Monday, Aug. 10, 2009 | Since 2007, the Metropolitan Transit System has watched the state funding and sales tax revenues that fund its operations steadily decline.

Earlier this year, as California confronted a crippling budget deficit, the state Legislature eliminated funding for public transit, slicing $14 million from MTS’s budget. Sales tax earnings, which account for 50 percent of the system’s revenue, have dropped steeply amid the recession.

In the last 18 months, MTS has raised fares three times while slashing bus frequencies and completely eliminating some bus routes.

Amid all of these cuts, the region was set to receive a windfall of federal funds — but it could only be used for construction projects.

More than $300 million in federal stimulus money will stream into San Diego County for transportation and transit in the coming months. And though the money was originally restricted for capital improvement projects, a recent amendment to the federal law governing its use will allow local transit authorities to divert 10 percent of their share for operations costs as their day-to-day funds dwindle.

For the Metropolitan Transit System, the law frees up $5.6 million that officials said will help alleviate the stress on its budget and stave off future cuts and rate hikes.

“We’ve raised fares as much as we can for the time being,” said MTS spokesman Rob Schupp. “This really allows us to keep our system at a status quo now.”

The North County Transit District, which is slated to receive more than $26 million in stimulus funds for preventive maintenance, new buses, and a transit center at San Luis Rey, will divert about $2.4 million for operations.

Most of the MTS money will be spent to upgrade Blue Line trolley tracks between downtown and San Ysidro and to replace contact wire that provides electricity to the trains. Combined, the $89 million for public transit to benefit MTS and NCTD makes up less than one third of the federal government’s spending on transportation projects for San Diego County.

More than $214 million will be spent on highway construction and improvements, including $109 million for the expansion of State Route 76 between Oceanside and Bonsall.

Of the 15 local projects receiving federal funding, the State Route 76 project will receive the largest share. The project to construct State Route 905 in Otay Mesa between Interstate 805 and the international border crossing will get the second-largest slice, at $73 million.

Other stimulus projects include:

  • $12 million to construct a bridge on the Los Angeles-San Diego Rail Corridor in North County.
  • $13 million for the construction of two auxiliary lanes on Interstate 805 in Chula Vista.
  • $4 million for pedestrian improvements at the Grossmont Trolley Station in La Mesa.

Jose Nuncio, an engineer at the San Diego Association of Governments, which is administering most of the stimulus transportation money, said the projects were selected to receive stimulus money on the basis of their readiness for implementation. Federal stimulus guidelines placed strict time constraints on approved projects.

“We had to authorize the specific projects within a year, so we had to focus on those projects that were either shovel-ready or very close to that,” Nuncio said.

Many of the projects, he said, had been prepared to break ground in anticipation of promised state funds, but were shelved when the state’s finances collapsed.

With the influx of federal money, though, Sandag will begin construction on all of the projects by the end of the calendar year, and will expend all of the federal money within three years, Nuncio said.

Sandag has seen hefty savings in its contracts, as construction companies hard-hit by the economic recession have been scrambling to offer more competitive bids on government jobs.

“Five years ago we were getting two or three bids. Now we’re getting anywhere between six and 12,” said Richard Chavez, a Sandag engineer.

In the last year the agency has consistently paid 30 percent less for its projects than what its internal cost estimates have projected, he said.

The federal money has been allocated across the county, and Sandag representatives said the status of the various projects on the agency’s design shelf worked out so that no part of the county was disproportionately represented in its share of the funds.

“We try to make sure we’re taking care of the needs around the whole region,” Chavez said, though in the latest round of stimulus-funded approvals to start the bidding process, the countywide spread was largely a coincidence.

The focus on highway construction, however, has highlighted roadways’ continued command of the funding allocations.

But Chavez said the line between highway construction and mass transit-friendly development is blurring as SANDAG continues making highways more inter-modal. One of the stimulus-funded projects — at Interstate 805 interchange near Carroll Canyong Road — will be mass-transit friendly.

“The new interchange is a direct access ramp, meaning it’s for carpoolers, toll payers, and buses,” Chavez said. The project will receive $18 million in stimulus funds.

“As part of our long range transportation strategy, it’s more and more about providing people with choices. Improving our transit services, increasing ways for people to carpool, and making it easier to get around the region” he said.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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