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SANDAG Floats Tax Hike But It's Liberals Who Are Balking

The purple line, a major new light-rail project that would stretch along the I-805 corridor from San Ysidro to Carmel Valley, and other projects don't have funding.

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.

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.

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