two more pieces of legislation comparable in size to the recent gas tax increase within the next 13 years.

“What we’re trying to show is, these are the dollars that are needed to complete the program,” Nuncio said.

That’s when Bailey concluded he was unwilling to support the plan as it’s currently written.

“I understand that we now think more dollars are needed, but that doesn’t mean that they’re magically going to appear,” he said. “If we’re building our budgets based on the dollars that are needed, versus the dollars we actually expect to receive, then we need to fundamentally change how we build our budgets.”

Following Bailey’s objections, the board opted against approving the plan, instead sending it back to staff for revisions. County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she agreed with Bailey. Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond and San Diego Councilwoman Lorie Zapf all voiced related concerns as well.

The $18.1 billion SANDAG says it needs to bring in from outside sources is up from $17.5 billion just 10 months ago. Project costs jumped and local revenue expectations dropped since December, leaving the agency with its current need.

Agency staff are acknowledging that they need federal and state governments to give San Diego almost double what they thought was possible just two years ago.

The agency now needs to bring in $3.50 from the state or federal governments for every $1 it collects locally to finish all its planned projects. In 2015, SANDAG projected bringing in just $1.90 from outside sources for every $1 it collected locally.

SANDAG staff is expected to return to the board in two weeks with the long-term TransNet financing plan.

Bailey said the plan needs to undergo significant changes, not small tweaks.

“Our methodology needs to completely change,” he said. “This is a critical moment, as we hire a new executive director, to show that we can start making meaningful reform.”

Bailey’s self-described reform push isn’t the only major change facing the agency.

The state Legislature has already passed a bill – AB 805, written by local Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher – that would remake the board’s voting structure, allow the county’s transit agencies to pass their own tax increases instead of just SANDAG and require the agency to sign labor-friendly construction contracts for most major projects. It’s currently awaiting the governor’s signature.

But Bailey’s internal move, if other board members join him, would revamp how the agency has run TransNet, its biggest regional responsibility, and could change the way SANDAG staff interacts with its board.

“It’s just not reasonable to expect two more gas tax hikes, which means it’s unreasonable to tell our constituents we have all these projects coming,” Bailey said.

    This article relates to: Government, Public Transportation, SANDAG

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Good, Chris, generally I agree with some comments on implementing, and an omission I made.

    The omission: we can start right now building L/U, etc** toward the Public Transportation using typical cars and drives. They meet the fundamental principle of on-call personal same vehicle travel directly to actual destination. Self-driving  cars will fit in as they mature, and may well become the major carrier.

    We are simply retaining the car-road system the public chose many years ago. Mass transit fits in where  very high capacity is needed for short periods. Thus some factors to consider;:

    1), Good point that though L/U,etc** public transportation will cost to get started, it will contribute  funds too; e.g. hi gh value land because less parking near work, shopping centers.

       2), There will probably be more miles driven; What can the car do after a work drop off that earns? Thus your correct citing of additional road capacity. Despite electronic car linking, 3 feet separation?

         3), In the context of total regional passenger-miles and GHG limits very high emphasis will be needed on vehicle efficiency..

    Challenging, but what the public wants and will use; es[ecially non-drivers.

    ** We need a name.  

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    Feel SANDAG concern about 2004 Promises is about having something to do.  The world has moved on from 2004 promises. It is time to get ready for automated electric cars driving in synchrony three feet apart on current roads (much higher capacity).  It will happen before another 13 years have passed (2017 – 2004).

    Perhaps SANDAG can plan for that.  i.e. less parking needed if automated common carrier cars pick you up and drop you off like Uber or Lyft.  Even if you own your own car that drops you off in front of your place of work and continues on to store itself in a parking structure (until a cell phone call to pick you up). A lot will be different about the construction of facilities (consider San Diego International Airport without parking lots).

    Such a scheme would create more efficient travel - without  $18 billion in new taxes.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Generally , if funds are needed, gas tax, and uniform toll on all lanes are acceptable.

      -They provide incentive to reduce energy use. Although TAL would need toll rates matching vehicle fuel efficiency.

      -Recognizing rapid increase in electric vehicles, tolls should use energy units; BTU, or KWH.  Credit for clean electric power is needed, including for generating efficiency when fossil fuel is the source.

    Regarding funding the transportation part of the San Diego Regional Plan, the current negative philosophy to impede, traffic, discourage auto use; insufficient parking, etc, has to be replaced by a forward looking positive approach.

    30 years of expensive trying to move a meaningful share of regional travel back to mass transit has failed.

    The Public is saying it wants on- demand personal same vehicle direct travel to actual destinations. Lyft, Uber, etc., can evolve to do that; and without community design disruption, the expense of industry relocation to walk/bike distances. "Doorstep to doorstep" capability overcomes mass transit's access deficiency.

    Thus the $40 billion mass transit expense can be eliminated, along with its operating costs. Mass transit would augment travel  in very active surge areas. L/U, etc, can handle off peak lower volumes and eliminate wasteful heavy vehicles.

    This overall approach needs to be examined  before  search for funds

    Meanwhile road cost savings should be considered. Candidates: Convert existing managed lanes, and planned ones to smooth flow in all lanes. Hot lane equipped freeways have less throughput when measured at the critical peak demand.

    Open shoulder lanes to all traffic at less than freeway 35 mph.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    Request all the billions you want--it's rather difficult to believe anything that SANDAG says.

    mike johnson
    mike johnson subscriber

    If SANDAG would quit building freeways and HOV to the far suburbs.We would not have urban sprawl. How about taking care of the freeway that back up in the urban core. Such as I-5 thru National City that goes from 6 lanes to four lanes and back to five lanes.  Eastbound 8 thru hotel circle that is four lanes eastbound but five lanes westbound. Take care of the core so people will move back to the center of San Diego.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Gas taxes are a VERY clumsy way to pay for roads because they don't have the ability to eliminate rush hour traffic congestion without overcharging drivers during quiet periods. It's always the same price no matter when you travel, and all that queuing hurts the economy, if we learned anything from the fall of communism.

    Whenever a line forms, there are people willing to pay a little to bypass the line, in the same way that an eBay auction with more bidders than items for sale is proof that people are willing to bid the price up. So why not give us the same choice? If I'm late for work or I need to rush a sick child to the hospital, why not let me pay a dollar for a congestion-free route? Then that's an extra dollar, voluntarily paid, to help fix the roads and pay for transportation projects.

    Priced correctly and periodically adjusted, variable congestion tolls permanently (yes, permanently) eliminate traffic congestion, and that saves taxpayers a LOT of money and time stuck in traffic, without overcharging anyone[1].

    SANDAG, won't you please take my money in return for congestion relief? And please end the TransNet sales tax. Sales taxes hurt the poor and discourage commerce.

    [1] http://cityobservatory.org/transportation-equity/

    John Porter
    John Porter subscriber

    Sandag has proven themselves incompetent.  I really don't care about their high minded attempts to lure people away from cars. Our city was designed for auto travel and that's how I travel.  I consider the rest of transportation methods a waste.  To get away from their punitive gas price increases, I've gone completely electric.  Best of luck....

    GK subscriber

    @John Porter Well on the positive side this is SANDAG's board finally doing what a board of directors should do: direct.  And provide oversight.