Funding the San Diego region’s 35-year transportation plan might rely on support from groups who don’t like the San Diego region’s 35-year transportation plan.

A bunch of major projects in that plan rely on the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, finding new money from local taxpayers or from state or federal sources.

SANDAG wants to ask county voters in 2016 to approve up to a half-cent sales tax increase that could raise up to $21.3 billion. That wouldn’t pay for everything in the agency’s $200 billion, multi-decade plan, but it would be significant.

But for that initiative to have a chance, SANDAG needs labor, progressives and environmentalist to support it.

They don’t. Yet.

SANDAG staff is working on it, but it’s possible a split among environmentalists – between those who’ve taken a hardline stance against highway expansions and those taking a more centrist position – could become an obstacle.

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

A late April poll testing the viability of the measure found roughly 63 percent of county voters would support a tax hike to pay for public transportation, open space preservation, infrastructure and water-related investments. That puts the measure within striking distance of the required two-thirds threshold. But the numbers show the measure would hardly be a sure thing — any organized opposition would likely kill it.

In 2004, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase that raised some $14 billion for transportation projects like the recently opened Rapid bus network, a planned extension of the trolley’s blue line from Old Town to UTC and highway projects like the extension of SR-52 through Santee and a planned expansion of the I-5 in North County.

But many of the projects included in SANDAG’s transportation plan through 2050 don’t have a secured funding source. The plan’s financial plan is counting on $10 billion from an unspecified local tax hike, which the agency can use to partially pay for some of its planned projects.

Now it needs to decide which projects will have their finances guaranteed by a potential tax increase.

At issue are projects like the “purple line,” a major new light-rail project that would stretch along the I-805 corridor from San Ysidro to Carmel Valley. It connects working-class areas to an employment center and would be the system’s first north-south line along the eastern side of the region’s urban core.

“In my opinion, it’s a really strong project that would get great ridership if we had it today, but it’s an expensive line,” said Gary Gallegos, SANDAG’s executive director. “That would likely be the kind of project that would be in a ‘Quality of Life’ bond.”

But the ballot – which needs support from voters across the county, including areas where the trolley doesn’t go – also could include non-transit projects, like an expansion of SR-78, a North County highway.

And environmental groups are taking sides on whether they can support a proposal that has too much of the latter, even if it makes an overall improvement in the region’s transit network.

SANDAG is expected next month to approve its blueprint for highways, light-rail lines, bike lanes and new bus routes through 2050. The federal government requires an update every four years.

The agency’s been fighting with environmental groups over the plan’s direction, which they say doesn’t do enough to improve transit. They’ve won two court rulings over a 2011 lawsuit, which is now before the state Supreme Court, alleging SANDAG improperly measured the plan’s effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

The agency has acquiesced on those requests to some extent in the last four years, but haven’t satisfied environmental groups’ desire for a wholly new direction.

Last week, SANDAG finalized the version of the plan that will go before the board for final approval next month. It didn’t include any of the major changes those groups requested in meetings leading up to that decision.

Nicole Capretz, primary author of a plan to cut the city of San Diego’s carbon emissions in half by 2035, said she’d hoped SANDAG could make some concessions as a good-faith effort before asking environmental groups to support a tax hike that would help pay for a transportation plan they oppose.

Since the measure needs all the support it could get, SANDAG’s also talking with organized labor.

Earlier this year, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council called on SANDAG to make major regional transit improvements in the next 10 years.

The local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Building and Construction Trades are negotiating with SANDAG to put together something they could support.

Labor’s active support would be a boon to the measure’s ballot prospects. Labor’s ability to turn out voters south of I-8 is credited with swinging the 2012 mayoral election to former mayor Bob Filner.

Labor sat out the 2004 vote, deciding neither to support nor oppose the measure. But the local labor movement could now be in a position to push the initiative across the two-thirds voter threshold.

For Building and Construction Trades, a $15 to $20 billion bond program could mean a lot of work for its construction workers. And IBEW’s electricians would fill a major role for an expanded rail network in need of ongoing maintenance.

“Our priority when it comes to any infrastructure investment is that projects need to create good, middle-class career opportunities for local residents in our region,” Gretchen Newsom, political director for the local IBEW chapter, said in an email.

