Labor groups and environmentalists have emerged as the loudest opponents of a proposed tax increase for countywide transportation projects, and Democrats pushing the initiative can’t quite figure out where they went wrong.

More than 20 liberal organizations, calling themselves the Quality of Life Coalition, have pledged to defeat the proposal from the San Diego Association of Governments. They argue the package of transit, highway, stormwater and preservation projects doesn’t do enough to shift the region to an environmentally sustainable transportation network, or promise enough to the laborers who will construct the $18 billion worth of projects over 40 years.

That’s vexed Democrats on SANDAG’s board, which is composed of elected leaders from around the county, who contend the proposal reflects as many of the coalition’s priorities as possible while maintaining a reasonable chance of wooing 66 percent of county voters in November. (State law requires that any measures raising taxes for a specific purpose must be approved by two-thirds of voters.)

Their frustration boiled over in a series of emails, obtained by Voice of San Diego, between two Democratic board members – Solana Beach Councilwoman Lesa Heebner and Encinitas Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer – and members of the Quality of Life Coalition.

The coalition on June 13 sent board members a statement explaining their opposition: The measure didn’t do enough to create good-paying construction jobs, would create negative environmental impacts disproportionately affecting poor neighborhoods, wouldn’t ensure funding went to projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions, would not build enough transit or improve stormwater infrastructure and wouldn’t spend enough on open space preservation.

Heebner and Shaffer responded with an eight-page letter in which they said they were “puzzled” by the coalition’s concerns.

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

“No matter what our preferences and priorities, the reality is that any measure needs a two-thirds majority vote to pass, and polling consistently indicates that without funding for local roads and some highway improvements, the whole effort fails and we get nothing,” Heebner and Shaffer wrote.

“This measure will provide more money than ever before dedicated and assured for transit, active transportation,” the letter reads. “We are unable to imagine a realistic scenario that would do more and have enough public support to actually be enacted.”

In one section, Heebner and Shaffer argue that the federal government prevents SANDAG from striking project labor agreements – deals that guarantee worker pay and benefits and that require hiring to be done through union halls. It is a specific priority for the coalition.

Ricardo Ochoa, a union attorney and coalition member, responded harshly.

“The assertion that ‘the Federal Government does not allow PLAs’ is 100% false, and I am sorry that SANDAG staff is apparently spreading such misinformation,” Ochoa wrote.

He’s right. The Obama administration encourages PLAs on federal projects, and has since February 2009.

Heebner copped to the error, apologized, and said she stood by the rest of the letter.

Gary Gallegos, SANDAG’s executive director, said Heebner and Shaffer were likely confused by information his staff provided on the plan’s goal of hiring at least 80 percent local workers. It’s OK to prioritize local hiring, he said, but it can’t be a mandate.

But the discrepancy led Mike Bullock, a member of the local Democratic Party’s central committee, to send an email criticizing Heebner and Shaffer for not seeing the error as proof SANDAG was willing to mislead them. Ochoa in one email said it demonstrates why the group doesn’t trust SANDAG as an honest broker.

Heebner and Shaffer responded that it was insulting to suggest they were being duped.

“We are both thoughtful, intelligent women who have studied the issues,” they wrote in response.

Heebner said she’s confused and frustrated by the coalition’s approach.

“I’ve found them to be personal and derogatory,” she said. “I love them all individually, but now it’s like: We’re on your side. How did we become the bad guys? I support them. Why don’t they go talk to the Republicans that won’t vote for them?”

Heebner said she and other Democrats have pushed the board to adopt more of the coalition’s priorities into the measure. It’s Republicans who oppose the coalition’s priorities outright who are keeping it from moving further to the left, not her and other Democrats.

She thinks the groups should be happy that less than 20 percent of overall spending is going to highway-related projects, and that the measure makes more than $7 billion available to transit projects like the purple line – a new trolley extension planned to run roughly along the I-805 from the South Bay to Kearny Mesa – that benefit the coalition’s support base.

“It is surreal that their allies are now the right-wing Republicans,” she said. “The world has gone cockeyed. Shouldn’t aligning with Republicans make them reconsider their position as progressives?”

The local Republican Party has also promised to oppose the measure, though it’s done so on simple anti-tax grounds. Other conservative figures have also pledged to oppose the measure as unnecessary.

In one email, Ochoa acknowledged the positive relationship his group once had with Heebner and Shaffer.

His complaint with Heebner and Shaffer’s letter wasn’t limited to their confusion on project labor agreements. He also cited a plan to widen I-5 in the South Bay, the negative effects of which would be shouldered by National City residents, along with opposition to plans to widen State Route 94.

“Just to take one example, the South Bay community of National City is the only community slated for a widening for general purpose lanes, which is one of the many serious concerns the Coalition has with this measure,” Ochoa wrote.

