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Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009 | As part of the region’s master list of requests for federal economic stimulus dollars, the San Diego County Water Authority requested $175 million to build a pipeline connecting the Carlsbad desalination plant to the region’s water system.

The plant’s private developer, Poseidon Resources, didn’t ask for the money. The company said it doesn’t need federal funding and didn’t know why the authority asked for $175 million to build a pipeline estimated to cost $60 million to $80 million.

If the project got federal funding, no jobs would be created sooner, nor would construction speed up.

The project would do nothing, therefore, to further President-elect Barack Obama’s vision for catalyzing the nation’s recession recovery — “to begin to rebuild America,” as he said Thursday — by investing hundreds of billions to create jobs while revitalizing decrepit roads, sewers and bridges.

Still, the pipeline project was included on a 92-page wish list assembled by the San Diego Association of Governments and sent to Washington to make the case for why the region should get $7.4 billion of Obama’s stimulus plan.

In the wake of the president-elect’s massive proposal, the region stands to see an unprecedented, dramatic investment of federal dollars. But because of the plan’s emergency nature, cities and other agencies scrambled to include projects with only one criterion: construction must begin pronto.

As a result, San Diego’s list is a hodgepodge of projects, assembled without an overarching vision. No one vetted the projects on behalf of the region, or ranked what projects are in most need of funding. Some projects have only rough cost estimates.

As the federal government considers whether to fight the recession by spending hundreds of billions on infrastructure, the local list raises questions about how much benefit the nation might receive from the massive spending spree. Locally, the list’s sewer, bridge and freeway repairs — some deferred for years — are listed right alongside desired civic improvements that wouldn’t shore up ailing infrastructure or even create new jobs.

Solana Beach wants $50,000 to conduct a citywide speed survey. Vista wants $87,000 to put up welcome signs. Coronado is asking for $350,000 to build a lawn bowling green. Carlsbad seeks $53 million for its Alga Norte Park with a skate park, baseball diamonds and a pool complex. (A “lazy river” waterslide was cut from that park’s plan last summer due to difficulties finding funding.)

San Diego wants $10.1 million to expand the Ocean Beach Branch Library, which Mayor Jerry Sanders has proposed closing. Chula Vista wants $20 million to build a library that the cash-strapped city couldn’t afford to staff right now.

There is no clear regional ranking that pushes desperately needed repairs to already existing infrastructure to the top of the list. Without one, the fear is that the federal or state deciders for spending the money, unfamiliar with San Diego needs, might fund dessert before they fund dinner.

“We need to figure out what the family needs,” said Marcela Escobar-Eck, land use consultant and former planner for the cities of San Diego and Carlsbad. “We need to fix our roof. We don’t need to buy Nintendo.”

Details change nearly every day for the stimulus package. Amid that uncertainty, local leaders say it’s too soon to put any order to the wish list aside from the timing when construction could start. They complain some critics are reading too much into what’s included in the 92-page document.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to start prioritizing projects — this is a huge master list of projects,” said Andrew Poat, vice president for policy at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. “In the end, it’s more important for us to have a list to work from than to worry about whether every single project has met the exact same criteria.”

But whether it’s a final list or just a starting point, this is what San Diegans have to look at as they contemplate how this mind-boggling federal sum might be manifest in their neighborhoods.

Franklin Roosevelt delivered the last massive dose of federal recession-busting money to the San Diego region with his New Deal, helping fund iconic structures in Balboa Park and the bay-front County Administration Building. This time, the stimulus package sounds like it will cater to different federal goals, including billions for widening freeways, smoothing crumbling roads and bolstering water and sewer pipes.

They’re not exactly like Balboa Park, but the projects still create jobs, said Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments.

“Are they iconic? I guess that’s a little in the eye of the beholder,” Gallegos said. “If we can make I-5 function better between Oceanside and Carmel Valley, I’d say that’d be pretty iconic.”

The proposal is heavily weighted to highway maintenance and construction, with nearly $2.6 billion proposed for lane additions, resurfacing and fixes to the roads leading to three U.S.-Mexico border entry points.

