San Diego’s got a long list of needs, but no clear way to pay for them.

The San Diego Association of Governments in particular is looking at a to-do list with a gigantic price tag.

It breaks into four categories: transit, water quality, shoreline preservation and habitat conservation. Altogether, the price could come to $33 billion over 40 years.

To hold to its self-imposed deadline, SANDAG must ask voters to approve a way to pay for some or all of that by November 2016. If SANDAG pushes the deadline out a few more years, it wouldn’t be the first time.

The regional planning agency has made clear it won’t put forward a ballot initiative unless it thinks it can win. It’s too early to say if that’s possible.

Even if the political winds were easier to forecast, nothing’s been decided on what would be included, what it would cost or how it’d be funded.

Why it Hasn’t Happened Yet

SANDAG refers to this effort as its “Quality of Life Funding Strategy.” It all started with habitat preservation.

The region has preserved thousands of acres to protect endangered species, as part of a 1997 deal between developers, environmentalists and the government.

But the city and county of San Diego never identified how they’d pay to protect the preserved lands, to build trails through them, to restore sensitive habitats and to conduct studies to make sure things were working.

In 2004, county voters approved TransNet, a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for regional transportation projects. The measure included a commitment that SANDAG try to find a regional source to pay for conservation.

SANDAG’s board adopted a policy that year that added shoreline preservation and water quality to the list of unfunded regional needs. It later added transit to that list, eyeing a list of transportation solutions that, unlike TransNet, wouldn’t mostly be about roads and freeways.

By 2008 it was supposed to put forward an initiative. Then it was supposed to do it in 2010. Then 2012. Now it’s supposed to do it in 2016.

“The reason the board chose to delay is because we couldn’t win,” said SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos. “I give a lot of credit to the board because our commitment is to act, and it would have been easy to put something forward and say, ‘We tried.’”

SANDAG hasn’t polled county voters on the issue for 2016 yet, but a 2011 poll scared it off the 2012 request.

The pollster, Competitive Edge, offered several explanations for the lack of support, including a lack of environmental concern, and strong anti-tax sentiment, conservative opposition and distrust of government.

Another wrench: The city of San Diego wants to put a measure on the 2016 ballot that would increase taxes to fix streets, storm drains, street lights, sidewalks and other infrastructure.

“The tax rubber band is only so elastic,” Gallegos said. “If you bunch them all up, there’s a likelihood they say no to everything.”

He said SANDAG must decide on the 2016 measure by the end of the year.

“They’re just gauging by the economy and politics, and the extent to which they’re getting their asses kicked on lawsuits,” said Coast Law Group’s Marco Gonzalez, who in late 2012 won a lawsuit against SANDAG’s long-term transportation plan.

“It’s always hard to guess what the politics will look like,” he said. “If you get a heated race with a Democrat and a Republican for mayor trying to distinguish themselves, it’d be really hard. A lot depends on whether the mayor will be able to push back on Republican boosters, the way Jerry Sanders did at times, and be a champion of a new revenue source. Otherwise you’ll see the Lincoln Club and the Chamber of Commerce lining up against it.”

What it Would Pay For

The bond would do a lot of things. They all cost a lot of money. A special SANDAG committee put out some rough estimates in January 2011.

• Habitat conservation: Overall, the conservation portion could cost around $77 million a year, or $3 billion over 40 years.

That would go toward acquiring new land, managing preserved areas, setting up an endowment for future funding and setting aside money to deal with unforeseen disasters.

• Water quality enhancement: It’s expected to cost roughly $462 million a year, or $18.5 billion over 40 years, to provide a base level of water quality.

That could be spent on things like monitoring, expanded inspection and enforcement, stream habitat restoration, treatment systems or improvements to stormwater and runoff systems.

• Public transit: Funding for transit improvements could come in at $240 million to $280 million a year, or $9.7 billion to $11 billion over 40 years.

That money would go to beefing up existing lines, adding dedicated lanes for the region’s new fast bus service and improving the experience for seniors and the disabled.

But it also means drastically speeding up planned new transit lines.

There are four trolley lines that aren’t funded by TransNet, and thus aren’t scheduled for completion until the back end of SANDAG’s 40-year transportation plan.

One would run the I-805 corridor, connecting University City and Kearny Mesa through Mission Valley, Mid-City and southeastern San Diego all the way to San Ysidro.

Another would run from Pacific Beach through Kearny Mesa all the way to East County. The fast bus line set to open this summer, connecting SDSU to downtown through Mid-City, would be converted to a trolley. And another line would connect the UTC area to Mira Mesa.

SANDAG’s plan has been sued on the grounds that the agency is legally obligated to cut regional greenhouse gas emissions by more than it did in its plan. More than a year ago, a judge agreed, and the suit is currently under appeal.

“They need to start putting transit ahead of freeways, or they’ll continue to get sued over greenhouse gasses,” Gonzalez said.

Gallegos said the new measure could make those transit projects happen much sooner. With guaranteed funding, SANDAG could go to investors and borrow enough to pay for the projects now, and repay the loan with the anticipated revenue from the tax increase.

But there’s no certainty that would happen, even if the bond passed.

SANDAG has tried to get more out of TransNet by seeking matching state or federal funds. That helps TransNet go farther, but it also makes it harder—or impossible— to speed things up. The agency could still decide to keep things slow, so it could match local funds with other sources.

• Shoreline preservation: This is the “cheap” area in the study. It’d cost roughly $5 million a year, or $210 million over the life of the project.

Most of that money would go to replenishing the beach with needed sand every five to 10 years, at 12 sites from Oceanside to Imperial Beach.

• Possible funding sources: SANDAG tried to get a sense of what sorts of funding sources would be capable of providing this much money.

It said all the possible sources would only cover a fraction of the price, except for a new sales tax.

For sales taxes, it also specified a rental car tax, a tax on hotel guests and a fee for using transit. It also mentioned a property tax, and a tax charged whenever real estate changes hands.

It considered creating special districts that could charge fees, like parking districts or open space districts.

And it discussed fees charged to developers whenever they launch a new project, or using taxes generated by new development, a funding source Gov. Jerry Brown ended a few years ago. And it played with the idea of getting a piece of state revenue sources, like gas taxes.

But apart from a new sales tax, any of those other sources would need to be cobbled together to approach $33 billion.

Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect that TransNet only required SANDAG to try to find an ongoing funding source for conservation.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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