“While it appears to be too late to avoid us launching a ‘Vote No’ campaign for November, we look forward to working with you on a measure we can all support once this measure is defeated,” he wrote.

Heebner said she doesn’t think that’s realistic.

“If this fails, the message (Republicans on the board) will get is, ‘We tried and everything we gave them, they wanted more,’” Heebner said. “They’ll say there’s no need to engage them again.”

Update: After this story was published, Heebner took exception with the way Gallegos characterized the interaction between her, Shaffer and SANDAG staff over PLAs.

They weren’t confused, she said. They asked SANDAG staff about PLAs, and were given information about federal limitations on local hiring requirements.

Gallegos acknowledged that Heebner was right, and that he had mischaracterized the exchange when he said Heebner and Shaffer were confused.

“The confusion was ours, to be quite candid,” Gallegos said. “They asked our staff about PLAs, and we sent them stuff that we were working on that was on local hire.”

    This article relates to: Must Reads, Politics, Public Transportation, SANDAG, Transit

    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.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Sandag is not recognizing the population realities of San Diego. Issue number one is the lingering and unsustainable push by a group of people and corporate interests that still think that by widening freeways and creating more freeways will solve our traffic problems. The theory for all of this 'old school' thinking has played out. What projects are being completed today are projects set in motion many years ago. The completed highway/freeway projects being completed today are not now fulfilling their original purpose of relieving vehicular gridlock. Highway/freeway projects set in motion years ago were actually needed for twenty years and will currently make no measurable difference today. One example of some of the freeway/highway projects soon to be completed are the connecting highways leading to the Otay Mesa/Mexico Border crossing. These highways were clearly needed 20 years ago. Today, the huge increase in tractor/trailer traffic are making highways like State Route 905 at capacity and nearing inadequate. The toll road 125 connecting to 905 was needed 10 years ago and has hurt business development in East Lake. 

        But the idea of ruining the environment in Mission Viejo, North Camp Pendleton, and Interstate 5 from San Clemente to Oceanside in order to relieve traffic congestion in that corridor is not only wrong minded, but will not produce the intended result. 

         No, San Diego has reached population capacity. There are definite signs that San Diego County is a major risk for not obtaining sufficient water resources in the very near future. 

           The people of San Diego observe the highway and traffic issues in Orange and Los Angeles County.  And, they can see that twenty lanes of traffic on the 405 doesn't produce better flow of traffic. Traveling in that Southern California zone is often a nightmare. 

            No. The best idea is to allow freeway/highway projects already slated, planned, and near completion to proceed.  But, no new freeway projects Should  be approved.

             No. All remaining traffic access moneys should be directed to mass transit. San Diego must be the new example of becoming pedestrian friendly.People should have the easy option of moving from point A to point B in the County through mass transit access. Mass transit needs to be easy to ride and easy to connect in order to get to a given destination within a reasonable amount of time. 

              There must be a moratorium on any city's initiatives in housing or industrial expansion that do not include an integration of mass transit to mediate an increase in traffic. There is absolutely no excuse for the expansion of housing developments that occurred in Chula Vista in the past 20 years. Those plans did not provide for mass transportation. Chula Vista has a reported plan to attract a major university there. Plans for that new university should be halted until Chula Vista shows a reasonable mass transit plan to, at least, connect easily with existing mass transit. 

               Safety for people that desire to ride self propelled vehicles, like bicycles, is still woefully inadequate. One example where an easy improvement can be made has been thwarted by plan "language". There should be a dedicated and safe roadway for bicycle traffic from the "Border" to various points north using the Camino de la Plaza corridor. As this pathway stands today, cars traveling in excess of the speed limit provide an immediate threat to the safety of bicycle riders. If an easy resolution to a problem cannot be easily mediated, plans in other areas of San Diego are definitely at risk for failure because authorities lack the courage to act appropriately to accommodate alternative transportation. 

                 We don't have to look very far to locate cities and communities where automobile traffic is reduced in favor of mass transportation. Cities that have traditionally made an effort with this are San Francisco, Portland, Ore. , Chicago, and New York City.  Are there major problems there? Of course! When authorities decided in favor of providing "better" access to single driver automobile traffic in those cities, failure and gridlock occurred. 

                   Until plans start to shift to mass transit access in San Diego County, a new tax wil not be approved. San Diego is really a beautiful place to live. No one wants to live next to a freeway. 

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    The biggest priority in the SANDAG plan is Mass Transit.  The point seems to be missed by many.

    The fact that only 20% of the new tax funds would go to benefit roads and the majority of those in the region (drivers of gas powered vehicles) says a lot about how willing the majority is to go to assist the minority of the commuters.  

    The 66% goal to get this passed becomes near impossible if 90% or 100% of the money is for something most of the voters will never use.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Glenn Younger 

    It has been happening for nearly 30 years, Glenn.

