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With the failure of Measure A, San Diego County is facing a big question of how to fund public transit and infrastructure.
The half-cent sales tax increase put on the ballot by the San Diego Regional Association of Governments to help fund transportation, infrastructure and open space projects, failed Tuesday. It fell short of the two-thirds votes it needed with only about 57 percent in favor.
While there were many uncertainties around what the measure would actually accomplish, now county officials will have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what other options are available – many of which may have to wait until 2020.
SANDAG projected the measure would bring in $18.2 billion for public transit, local infrastructure, highways and open space preservation. But there were big problems with that number. SANDAG’s previous tax hike, Transnet, is on track to produce billions less than promised. And in order to hit $18 billion, San Diegans would have had to spend far, far more money than they’ve spent at any point in the last 40 years.
Regardless, it’s now unclear how SANDAG will pay for the many projects envisioned in the measure, which the agency still wants to happen but doesn’t have funding for.
“The transit plans that are all in the regional plan and their operations funding is premised on a local measure,” said Colin Parent, policy director of Circulate San Diego, a transportation advocacy group that supported the measure. “The active transportation dollars in Measure A is above and beyond what is in the regional transportation plan. So whether those would be funded is a huge open question.”
Parent said that most federal and state funds require local jurisdictions to put up local matching funds.
“So if we want to see new transit funding, we need to see new dollars that San Diego can offer up,” he said.
Opponents of the measure said it didn’t do enough for public transit, had too many highway projects and wouldn’t help the county reach its carbon emission-reduction goals. They say there are options for a way forward.
“There isn’t just one path of trying to find funding,” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of San Diego’s Climate Action Campaign, one of the groups included in the coalition against Measure A. “It’s obviously premature to discuss some options, but there are a host of ideas and possibilities to explore.”
The first option is the SANDAG board and other stakeholders going back to the table to create another countywide measure, which would likely go before voters in 2020. Presidential election years are thought to be the best shot for such measures to pass, since they require a supermajority of voters to go through, which is more likely when turnout is high.
Various state bills floated for the past couple of years would reduce the threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent or a simple majority for transportation and infrastructure tax measures to pass. There is also a case pending before the California Supreme Court that would determine whether a citizen’s initiative seeking to raise revenues for such matters would only need a simple majority.
Either of those could open up the opportunity for another tax measure to come before 2020.
Another potential option is to stop trying to seek funding countywide, and instead pursue smaller geographic areas.
hat could mean the Metropolitan Transit System, which operates in the city of San Diego, South Bay, East County, could put forth a measure just to fund its projects within that area. It could also mean that cities where public transit is more popular and more highly utilized, like in the city of San Diego and South Bay, could opt for local tax measures that they pool together for a pot of money that only those cities could access.
Even those measures may need to wait until 2020 to be able to garner enough votes to pass.
Opponents of Measure A could continue to lobby the SANDAG board to reallocate some of the money from another tax measure residents are currently paying, TransNet. One particularly problematic highway project to environmental justice and pro-transit groups is the widening of the I-5 South near National City.
A two-thirds vote by the SANDAG board could reallocate money for that project toward transit projects, though that may be difficult for many reasons, including that Transnet revenue has fallen short of projections so how much of that money is available is in doubt.
“It’s legally possible for SANDAG to amend the text of that Transnet extension, but there is certainly a broad hesitancy to do so because they want to maintain the trust of the voters who approved a set of projects in 2004,” Parent said. “Past amendments reflected a broad political consensus on the board and none of those included changing a specific project.”
One example of such a vote was to use TransNet to help finance the purchase of the State Route 125.
Regardless of how environmentalists and transportation advocates move forward after the failure of Measure A, Capretz said the coalition that was formed to oppose the measure is going to stay together.
Capretz said she hopes the coalition continues to grow broader and to include high-level elected officials, like San Diego’s mayor, to help make things happen.
“You’re seeing this coalition for the progressive movement,” Capretz said. “We haven’t been organized like this before. The coalition is staying together and we are committed to promote the same platform.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the areas where the MTS serves. In addition to providing transit in the city of San Diego and the South Bay, MTS serves East County, up through Poway.