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Report Imagines What 2020 Tax Measure Could Bring MTS

A Blue Line MTS Trolley train in Barrio Logan, San Diego, Feb. 21, 2018.

Credit: Matt Hoffman

Above: A Blue Line MTS Trolley train in Barrio Logan, San Diego, Feb. 21, 2018.

As the Metropolitan Transit System mulls asking voters for a tax increase next year, a report released Wednesday by the nonprofit think tank Circulate San Diego aims to imagine what that tax measure could do for the local economy and environment.

The report, titled "Transit Together: How a New Regional Ballot Measure Can Fund Transit, Pothole Repair, and Safe Routes to Schools," finds that a half-cent sales tax levied in the jurisdictions MTS serves could raise roughly $10 billion over 40 years. That money could be spent on high-priority transit improvements such as faster and more frequent bus services, a new trolley line to Kearny Mesa or a rail connection to the San Diego airport.

Colin Parent, Circulate San Diego's executive director and general counsel, said the report is an attempt to spark discussion about what residents, businesses and elected officials want to prioritize as the ballot measure moves forward.

"Where do I want a trolley to go? Which buses do I want to make faster? What potholes do I think need to be repaired?" Parent said. "We need to start thinking about those sorts of things and get people excited, and make sure MTS includes those elements in a ballot measure."

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Transit Together

Transit Together

A report from Circulate San Diego analyzes what a 2020 MTS ballot measure could fund for public transit.

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MTS is still in the early phases of planning for a 2020 ballot measure — something made possible by a 2017 law called AB 805 authored by state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. It allows the transit agency, with the approval of two-thirds of voters, to impose a half-cent sales tax to fund transit capital and operations, sidewalks, bike facilities and roads used by the bus and trolley system. The revenue cannot be spent on freeways.

Parent said San Diego's public transit system will likely need more revenue to accomplish the ambitious state and local goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, most of which come from the transportation sector.

"There are some existing revenues that we could use better, and we should," he said. "And those will make a down payment on our climate future. But they are alone probably not enough to get the job done."

AB 805 passed in the wake of a scandal surrounding SANDAG's unsuccessful 2016 sales tax measure. Reporting by Voice of San Diego revealed staff at the county transportation planning agency had overestimated how much the tax would raise. Agency executives were aware of the mistake prior to election day but did not alert SANDAG board members or voters.

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With the effects of that scandal still lingering, and with SANDAG delaying an update to its long-term regional transportation plan, MTS may be in a better position to ask voters for a tax increase to fund transportation projects. Because MTS does not serve North County, where voters have historically been less supportive of tax increases, the ballot measure could also face a more friendly electorate.

Neither MTS staffers nor elected officials on the transit operator's board of directors have presented revenue estimates or expenditure plans related to the tax measure. Board chairwoman and San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez said at an event last week she had been briefed on the results of recent polling and was encouraged by the results.

"Before MTS puts a list of projects together for a potential ballot measure, it will get the input of all major stakeholders in the region," MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said in an email. "It will be a very collaborative and inclusive process. MTS welcomes Circulate San Diego's ideas and we look forward to the ideas from many other groups and individuals."

GUEST: Colin Parent, executive director, Circulate San Diego

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Transcript

As the Metropolitan Transit System mulls asking voters for a tax increase next year, a new report aims to imagine what that tax measure could do for the local economy and environment.

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