By Andrew Keatts.

SANDAG is committed to trying to raise taxes on voters countywide this November. They’re just not sure yet what they want the money to pay for.

The countywide half-cent tax increase would raise $18 billion over the next 40 years, and the regional planning agency SANDAG – an agency with representatives from cities all over the county – is trying to figure out a package of projects to spend the money on that can win the approval of two-thirds of county voters.

SANDAG is also trying to win over a narrower group: transit and environmental advocates who want to ensure the measure doesn’t go toward more highway expansion projects. Since the tax measure needs approval from two-thirds of all voters, SANDAG needs support from a swath of interests – labor, environmentalists and business groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

SANDAG released two proposals for how it might spend $18 billion over the next 40 years. One plan focuses on helping each city solve its own infrastructure shortfalls. The other one is geared toward regional projects like highways and major transit upgrades, but offers no money to fixing local infrastructure.

The SANDAG board, for its part, has already made clear it wants the measure to put money into cities’ hands for basic projects like road and sidewalk repairs.

Not only are those projects popular – and therefore more likely to help the measure pass – but they also fill a big need. Cities around the county have more infrastructure needs than money to solve them. SANDAG’s tax increase, then, could help out cities that haven’t been able to help themselves, while also fulfilling regional funding needs.

Still, tax increases that need to be approved by two-thirds of voters face a steep climb in any San Diego election.

In a poll last summer, SANDAG found just over 60 percent of respondents were open to the tax increase. Any opposition willing to spend money against the tax increase would almost certainly spell its end. Even if that doesn’t happen, it still might be hard to get it approved.

The local Republican Party has already said it’s against the measure – but that doesn’t mean it’ll actually spend money to defeat it.

On the other side, there’s a coalition of environmentalists, progressives and labor groups willing to push for the bill, but only if it satisfies their wishes.

It’s not clear either option would do that.

The Local Option vs the Regional Option

County voters in 2004 approved a tax increase for transportation projects, and the ballot language committed SANDAG to come back four years later with a plan to pay for habitat preservation.

That to-be-delivered tax increase promise became a dumping ground for additional spending priorities over the years. It’ll now include clean water, transit, highway and local infrastructure projects as well.

At the same time, SANDAG kept delaying actually putting the measure on the ballot because polling repeatedly showed it didn’t have a chance.

Now that its prospects look better, SANDAG is trying to work out what’ll be part of the spending plan. But only one of the two plans has money for local infrastructure. It’s hard to see the one without that facet – the one with more transit projects – pleasing many people, since the public and the board have both expressed a desire for those projects.

To transit advocates, it feels a bit like asking the board to choose between one plan that’s full of ice cream and one that’s full of broccoli.

“It follows a pattern they’ve established where, anytime they offer a transit-friendly plan, they pair it with policies that are either unfeasible or political nonstarters,” said Colin Parent, policy counsel with transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego. “It begs the question, why even present this option? What is the value of even considering this, if it’s something the board almost certainly wouldn’t be interested in adopting?”

The two plans are identical in a few ways. Over 40 years, they’d both spend about $2 billion on open space, habitat preservation and clean energy projects. They’d both spend $1 billion on clean water projects. They’d both spend $364 million on bike and other active transportation projects.

Some of the major transit plans included in SANDAG’s long-term vision are also included in both plans.

The purple line, a new trolley line running from South Bay to Carmel Valley roughly following the I-805, is in both.

So are a few projects within SANDAG’s newest transit service, the “skyway” – a system of aerial gondolas. There’d be a new skyway from a planned trolley station at Balboa Avenue to Pacific Beach’s coast, and one connecting a new trolley station at UCSD to the Coaster station in Sorrento Valley. Both plans would also build a new station just off the I-94, between Golden Hill and Grant Hill for a high-frequency bus running through City Heights and into downtown.

Where the plans differ is on local spending, highways and certain transit projects.

The local plan would send $7.3 billion, or 40 percent of all the money the measure brings in, to individual cities to spend how they see fit. San Diego would receive $2.8 billion of that local funding, for instance. The unincorporated areas of the county would get $1 billion. Chula Vista would get $539 million.

That plan would spend another $5.5 billion (30 percent) on transit projects and operations, and $1.8 billion (10 percent) on new highway projects.

The regional plan, meanwhile, spends half its money on transit. Sounds good if you like transit, right?

But it spends zero dollars on local infrastructure projects – and transit advocates like the idea of improving local infrastructure, too. Meanwhile, it also sends more than $3 billion to highway projects, not quite twice as much as the local plan would spend on highways.

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign and a member of a coalition of environmental groups that’s banded together to put pressure on SANDAG to satisfy their interests, said she and her partners need more time to look into the proposals, but hopes to start working with SANDAG to find a solution that can satisfy their vision and fix the region’s transportation problems.

The major expenditures in the regional plan are $600 million to add a second track to the Coaster, so it can run more frequently, plus improved stations along the route. It would also spend another $2 billion on operations that would let local buses and trolleys on the blue and orange lines run more frequently.

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Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.