By Miriam Raftery
May 2, 2016 (San Diego) – The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) board voted last week to send a ballot measure that would fund transit, freeway and infrastructure improvements to voters in November. Next up, Supervisors must decide whether to let voters have the final say. If approved the $18.2 million plan would raise county sales tax a half cent to fund freeway projects, road repairs, public transit, open space management and complying with state water quality mandates.
But the proposed initiative is on a collision course with a coalition of opponents proving the political maxim that politics makes strange bedfellows.
Supporters say the measure would raise billions for needed infrastructure improvements and transit, adding more frequent bus and trolley service as well as freeway improvements and more. Councilman Todd Gloria calls the action “meaningful” adding, “I think that will transform lives and make our region’s quality of life much better,” KPBS has reported.
But some prominent environmental groups argue the measure doesn’t go far enough to invest in mass transit, putting too much short-term emphasis on more freeways that could induce sprawl in outlying rural, forest and suburban areas instead of encouraging growth in urban areas.
“Sprawl development isn’t going to work anymore,” says Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign in San Diego, the Union-Tribune reports.
Some Republican leaders have warned that Republican officials on the SANDAG board would violate their “no new taxes” pledges if they vote to put for the measure, even to give voters the final word by putting it on the ballot. SANDAG’s board is composed of elected officials from each city in the region and some City Councils also weighed in with advisory votes on the measure.
Brian Brady, a Republican Central Committee member, posted on San Diego Rostra, “Republicans on SANDAG, who voted to put this on the ballot, should expect a conservative challenger this November. I promise you that I will communicate to the voters that the incumbent voted to raise their taxes.”
Labor is split on the issue, with some all for jobs created through infrastructure upgrades, while other labor groups note that widening freeways leads to more traffic, worsening greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
SANDAG commissioned pollsters to call voters recently asking if they would support various versions potential ballot descriptions of the initiative. The draft ballot language recommended by the consultants would be definitely or probably supported by 68% of voters –just over the 67% of voters required for passage, the poll found. But if voters were given more information than support dropped to under that threshold—and that’s before opponents launch their campaign seeking to defeat the measure.
The language that swayed a plurality of voters to support the initiative promised:
“To make critical road repairs, relieve congested freeways, and repair decaying infrastructure by: Repairing streets and filling potholes in every community; Relieving congested freeways including I-5, I-8, SR 52, SR 56, SR 67,SR 78, SR 94; improving public transportation; Fixing local bridges; Improving water quality to better utilize water; Improve fire safety by managing open space; and attracting matching funds; shall a half-cent sales tax be enacted for 40 years, at $288 million annually, with independent oversight and annual audits to provide local funding Sacramento cannot take away?”
But environmental leader Duncan McFetridge with the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and Transit San Diego chides SANDAG for focusing on fire, water and congestion concerns of residents. He notes that the 2015 Regional Transportation Plan’s Environmental Impact Report found significant and irreversible impacts to fire risks, stating, “As development occurs at urban edges, additional people and structures would be at risk from wildland fires.” Similarly, the EIR says nothing about water quality being improved, merely not degraded, but does warn that impacts on water supply would “remain significant and unavoidable.”
As for congestion, McFetridge contends, “There is zero evidence that building roads or expanding freeways relieves congestion.”
Transit San Diego contends that what’ s needed is increased transit, bike and walking modes in the urban core through a regional transit system that lays the foundation to solve housing, habitat and climate change – a ten year struggle that has included lawsuits by environmentalists that resulted in a partial victory in court.
McFetridge, who has longed waged battles to protect East County’s backcountry forests, meadows and ranchlands from development sprawl, concludes, “These facts have been proved over and over again in court documents and in official reports, all of which can be found on our website, www.TransitSanDiego.org.”