Murtaza Baxamusa, director of planning and development with the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation, said it isn’t politically practical for the labor movement to draw a firm line against highway spending.

“It’s transit-focused, not transit-only,” he said, referring to the Labor Council’s recent resolution in support of increased transit spending.

But there’s already a split forming among environmentalists. Some have vowed not to support the measure. Others are negotiating but haven’t decided where they stand.

“We don’t have a funding problem,” said Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. “We have an allocation problem.”

He said he’d be unlikely to support a sales tax in the first place, since the burden of it falls disproportionately on poor residents, and wouldn’t support asking voters for any new money until SANDAG commits to redistributing the money it already has to more transit funding.

“Unless we can shift that money into things that are more environmentally sound, why should we support giving them even more money?” Shu said.

Likewise, Marco Gonzalez, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit against SANDAG and executive director of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, said he’s drawn a hard line against any measure that includes expanding SR-78.

He doesn’t think the measure stands much chance anyway.

“Taking another step back, we don’t think there’s any public willingness to support anything like this bond now or in the foreseeable future,” Gonzalez said. “We’re willing to wait it out. We don’t want to be at the table arguing about table scraps.”

Other transit advocates are looking for a middle ground as a way to secure the future of some of the most promising transit projects in SANDAG’s plan, like the purple line.

Capretz said she understands why some of her allies are demanding more, but she says she’s looking for a “legally, financially and politically” feasible compromise.

“People will see and feel what we’re talking about,” she said. “That type of progress is necessary, and I’m in favor of it. It’s not enough, and I don’t even know if that means supporting the plan, but there’s a way to move projects forward and show streets can be for people and not just cars.”

Likewise, Circulate San Diego and the Endangered Habitats League both signaled their willingness to support a Quality of Life bond at a recent SANDAG meeting discussing initial polling on the issue.

Gallegos, however, emphasizes that a failed bond measure doesn’t doom the agency’s transportation plans.

“It’s a $200 billion plan with all kinds of money from different sources, and this would generate $15 billion to $20 billion, so it’ll be a fraction of the whole,” he said.

But in that case, plenty of projects would go back to needing new local tax revenues to materialize at some point in the next 35 years.

    This article relates to: Land Use, Must Reads, 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 or 619.325.0529.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Messrs. Rider & Martin are discussing another flawed decision that has driven,(sp),transportation in an unfortunate direction. The original blue line, due to its unique demographics; concentrations of Mexican workers and downtown core jobs is indeed successful. Peak travel equal to more than one freeway lane.

    But it created unwarranted motivation for trolley route expansion by a factor over three. With very different clients and activities, passenger-miles on the added portion in only about 25% more than the original. That's less than 0.5% of Regional daily 100 million passenger miles travel. A significant reason for mass transit's failure to provide even 2% of travel.

    But San Diego Forward proposes 2 million p-m more implying the pleasurable "Transit Oriented Developments" produce the Plan's GHG reduction success. Price tag, $40 billion capital for new and improved routes, assuming optimistic ride shares and access. Mid Coast Trolley is a part.

    But 20 million p-m or so are needed to absorb growth. SANDAG Staff analysis shows support to dramatically "cleaner" on-road vehicles is many times more cost effect than mass transit's near trivial results. Demonstrated on-call doorstep access and fast direct to destination service avoid need for widespread mass transit overlay particularly for non-drivers.

    At a Regional level, discussions about more mass transit are tempests in a tiny teapot.


    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    Luxury buses are a far better option than light rail -- in San Diego, $24 million vs. $2+ BILLION 
    by Richard Rider

    Buses are the forgotten alternative to rail -- including light rail.  In San Diego we are in the process of building the "Mid-Coast" 11 mile trolley line for currently projected $2 BILLION -- up from the promised $1.2 billion. The final price will likely be another "surprise."

    The entire passenger load (which, of course, proponents "overestimated") could be handled by a dozen or fewer luxury buses -- most express buses as the line parallels an interstate freeway.  The slightly slower bus travel time (one estimate is about 4 minutes) could be made up by the more frequent departure times. At a million dollars a bus, that's $12 million.  

    Let's be generous and compensate twice as many bus drivers $200K each annually (this IS California, after all) -- that's $4.8 million. Throw in a ridiculous $5 million annually for other overhead, and the comparison still is absurd. The train overhead will likely surpass that, given that it has its own tracks to maintain.

