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As SANDAG Mourns Failure Of Tax Measure, Focus Shifts To South Bay

Photo by Matthew Bowler

A protester holds a sign reading "No Way Measure A" at a demonstration against the SANDAG tax proposal in National City, Sept. 22, 2016.

Transportation planners in San Diego County were disappointed last November when a half-cent sales tax measure to fund new infrastructure projects failed to win enough support from voters. The region's need for greater investments in transportation remains, however, and discussions began almost immediately on how to pay for them without the extra revenue.

Those discussions have been happening mostly at the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG. The agency is tasked with planning and funding the county's transportation projects, and its staff and board members were behind the unsuccessful tax proposal, Measure A.

SANDAG board members meeting for their annual retreat at the Barona Resort and Casino on Thursday debated what went wrong with Measure A and how — or whether — they should try to field another tax increase in the future. Many suggested a "sub-regional" measure that would target only cities where voters appear willing to pay for upgrades to their roads, highways and public transit in the form of higher taxes. The greatest majorities for Measure A came from the South Bay cities of National City, Chula Vista and Imperial Beach.

"In the South County I think that we're uniquely positioned there for really successful transit projects," Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas said during the board's discussion. "What I'd like to see is more information and more polling as to what kind of projects would fly in what area."

The question of where a future tax increase could succeed at the ballot box was at times overshadowed by questions of whether SANDAG had the credibility to ask voters for another tax increase at all. The Voice of San Diego reported last year that the revenue projections for Measure A were overstated, meaning some of the projects the tax was meant to pay for would likely not get built anytime soon. Further investigation by the online news outlet this month showed SANDAG executives knew the estimates were overstated but did not alert the agency's board members.

Photo credit: SANDAG

A map shows where Measure A won the greatest approval from voters.

Many board members said SANDAG had indeed lost credibility and had to rebuild public trust. Some have raised the idea of pursuing a new tax measure through a different organization: the Metropolitan Transit System.

MTS operates public transit in the southern half of San Diego County, where Measure A won most of its support. The agency has not been in charge of planning or funding its own network expansion since 2003, when a state law transferred that authority to SANDAG.

The idea for an "MTS tax" was first floated by San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez. He said such a tax could focus more on public transit, and could be more politically viable because it would exclude more tax-averse voters in North County who are less likely to depend on transit.

MTS's lawyer said last month that the agency would need new authority from the state legislature to craft its own tax measure and place it on the ballot. MTS also operates in some of the county's unincorporated areas, complicating the boundaries of who would vote on the tax and where it would be collected. Local sales taxes in California typically follow city or county borders.

Speaking to KPBS at the SANDAG board retreat Thursday, Alvarez said he was "definitely interested" in continuing to explore the feasibility of a tax measure through MTS.

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who also chairs the SANDAG board and was a chief proponent of Measure A, said both SANDAG and MTS would be exploring options for fielding a new tax measure that would only cover parts of the county. But he said he didn't think SANDAG had lost its ability to win back voters' trust.

"(Voters) want somebody to deliver on the things that we need," he said. "SANDAG is well positioned to do that."

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