Many local leaders and activists say there’s still room for visionary thinking, even as the region pursues transportation-specific funds. Some worry an emphasis on freeway projects will set the region back years in its fight against climate change. The list still tilts much more toward freeways than it does mass transit; the proposal calls for twice as much freeway funding as transit.

While environmental and transit activists acknowledge the region has some crumbling roads that need fixing first, they hope to have a larger thrust in the subsequent expenditures of money to expand trolleys and buses.

“I think we’re more into a maintenance mode than taking a great step forward in modernizing our transit system and diversifying our mode of transportation,” said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego.

As federal leaders hash out the spending plan’s specifics, some local governments eyed the list as a chance to see if the federal government would fund something so they don’t have to. The wish list includes at least one project that doesn’t meet the Obama administration’s stated goals of creating jobs by rebuilding infrastructure.

Construction on the Carlsbad desalination plant is scheduled to start in summer — regardless of whether federal money comes, said Scott Maloni, spokesman for Poseidon Resources, the plant’s developer. Poseidon didn’t request the money, he said, and its only benefit would be reducing costs to ratepayers. The authority also overestimated the costs of the pipes and pumps.

“I have no idea why [the water authority] asked for $175 million,” Maloni said. “My hunch is that if you need $10, you ask for $20. You have to ask them why they asked for $175 million for a pipeline that costs less than $100 million.”

Frank Belock, the authority’s deputy general manager, acknowledged that the $175 million figure was a rough estimate, and that it wouldn’t fund anything that wouldn’t otherwise happen. “It would create jobs, but not additional jobs,” Belock said. “The project is going to happen anyway.”

Sandag didn’t subject any projects on the list to review, trusting the public input process in each city and agency was complete.

“Especially when we got into the local public works stuff, there’s been no vetting to see if this is good or bad,” Gallegos said.

That breadth of projects shows up throughout the wish list. Sandag solicited projects that could be “ready to advertise” now, in six months and in 12 months. That criterion means the project’s plans have been drawn, its environmental review completed and the public has commented. A city submitting a “ready to advertise” project would be ready to ask contractors to bid for the project, choose one, and have construction begin as soon as possible, Gallegos said.

Sandag initially asked local governments to submit transportation and transit projects that were ready to build. That request was widened to include water and sewer lines, and other public works projects like parks and libraries.

The region’s 18 cities, the county and water agencies cribbed most projects from their lists of scheduled and deferred capital improvements. Sandag added its own major projects to the list — fixing highways and the region’s transit system. Sandag ran the list through a job-creation formula to determine it could add nearly 96,000 jobs if everything got funding. Ultimately the list became a 92-page regional proposal.

The proposal was meant to be a public relations tool, a document to demonstrate and justify San Diego’s need for the money, its compilers said. They say it shouldn’t be interpreted as a master playbook, he said.

That leads to some inconsistencies in the boldness of the requests. The city of San Diego, stopped short of asking for $80 million to fund its beleaguered $200 million downtown library — a project that might rival the New Deal-built icons in last century’s economic stimulus.

“The library, I felt, was unlikely to be funded,” the EDC’s Poat said. “Largely speaking, the more money you need, the less likely you are to get a funding share.”

Nor did San Diego ask for money to accomplish any of the maintenance the city has put off in Balboa Park, though estimates of that need have ranged north of $100 million.

But Chula Vista asked for $20 million for its Rancho Del Rey Library even thought it couldn’t afford right now to pay workers to staff it. Officials hope the stimulus works and the city coffers become flush again.

It’s still unclear if the stimulus package will have room for projects like parks and libraries along with the roads and sewers. The list includes them just in case. When Sandag knows better what criteria will be attached to the federal money, then they’ll have more discussions about what’s most important to fund, Gallegos said.

“The golden rule is, when you use somebody else’s gold, you play by their rules,” Gallegos said. “Once we know the rules, we’re going to play smart.”

But the projects will be vetted sometime, said Congressman Bob Filner, D-San Diego. Perhaps even before they know the rules, regional leaders should be thinking about what most needs funding and what doesn’t, he said, and start lobbying for those chief priorities.

“If we don’t prioritize according to the criteria that come out, then it’s going to be prioritized for us,” Filner said. “Maybe we should do it ourselves so we can make those decisions locally.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett or Rob Davis directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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