    Okay, okay, I'm NOT being fair.  The $2 billion rail cost is the capital cost ONLY.  My $12 million figure includes the bus capital costs plus all the costs of operation for one year.  Shucks, let's double the $12 million to $24 million, just to be safe.  I prefer to err on the side of caution.

    Let's see -- $2 billion or $24 million -- which makes more sense???  Apparently it's a more difficult question than one would think -- when spending OPM.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Richard Rider What you get for $2 billion versus $24 million is not remotely equivalent.  With the trolley you get dedicated right-of-way that goes directly into high-use locations.  You can't begin to do that with buses for anything close to $24 million.  And without that type of infrastructure for buses, the time difference between the trolley and buses will be far more than 4 minutes, especially during peak commute periods.

    When one looks at the high ridership of the existing really inferior bus routes between Old Town the UCSD and UTC areas, it's not hard to envision the Mid-Coast trolley extension doing extremely well from day one.  I expect it will be almost as strong a performer as the original blue line segment from downtown to San Ysidro and for that level of ridership, rail is a better option than bus service.

    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    @Greg Martin @Richard Rider "When one looks at the high ridership of the existing really inferior bus routes between Old Town the UCSD and UTC areas, it's not hard to envision the Mid-Coast trolley extension doing extremely well from day one.  I expect it will be almost as strong a performer as the original blue line segment from downtown to San Ysidro and for that level of ridership, rail is a better option than bus service."

    Wanna bet?  You seriously think the ridership of this spur is going to approach the Tijuana Trolley usage -- arguably the most successful trolley line in America? "Envision" all you want -- like EVERY projection of SANDAG, the ACTUAL ridership will be well below the official ridership projected when selling us on the project. And even the official Mid-Coast ridership projection is far below the TJ Trolley usage.

    BTW, I'm serious about a wager.  A REAL wager, based on usage 3 months after the spur opens.  Five figures.  An escrowed, legal wager (ONLY if it can be done legally), with the winner directing the loser's proceeds to his charity of choice.   

    Oh, one other point: This trolley line will NOT get many cars off the road.  Based on past experience, 75% or more of the riders will be former bus riders, who will have no option but to ride the rails -- since the bus runs will be closed down to force more people to use the trolley.  

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Richard Rider @Greg Martin The time to judge the ridership of the new line is not three months after it opens.  It will build more with time.  That's what has happened with the Rapid 235 route between downtown San Diego and Escondido that began service in June 2014.  Ridership has grown steadily and is significantly more than when it began.  It provides a much faster and superior service to the route 20 bus that operated between those endpoints but on a longer route with more stops and shorter hours of service.  Route 20 still exists on its prior route, but only as far north as Rancho Bernardo.

    I expect to see something similar with the Mid-Coast Trolley when it opens.  There will be some reconfiguration of existing bus services.  Clearly a portion of the riders on those buses will opt for the superior trolley service.  But the superior service will also draw new riders, people who were driving but not taking the bus previously.  That's what's happened with the Rapid 235.  And that faster, more frequent service also strengthens the overall transit network extending the reach of transit for more people.

    I'm not taking any bets on the Mid-Coast ridership equaling or exceeding the ridership on the original line to San Ysidro, at least not any time soon.  But I expect the line will do well and ridership will grow over time, especially once Rapid route extensions to the South Bay are completed.

    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    @Greg Martin @Richard Rider It's common for SANDAG to make fake projections about light rail ridership -- projections for the FIRST YEAR of operation.  When it doesn't happen (surprise!),.they fall back on your gambit -- "some day" it might be what was projected.  Well, that's not much of a standard to judge performance by, is it?

    BTW, it's nice to see you using express BUSES as examples.  On that, we agree, though I don't think designated lanes are cost effective.  

    The great thing about buses is that if the projections are wrong, adjustments can be made at relatively little cost.  Routes can be reduced, increased, or altered to meet changing and unanticipated demand (or lack of demand). But once rail is built at a cost of billions of dollars, it's LITERALLY set in concrete.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    We are still drive by '60s & '70s flawed reasoning there never would beclean cars and trmain as the true public transportation.

