TransNet Tax Increase – SANDAG Course-correct Opportunity

Originally published in the San Diego Free Press on February 25th, 2016

A region doesn’t become environmentally friendly by accident; it does so through careful, ambitious planning with the good of future generations in mind. In this regard, the San Diego region now finds itself at a crossroads.

Through the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the region’s planning agency, we now have the opportunity to begin realizing an environmentally friendly future in the San Diego region for many years to come. SANDAG recently announced that it will consider putting forth a ballot measure that will increase the TransNet sales tax by half a cent. Pending voter approval, such an increase would mean billions of additional dollars for transportation projects in coming decades. Although SANDAG may do the opposite, this money should be spent on projects that will mitigate climate change and protect San Diego’s most vulnerable populations.

An embrace of environmentally minded transportation and development priorities is long overdue in the county. While the city of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan sets the county’s urban center on a path toward responsible growth, the region as a whole can hardly say the same. Blame for this should in part be laid at the feet of SANDAG.

Their 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, which dictates what transportation projects will be built decades into the future, will dramatically increase our region’s carbon footprint by recklessly expanding highways rather than curb carbon emissions by 25 percent [ . . .] by 2020 as state law requires. (The current RTP does meet the state targets for greenhouse gas emissions through 2020. However from 2020 on, it really misses the targets. See pages 4.8-33 through 4.8-36 of the San Diego Forward Draft Environmental Report for up to date numbers.)

Today, however, SANDAG has an opportunity to correct its course. In setting its list of prioritize that will define the ballot measure, SANDAG should prioritize sustainable projects that will allow the region to flourish rather than stay stuck bumper to bumper on the 805. To this end, a diverse collection of environmental, labor and urban development groups–including SanDiego350–recently came together to form the Quality of LIfe Coalition (QOL), which lays out ways to spend the additional TransNet dollars that would benefit underserved communities and set the region on track to grow in an environmentally responsible manner.

Some would like such funds to go toward even more freeway expansion than SANDAG has already planned. While such spending may satiate car commuters in the short term, making our freeways even bigger is the last thing our regional planning agency should consider right now. Studies have proven that freeway expansion increases drivers proportionate to expansion, causing traffic levels to quickly return to pre-expansion levels. So expanding freeways isn’t just short-sighted, it’s ineffective.

The many priorities set forth by the QOL Coalition, on the other hand, are diverse and ambitious, including goals ranging from expanding our light-rail system to creating more affordable housing, especially in communities well served by public transit. Read the QOL Coalition’s entire proposal in this San Diego Free Press article.

SANDAG recently announced two competing lists of priorities it was tentatively considering

The first would give a large chunk of the funds to individual cities in the region to spend how they please. A great portion would likely go to much-needed street repair and other infrastructure needs. A relatively small amount, however, would be allocated toward transit projects (or any of the other priorities laid out by the QOL Coalition for that matter).

The second option, on the other hand, would use the funds on overarching regional projects, namely freeway expansion and public transit. More money is devoted to public transit in this plan (though still less than what SANDAG promised in its 2015 Regional Plan), but zero money would be allocated toward infrastructure improvements. Omitting all street repair funding makes this option something of a political nonstarter, since to the everyday commuter, street repair is often the first priority.

In summary, Option A shortchanges nearly every environmental priority, while Option B includes an underwhelming effort to fund environmental projects, and stands little chance of voter approval if it even made it onto the ballet.

As others have pointed out, SANDAG appears to be attempting to give the false impression that environmental priorities and popular sentiment are somehow at odds. The SANDAG board of directors will decide by April the specifics of the ballot measure it will put in front of voters. Before then, the board should acknowledge the fact that combining environmental priorities with local infrastructure improvements isn’t just possible, it’s smart.

The QOL Coalition’s role in the tax increase will hopefully go further than outlining hopeful priorities for SANDAG. Should SANDAG agree to prioritize the QOL goals, the coalition, which includes over 20 San Diego organizations and represents 150,000 people, will lend itself to fighting for the tax measure’s approval in November.

Such support may be necessary to gain the two-thirds majority mandated for the likely tax increase. Any increase to the TransNet tax must be approved by a two-thirds majority of San Diego County voters, likely in the November elections. Finding a set of projects alluring enough to voters to make the tax proposal viable in a referendum will be a major consideration.

The agency should already be attuned to the needs of those it represents. SANDAG is a collection of city and county governments that make decisions on region-wide issues. It’s funded primarily through the TransNet sales tax they propose increasing. The tax currently generates more than 100 million dollars each year for SANDAG, most of which goes toward the agency’s infrastructure projects.

Decisions by the agency are led by its 30-person board comprised of elected officials throughout the region. The board has yet to reveal their spending priorities for the potential increase, and they’re still technically in the process of gathering input to gauge the public’s desires.

Some in the region have already voiced opposition to a tax increase for any reason, but such blanket responses can’t be taken seriously. Sensible conservatives and progressives in San Diego have long agreed on measures such as repairing crumbling streets and expanding public transportation. It would be unwise to abandon funding for such basic needs and to turn much needed civic spending into a partisan issue.

San Diegans–indeed, most Americans–want action on climate change. People are realizing that freeway expansion is at best an ineffective Band-Aid solution to traffic. At worst, it takes money away from transportation options sustainable in the long term. Since the November election will likely see a large turnout of progressive voters, promising environmentally-sound transportation projects isn’t just the moral thing to do, it’s a smart strategy.

San Diegans won’t be in this fight alone. President Barack Obama recently announced a $320 billion transportation spending plan directed toward clean transportation options. Therefore, it is time to capitalize on the wave of federal mass transit support.

Finally, to underscore the need for climate justice and urban development that will benefit the most vulnerable communities in San Diego, it’s worth noting that local sales taxes are a much heavier burden on low-income families than wealthier populations, since poor families are more likely to rely on making smaller, more frequent purchases. Any sales tax increase SANDAG proposes, therefore, should most benefit low-income communities.

Open spaces are another key priority outlined by the QOL Coalition. SANDAG predicts that the population of San Diego County will increase by 1.3 percent by 2050. Debate the accuracy of that prediction, but expect large growth. Protecting San Diego’s open spaces will be vital in the coming decades so we don’t risk losing San Diego’s natural beauty in the swell of development that will accompany the increasing population.

Reacting to public input hasn’t been SANDAG’s strong suit in the past, but San Diegans must tell the region’s elected officials how important this is to all San Diegans. Now is the time for San Diegans to speak out about realigning SANDAG’s planning priorities. SANDAG’s path toward more freeway expansion will be even more difficult to alter if this tax increase makes it a priority.

Decisions of this magnitude don’t come along often, and SANDAG must seize this opportunity to get the region’s efforts to mitigate climate change on track for a better future.

San Diegans determined to advocate for the Quality of Life Coalition’s goals should attend SANDAG’s board of directors retreat at Barona Resort Casino on March 10 for public comment on the issue.

About Hutton

Hutton Marshall is a journalist and a volunteer with SanDiego350. He studied at San Diego State University, where he served as the managing editor of The Daily Aztec, SDSU’s student newspaper. After graduation, he edited and reported for multiple local publications in San Diego, including San Diego Uptown News. He is an incoming student at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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