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12th and Imperial trolley station / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post originally appeared in the Oct. 30 Politics Report. Subscribe to the Politics Report here.

Labor groups and environmentalists have launched a signature gathering campaign to put a measure on next year’s ballot to raise the sales tax for transportation projects, they announced this week.

That puts it in the controlling position among the other tax measures proponents hope to place on the 2022 ballot, at least if you subscribe to the conventional wisdom that voters only have stomach for so many tax increases, and multiple options on the same ballot cannibalize each other.

In that version of events, the transportation tax has a first mover’s advantage over efforts to raise taxes to improve parks and libraries, to increase fees to repair and replace the city’s decrepit stormwater system, or to boost city services by charging all single-family homeowners a special fee for trash pickup.

But that’s just one of a handful of observations we’ve got about the transportation tax measure.

Who’s behind it: The coalition behind the measure is almost the exact one that fought a failed 2016 measure that also would have increased sales taxes to pay for transportation improvements. The current group includes the electrician, carpenters and laborers unions, along with the Environmental Health Coalition, a environmental justice advocacy group, and the Climate Action Campaign, a group pushing the region to lower its carbon emissions.

Many of those faces, including Gretchen Newsom of IBEW 569, the electricians’ union, and Nicole Capretz of CAC, were front and center opposing the 2016 tax increase. I asked if that was by design.

“It’s just how everything came together,” Newsom said. “We have this new plan to make crucial investments in transit, to combat climate change and to create local jobs. It’s by design that the environmental community groups are coming together with unions and business and community groups to fight to make those investments.”

Other early members of the coalition include the companies HNTB and Flatiron, engineering and infrastructure firms that do the type of work the measure would fund.

What’s in it: The measure proposes a half-cent tax increase, the same as what the San Diego Association of Governments tried to pass in 2016. That’ll roughly dictate how much revenue it can bring in each year. But where SANDAG’s measures used that funding total to build a detailed, specific list of projects across the county – leading to significant problems that have reshaped the agency – this measure could be less prescriptive. When the final ballot language comes out, maybe as early as next week, we’ll be interested in how many specific projects it lists, as opposed to broad spending priorities.

But the coalition is already name dropping some specific projects, like the need to re-locate the coastal rail corridor off the crumbling Del Mar Bluffs, and connecting the airport to the trolley (though it leaves unsaid which option to do that it prefers).

Regardless, the costs for major transit projects like those are massive, and could quickly eat up decades of projected revenue once you start stacking them together. The Purple Line, for instance, a rail line from the South Bay to Kearny Mesa through Mid-City would be a desirable project for voters. But SANDAG, which envisions the project in its long-term regional transportation plan that could be approved by voters this year as a major piece of a new, high-speed regional rail system, projects its costs at a cool $12.6 billion.

It’s easy to get lost in big numbers, so let’s just say that alone would account for nearly all of the $14 billion SANDAG told voters it expected to collect over 40 years from a 2004 tax measure (although by then it had already, internally, adjusted its expectations down to $12.9 billion).

And that’s before accounting for all the other things that voters and constituency groups will want to see – like funding to operate transit systems, repair local roads, build new bike lanes, and improve freeways. But abandoning a full project list could avoid the sort of horse trading that has defined previous measures.

Highways too: Since Hasan Ikhrata took over at SANDAG, he’s led the agency and board to embrace a transit-first vision, and infuriated conservative members who want the agency to continue spending on freeway improvements.

But whatever you think about the policy substance of that debate, one thing is clear: voters like freeway spending (or “reducing congestion,” if you prefer). So, how does this new measure handle that question?

“We’re not focused on that kind of breakdown and animosity of previous years, pitting transit versus highways,” Newsom said. “Everything is different nowadays than it was in 2016. We have a real plan to expand transit and to make better use of our highway system and to meet our climate goals. That’s why you see a big, diverse coalition coming together.”

Where’s the money: Ballot measures are expensive – both collecting signatures to qualify them, and then talking to voters across the county to persuade them to vote yes. It’ll be a while before we see any campaign reports from the coalition, but it’ll be interesting to see how much it’s worth for the labor groups and engineering firms to ensure the county sees billions of dollars in new construction projects. This will be a multi-million-dollar campaign, starting right off the bat with funding a signature-collection drive. (And let’s not be hasty assuming its success is assured. Coordinated, well-funded efforts have stumbled before.)

Andrew Keatts

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

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