    "Capretz said she understands why some of her allies are demanding more, but she says she’s looking for a “legally, financially and politically” feasible compromise."

    One exists Ms. Capretz; an earl step in the urban transportation revolution that meets the vast majority's demand for on-demand personal travel direct to destinations using evolving reduced energ vehicles to reduce energy and emissions.

    As the call-up systems such as Lyff and Uber expend with doorstep access, including to non-drivers, the need for covering the landscape withSan Diego Forward $40 billion mass transit will mostly disappear. Financial adjustment for low income riders should be less than subsidies needed for mass transit. In a very few corridors with unique demographics peak period use with existing mass transit may be useful.

    Looking ahead instead of 19th Century time wasteful scheduled service, this approach is compatible with electrified narrow guideways to reduce land use in dense communitieswhere capacity is needed.

    Time to review the Quality of Life ballot composition

    lorisaldana subscriber

    I don't understand the headline. What is "liberal" about these organizations that are dedicated to conserving resources and protecting San Diego's natural environment? Those are increasingly mainstream positions.

    Moreover- Why is improving public transit, expanding transportation options, getting people out of their cats and basically doing what the two other largest cities in California have done for years not described as simply "smart"?

    William Charles
    William Charles

    @lorisaldana Because these liberal organizations are made up of a small group of anti-car activists and trial lawyers with their own radical agenda who are not elected by the voters. We don't want San Diego County to turn into another Los Angeles where they are creating massive traffic jams by cannibalizing freeway lanes and street lanes for a small group of militant bicyclists and subsidized bus riders. Los Angeles is the opposite of "smart"

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @William Charles  More simplistic thinking! I and many of my friends are supporters of these organizations and I wouldn't describe ANY of us as anti-car activists. Cars have their role; we have no wish to force anyone to stop using cars. What we want is reasonable & affordable alternatives to using the car when our purpose for going somewhere fits with the public transportation system and for the transit sales taxes to be used to build that public transit during our lifetime. 

    Why on earth is it necessary for anti-transit to believe that it's an either/or choice? I use both my car & the bus/trolley. I know others who also use one or the other on occasion.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    1974's edict mass transit instead of cars has failed. San Diego Forward mass transit

    landscape saturation to provide access at $40 billion capital is too expensive.

    Clean cars on streets or narrow guideways provide preferred on-demand fast individual car service directly doorstep to destination as a public service.

    Build suchRegional transportationnow, and explore automation later.

    Match how representativemembers of the public vote with their pocket books rather than special interest desires.

    Robet Lawson
    Robet Lawson

    SANDAG - the bike-hating bureaucrats who care more about parking than lives?

    richard cardullo
    richard cardullo

    To give SANDAG more money is to support and guarantee the survival of a bloated bureaucracy that spends money on purchasing reports from their politically connected friends, filled with cut and paste paragraphs used in other taxpayer paid reports that never get read.  That is not mentioning their own salaries that will be paid for from these new funds.

    In the 2004 sales tax hike, a Citizens Review Panel was to be formed for the  purpose to oversee the spending of these newly raised funds.  That Citizens Review Panel work was done when the tax raise pasted.  Its real purpose was and the reason for its inclusion in the tax hike bill was to get the voters to believe that there would be some citizen oversight.

    In fact, that "Citizens Panel" is made up of appointees of our local governments who act as a rubber stamp for whatever the bureaucrats present to them.  There is no oversight, just further expenditures of taxpayer funds to conduct a farce every month.    

    SANDAG is waving the prospect of all this new found wealth in front of the labor unions in the hope of buying their support with taxpayer money. You help us get the money and we'll share some of it with you.  

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    I don't think it's quite as simple as "SANDAG commits to redistributing the money it already has to more transit funding." As this article notes, the sales tax bond being debated will only account for 7-10% of SANDAG's planned $200B revenue. The vast majority of SANDAG's transportation funding comes from federal and state sources, and there are often strict limits on its use. SANDAG doesn't just get a blank check to spend on anything - a lot of the money is legally required to go toward highway projects.

    That's one of the reasons that cities like San Diego and LA have been investing in Bus Rapid Transit projects that use freeway "Express Lanes" (see I-15). This allows SANDAG to use highway money to fund the major infrastructure cost of these new transit routes.