    The public has been accepting,and paying for and making trivial use of mass transit spending 1/3rd TransNet sales tax augmented by State and Federal. It  has only managed to absorb less than 2% total travel, 3.6% peak periods.

    All those bright red trolley pictures, about 0.5% of travel, and self-serving performance press releases apparently are enough. Like, mass transit use has returned to its 1957 level,-----ignoring population has increased ~30 %.

    There is no authoritative public interest facts-based process that can challenge,and when agreed, bring about change. And the "professional judgment" argument is formidable. Though couty actions seem more about what to do, perhaps the mismatch in how will appear.

    Christopher Crotty
    Christopher Crotty

    After the SANDAG RTP EIR was completed, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Creed-21, and the Affordable Housing Coalition of San Diego County all challenged the sufficiency of the plan’s ability to achieve an acceptable reduction in GHGs based in large part on the lack of specificity as to how and by what actions SANDAG would or could reduce GHGs.

    Both the lower court and the Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with CNFF’s and the People’s arguments, holding the EIR violated CEQA for all of the identified reasons above. Focusing specifically on the EIR’s analysis of the transportation plan’s greenhouse gas impacts, the court held SANDAG prejudicially abused its discretion by omitting from the EIR a discussion of the transportation plan’s consistency with the state climate policy of continual greenhouse gas emissions reductions, presented in Executive Order S-3-05. 

    According to the court, failing to include such an analysis deprived the public and decision-makers of important information regarding the project’s greenhouse gas emissions. The court additionally found no substantial evidence supported the agency’s determination the EIR adequately addressed mitigation for the transportation plan’s greenhouse gas emissions impacts.

    Then, SANDAG appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case will be heard at some point. How can the SANDAG RTP go forward until and unless the Supreme Court issues an opinion on that matter?

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Re: "

    2) It would negatively impact our most vulnerable communities, taxing them for freeway expansion projects that worsen air pollution, public health and traffic congestion in their neighborhoods;"

    Please note SANDAG Staff data that 95% of Energy and Emissions REDUCTION is accomplished by on-road vehicles.

    Lynn Marr
    Lynn Marr

    "Air pollution is caused, among other things, by idling cars and trucks so adding capacity to a roadway in a strategic manner where congestion is worst could reduce idling, and thus less air pollution."

    Our current Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer also fails to understand that the North 101 Streetscape, popularly known as "Streetscam," by which whe and  a seemingly clueless Council intend to force five one lane roundabouts at three-way T intersections, with NO cross-streets.  The first one to be built is planned to be at El Portal and 101, with a no right hand turn sign during peak traffic periods to help prevent cut through traffic will ABSOLUTELY increase back-up, gridlock and cars idling, adding to pollution, delay, frustration, and road rage.  There would be more and more cut through traffic, with motorists trying to detour around traffic back-ups.  Subpar emergency response time would be further reduced in northern coastal Leucadia.  

    Why is a roundabout necessary, which would negatively impact Leucadia Glass and local residents for what is overwhelmingly only thruway traffic?  This intersection should not be "improved" unless and until the planned pedestrian/bicyclist underpass is designed and built to allow people to more easily cross the tracks.  At that time a signalized crosswalk will be necessary.  

    A roundabout here is ridiculous; as the City's own traffic studies shows, a lane diet wasn't recommended until north of Leucadia Blvd. and 101, due to traffic backing up around the traffic light there.  Most days I have to go east on Leucadia Blvd.  I have to go through 10 traffic signals, two roundabouts and a stop sign to get to my destination just east of El Camino Real and Leucadia Blvd.  Almost every single day I see cars at a dead stop in the roundabouts, backed up from the traffic lights at Leucadia Blvd. and Vulcan and Leucadia and Orpheus.  What are our traffic engineers doing?  Problems and increased collisions, increased traffic created by existing roundabouts should be studied before more and more money is poored into consultants and contractors for planning more, while our Commissions and volunteer Commissioners are left out of the process.

    These roundabouts are intentional road obstructions designed to slow people down, but traffic has already been slowed, and the speed limit is reduced, after recent surveys of highway speeds, to 35 MPH.  But during peak holiday periods, and any time there's an accident or construction on the freeway, motorists are forced to use alternate routes, such as Highway 101.  It's very unwise for lanes to be deleted from a primary beach access/egress and emergency escape route.  These roundabouts would change Historic State Highway 101 from what had been four lanes for motorists, plus a bicycle lane, to one lane northbound and one lane southbound, with a total of six roundabouts, with a new one recently added, which would force any bicyclists to travel through the roundabouts, as well.  Nationwide statistics and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation report that there are more collisions involving bicyclists at intersections with roundabouts than at those same intersections before roundabouts were installed.  

