San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The Metropolitan Transit System is pursuing a tax increase for 2020.

Last year, the state Legislature made it possible for MTS to levy taxes. This week, the transit agency’s executive committee took the first step toward making that happen.

The committee voted Thursday to recommend that MTS’s full board hire a contractor that would start working on a potential 2020 ballot measure to raise sales taxes for transit improvements.

The $250,000 contract would go to Transportation Management and Design, the firm that put together the plan MTS implemented this year to improve its transit services.

Since the ballot measure would complement those improvements, MTS determined it didn’t need to bid out the contract and could award it to TMD as a sort of extension of the previous contract.

Previously, the San Diego Association of Governments has prepared tax measures to fund regional transit projects. But after the failure of Measure A in 2016 – and a scandal that grew out of it – Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez carried legislation to allow MTS to handle the task. It’s seen as easier to pass a tax hike in the MTS geographic area, voters there disproportionately favored Measure A, though still not enough for it to have passed.

The measure would draw from MTS’s improvement plan, and projects included in SANDAG’s regional plan through 2050. That could include, for instance, the Purple Line, a trolley extension along I-805 from Chula Vista to Kearny Mesa that was included in Measure A.

San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, the chair of MTS, voted to move forward and supports the idea.

La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent, director of the transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego, said two things need to happen at once for big transportation measures to pass: a presidential election, and an expanding economy.

“It makes all the sense in the world to move forward in the hopes that both of those will occur in 2020,” he said. “It might be a long process, so we should do all the things we need to do now and make sure they can inform a later ballot measure if it doesn’t make sense to do one.”

He said Circulate is preparing a report on how an MTS ballot measure could improve public and active transportation in the region. He said it will lay out how to make the measure more salient to voters than Measure A was.

Trolley to the airport: For instance, it’ll lay out how to build a trolley connection to the airport.

“That’s something that makes a lot of sense to voters but has been noticeably absent from transportation plans,” he said.

Filling potholes: Polling by SANDAG and others has shown voters really care about filling potholes. To get voters to say yes to new transportation funding, Parent said, you need to be able to credibly promise to fix their roads.

A late amendment to Gonzalez’s bill will let MTS do that. It lets the agency provide complete streets – projects that repave roads, but also add protected bike infrastructure and improve sidewalks, medians and transit lanes – wherever it runs transit service.

“It’s a good compromise, because it means you get your pothole repair, but only where there’s transit. They can’t divert the money to highways or other roads – it’s narrowly tailored to places there’s real benefit,” Parent said.

Selling bikes better: The city of San Diego and SANDAG have perpetually discussed building high-quality active transportation projects – protected bike lanes and improved pedestrian rights of way that make it more likely people bike or walk where they need to go. But they’re famously losers when it comes to public polling.

Parent thinks he knows a better way to frame the projects.

“We’ve done research that shows if you promote bike and pedestrian facilities as a means to enhance safety, especially around schools, voters are keen on that and they’re more likely to support funding it,” he said.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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