Friday, Dec. 19, 2008 | If President-elect Barack Obama heeds San Diego leaders’ call, within a few months many of the region’s freeways, roads, sewers and other infrastructure will be bustling with new developments and improvements.
Local governments have a final draft proposal for the region that includes more than 1,000 projects and asks for a total of more than $7.4 billion. The federal stimulus plan, anticipated to cost more than $600 billion, is expected to be drafted and signed soon after Obama takes office next month.
A regional proposal to garner federal aid aims not only to improve infrastructure in the region, but also to create nearly 96,000 jobs. Proposals include work on the region’s freeways, surface streets, bikeways, sewers, storm drains, parks, buildings, and systems for water, photovoltaic cells and recycling water, among others.
In a region with hordes of workers idled by the cooled housing market and economic slump, the projects could reinvigorate the construction sector in particular. Many hope that the stimulus effort will aid the county’s ability to build its way out of a regional recession. Local economists have defined that state as a drop in job growth for a six-month period compared to the same period a year earlier.
The unemployment rate in San Diego County rose to 6.8 percent in October. The biggest job losses have for months been in construction and real estate-related sectors. At its peak in mid-2006, the construction sector bulged with more than 95,000. The sector shrank to 79,600 jobs in October. A hope is that projects like the ones drafted in the San Diego Association of Government’s proposal will put many of those laid-off construction workers back in jobs.
The region’s governments hope federal dollars will make up for some of that loss. If all of the projects in the proposal are funded, the region would see 59,030 jobs directly created, with 12,124 additional jobs created in support — like business products and services — over the life of the projects. A further 24,805 jobs would be created as those newly employed workers spend their money in the local economy.
One of Obama’s major emphases in talking about the package has been the immediacy with which he wants to see the money spent in local communities. The projects are broken into a group that could be contracted out nearly immediately, those that could be started within six months, and those that could be started within 12 months. If a project is ready to go now, that means it has already completed its upfront design costs and its environmental review process, which sometimes delays ground-breaking on development projects by months or years.
The final draft includes a ready-to-go $30 million project to grind and smooth parts of Interstate 5. It asks for $80 million for carpool lanes on Interstate 805 near Carroll Canyon Road, a project that would be ready to contract out in six months. Ready to go in 12 months is a project to install carpool lanes on Interstate 5 from Manchester Avenue to State Route 78, a project that would cost an estimated $275 million. A separate project for carpool lanes on I-5 would cost $175 million and stretch from Genesee Avenue to Interstate-805.
The proposal asks for more than $200 million to improve both the Calexico border crossing and the Otay Mesa crossing.
Transit projects that would be immediately ready to contract out include a $20 million project for bus rapid transit in the Mira Mesa corridor and a $30 million connection between the Orange and Blue trolley lines. Sandag asks for $290 million for installing low floor trolley cars, which would allow disabled passengers, including passengers in wheelchairs, to more easily travel by trolley. The proposal also seeks $18 million for six rail cars to add to the Coaster system for north-to-south commuters in the county.
Several governments included major public works projects in the proposal, for projects including fire stations and libraries, sewer system fixes and school renovations. Among other things, Carlsbad requests $53 million for Alga Norte Park, a 32-acre park that is planned to include an aquatics center and a skate park. Chula Vista seeks $25 million to convert its multi-purpose fields citywide from grass to artificial turf. The County Water Authority wants $22 million to install solar panels at its facilities, and $175 million for the Carlsbad desalination plant.
Sandag officials will present the proposal to the group’s board on Friday.
While working with Sandag, at the same time, Mayor Jerry Sanders has launched separate lobbying efforts to snag some of the federal money for the city of San Diego. The mayor efforts come through the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a separate lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., said Job Nelson, director of intergovernmental relations for the Mayor’s Office.
City projects include a $21 million improvement to the La Jolla Village Drive connection with Interstate 805, an interchange often snarled with traffic. Another $142 million project would reconstruct the State Route 163 connection with Friars Road in Mission Valley, to smooth out the traffic-heavy entrance and exit there.
The city wants to spend $20 million to install a quiet zone downtown, which would install more safety measures at railroad crossings so that trains and trolleys wouldn’t need to sound their horns as frequently when coming to the crossings. The tooting of trolley horns has arisen as a quality of life issue for residents of downtown’s condo buildings.
A $5 million line in the proposal would widen 43rd Street and realign the connection between Logan Avenue and Interstate 805 in southeastern San Diego.
“Some people say that working on a freeway or something gives you a two-fer — you get the initial immediate effect and then you get the future improvements in the economy,” said University of San Diego economist Alan Gin, referring to the increased efficiency to the flow of goods and people. “Things like a bike path would not have that secondary effect.”
But Kathy Keehan, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, said it’s not enough to examine only a project’s direct economic benefit.
“When we look at all of those dollars going to freeways and expanded roadways, we see that as encouraging people to drive more, which is contrary to some of our other goals,” Keehan said. “When you fund those greener infrastructure options, you get not only the construction jobs but also the community benefits long term.”
The proposal includes bike projects like path expansions, lane installations and road crossings in the cities of Coronado, Del Mar, Escondido, Imperial Beach, National City, Oceanside and San Diego. Such projects — bike paths in San Diego — have landed in the crosshairs for national critics of the plan’s cost, who say the economic stimulus is being clouded with pet projects.
“A lot of people think of bicycle path only as a recreational standpoint, but we’ve got to be careful that we’re not always talking out of both sides of our mouth — we’re also trying to deal with this whole issue of climate change and global warming,” Gallegos said. “I’m not convinced that we can just build our way out of this congestion and this climate issues by just building more roads.”
Keehan said asking her to name a pet project among those in the proposal was like asking her to name her favorite child. But for the goal of connecting commuters who want to combine their bike trips with public transit, Keehan’s excited to see a bike locker project.
Sandag proposes a regional $1.5 million project to install bike lockers near transit hubs so that commuters can safely lock their bikes near the place they take the train or the bus to work.
Gallegos said a major concern for Sandag and its partner agencies is building projects that will last, especially in light of the federal government’s financial situation.
“This is probably, at the end of the day, going to be deficit spending,” he said. “I might not have to pay for it today, or tomorrow, but my kids and my grandkids are going to have to pay for this stuff.”
Gallegos said he’s heard some questions about the extent of the projects — for example, whether some of the money would go to expenses like landscaping.
“Our response to that is, when we look at these projects, there’s not a lot of fluff on them,” he said.
If there are landscaping pieces, the expense is not purely aesthetic, Gallegos said — some is to protect against erosion and runoff.
Nelson said he expects that some of the requests from various governments won’t be funded.
“I think for a lot of folks out there this is like Christmas Day — there’s a lot of money out there and everybody wants a piece of it,” he said. “But the list of wants is going to far outpace the money that’s going to come out of this thing. A lot of that is going to kind of fall to the wayside.”