    A few special interests, are hoping to be able to use so-called "traffic calming" roundabouts in order to get mitigated negative impact declarations for environmental impact repors for higher density development, and to increase the value of their own commercial properties, at the general public's great expense.  These special interests, subsidized by the City, have taken over the Board of Directors of the Leucadia 101 Mainstreet Association; they essentially act as lobyists for the Streetscam.  

    L101MA  has NOT polled all the local businesses, most of which are not members of that non-profit.  Nor have residents, or local commuters been independently surveyed.  If this had been done, or if Council would put this dreaded project on the ballot, it would be revealed that this boondoggle of a plan is neither wanted nor needed by the vast majority of locals.  Back in October of 2008, there was a more independent survey, taken at City Hall, at a widely attended workshop, where over 60% of those participating said NO to roundabouts.  Another survey of businsses was taken through the Encinitas Chamber of Commerce.  Over 60% of those businesses affected also voted NO on the roundabout plan through Leucadia, on Highway 101.  And it is STILL a highway, although no longer maintained by the State.  It belongs to the people, not to special interests.

    I will definitely be voting no on this new SANDAG tax.  Also, we'll be voting no on our Encinitas Housing Element Update, which will, in fact, NOT provide more affordable housing, its alleged purpose.  To me, and so many others, it's very sad that we cannot trust our elected officials to understand and work to prevent misguided policy decisions that are actually designed to benefit special interests, not created to promote the greatest common good.  We expect our representatives to work for us, not for special interests and their own self-aggrandizing egos.

    Roy Benstead
    Roy Benstead subscribermember

    Nowhere in this proposal, is there any relief for the commuters of East County, who use SR-52 on a daily basis. The Westbound morning traffic, between SR-125 and I-15 is horrendous. It is not scheduled to be improved until 2045, almost 30 years from now. 

    There is no way anyone from the East County can vote for this. It will go down, and go down heavily until the SR-52 West project is brought forward to a more acceptable time frame.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    One more time!!

    "  Part of the new sales tax $18.7 billion, under consideration, is a part of that total."

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    To clarify:  "75% goes to mass transit.It provides less than 10% of passenger-miles travel needed to just keep up with population growth."

    That is for the total of about $40 billion capital for new and rehab  mass transit in the overall regional Plan. The new sales tax under consideration, $18.7 billion is a part of that total.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    59% of this sales tax goes to transportation. Of this, for the motorized modes, 75% goes to mass transit.It provides less than 10% of passenger-miles travel needed to just keep up with population growth.

    There is no improvement in average travel time to work.

    Is this helping to improve Quality of Life?

    21st Century technology allows us to call for curbside or driveway pickup, then travel in the same auto directly to the chosen destination entrance. Private enterprise Lyft, Uber, etc, are providing this service in cities worldwide.

    Shouldn't we be preparing to help this superior and efficient ravel mode evolve? To reduce energy use and emissions, SANDAG analysis shows support to road vehicles is well over 10 times more cost-effective than mass transit. Proposed sales tax funds,part of a planned $40 billion extensive overlay of 100+ year old mass transit concepts would not be needed.

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    Well at least no-one  mentioned the BS about PLA's and local hiring.  That's some progress.

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    It's a bad plan. Period. Light rail should be prioritized over adding freeway lanes. As someone poisoned on the daily by the I-5 freeway and Coronado Bridge traffic (and the maritime polluters) I don't believe that we need to expand freeways.

    And to compare the progressives that are opposed to the plan with the Republicans that oppose it for different reasons is insulting. My progressive self opposes the Chargers stadium for different reasons than the Republicans that oppose it do. Just because we both oppose it to does not take away my progressive bonifides. Shame on those two SANDAG members for suggesting that.

    R_Markuson subscriber

    So, despite the fact that the construction work MUST pay prevailing wages AND utilize apprentices the construction unions and their sycophant supporters want a PLA? So typical - if they can't get the PLA "oppose" the whole project - and if the tax passes without a PLA - you can anticipate years of CEQA lawsuits by the same unions citing environmental harm - which are resolved once SANDAG executes a PLA. We see the same tactics day in and day out

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    @R_Markuson Prevailing Labor and PLA's are socialist plans to have the workers run the country. This has proved to be a failure in any country that had them The only winner's are the workers co-op's (unions). Is that really what you want instead of fair and competitive bidding like in a capitalistic country?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Reading Heebner and Shaffer's letter, a couple of things stood out:

    "Air pollution is caused, among other things, by idling cars and trucks so adding capacity to a roadway in a strategic manner where congestion is worst could reduce idling, and thus less air pollution."

    What they fail to understand is that a decade after a freeway is expanded, it's congested again. And then instead of 8 lanes of congestion, it's 10 lanes of congestion! How is 10 lanes of congestion tomorrow better than 8 lanes of congestion today?

    "California has the second lowest 'regressive tax' in the United States."

    Is that a good excuse to make it more regressive?