Jan 5, 2024 - News

Sales tax for transit will hit San Diego's November ballot

The red trolley in downtown San Diego.

The trolley at America Plaza in downtown San Diego. Photo: Dünzl\ullstein bild via Getty Images

San Diego voters will decide this year whether to increase the sales tax for transportation projects throughout the county.

Driving the news: The county registrar determined Wednesday that a citizens' initiative collected enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, putting a half-cent sales tax increase for transit, highway, road and infrastructure projects before voters.

Why it matters: Regional officials have pushed for infrastructure funding through a sales tax increase since 2016, when voters rejected a similar half-cent sales tax increase.

  • 58% of county voters supported the 2016 measure, short of the two-thirds majority needed for a tax increase for specific expenditures.

Yes, but: Subsequent court rulings have established that tax increases proposed through citizens' initiatives, unlike measures placed on the ballot directly by government agencies, require only 50% approval.

The big picture: The text of the initiative gives the San Diego Association of Governments' board control over the money, but dictates how it would be divided:

50% for transit projects, including:

27% to highway improvements and maintenance:

12% for transit operations

7% for local road improvements.

State of play: The lower threshold required of an initiative eases the path for its passage, but it's facing other headwinds that previous regional infrastructure measures haven't.

Zoom in: Proponents behind the measure are Gretchen Newsom, with the electric workers union; Val Macedo, with the laborers union; Doug Hicks, with the carpenters union; and Mark Weber, with the infrastructure-building firm HNTB.

  • The political committee supporting the initiative spent $2.2 million in the first nine months of 2023, with five-figure contributions from labor unions and infrastructure-building firms, according to its latest campaign finance disclosure.

What they're saying: Newsom, the initiative's campaign spokesperson, in a press release touted the benefits of the potential infrastructure projects in the measure, and its ability to subsidize transit fares for seniors, youth and disabled riders.

  • "These investments will also create thousands of good, local union jobs in construction and transit operations," she wrote.
  • "After more than two years of organizing, the Environmental Health Coalition, transit riders and community advocates are proud the transit measure will be on the 2024 ballot. We worked hard for this moment," Carolina Martinez, EHC's climate justice campaign director, said in the release.

The other side: Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, in an interview, said he opposes the measure based on SANDAG's current spending priorities.

  • "But what I find most troubling is the way this initiative circumvents the intent of state law, where a government agency relies upon a citizens' initiative to fund its future projects," he said. "It's especially troubling to me that the proponents of the initiative were awarded a project labor agreement for all future SANDAG projects shortly before beginning the initiative."
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