If you're looking forward to a chaotic scrum over a large pot of federal infrastructure money that might materialize locally, you might be out of luck—officials here believe the region is well positioned to not only receive the dollars, but also to divvy them up in an orderly manner.
Should President Barack Obama and the Congress follow through on their proposal to stimulate the economy by putting people to work on, say, large transit projects, bloodletting over where the money is spent in San Diego County likely won't be a big part of the process.
“It is a little more orderly than that, although you and I both know that when a lot of money shows up unexpectedly, there's a lot of jockeying for position that goes on,” said Marney Cox, chief economist for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). “So, I wouldn't say that it's going to completely be like, ‘Oh, we already know what we're going to do with it,' and no one raises a voice to disagree or suggests something different. That'll probably happen. I'm just saying that it's pretty well organized.”
There's already wrangling over whether the stimulus money will go through the states or go directly to local governments. California, Cox said, is among the states that have a plan for distributing federal money when it arrives. That plan is based on such factors as population and, if earmarked for transportation, road miles.
Cox calls it a “peanut-butter approach”: The money is spread around fairly evenly and everyone gets some. An argument can be made that such money should be spent where it can achieve the best result depending on the funding's intent—such as at the ports at San Pedro and Long Beach if the money is meant to enhance trade—but Cox says there's general contentment with the formula.
“There could be a lot of drama over who gets the money in many other states. In California, I wouldn't say we're 100-percent satisfied with it, but there isn't going to be as much angst over it, because we already know, in general, how that money will be distributed once it shows up.”
And once it does show up, San Diego County appears ready to put it to work—literally. Because the idea is to create jobs as soon as possible, the federal government will almost certainly want the money spent on projects that are prepared for shovels to hit the ground. San Diego County voters in 1987 approved a 20-year, half-cent sales tax, called TransNet, to fund transportation improvements and then voted in 2004 to extend it to 2048. A big chunk of that money has been spent on the so-called “soft” costs—planning, engineering, environmental review and land acquisition—associated with major transportation works. With those early processes out of the way on some projects, San Diego County can take advantage of construction-only stimulus money.
“If the planning has gotten to a point along the spectrum, where we are ready to turn the first spade of dirt, that's the project that would then receive the federal money, because they want to make sure that we're actually hiring somebody,” Cox said. “It's not just going into the planning stages.”
Regionwide, there's $2.3 billion worth of projects that are ready for construction. Two examples of TransNet funding already having paved the way are a $21-million widening of the terribly congested La Jolla Village Drive / I-805 interchange and a $290-million project to lower the floors of San Diego's trolley cars.
Counties that augment their transportation budgets with voter-approved sales taxes are known as “self-help” counties. DeAnn Baker, a legislative representative of the California State Association of Counties, said that last time she looked, “18 or 19” of the state's 58 counties were self-help counties, but they represent about 85 percent of the population. She doesn't know how many of those counties aim their extra sales-tax revenue at the soft costs of transportation projects.
Rusty Selix, executive director of the California Association of Councils of Governments, said all of the state's regions are well-positioned, regardless of how their money's been spent in the past. State and federal gas taxes fund only two-thirds of the amount needed to maintain the state's transportation system, Selix said, creating an enormous backlog of work to be done.
“Every region of the state has so many projects that are ready to go that any reasonable amount of stimulus could be put to work in the time frame Congress has imagined,” Selix said. “Every year, we fall farther and farther behind with more deferred maintenance and rehabilitation projects”—and that's “before you even get to major construction projects.”
SANDAG sprang to action in October, when talk about such a stimulus package first reached local officials' ears. By Dec. 5, SANDAG had completed a document, the San Diego Region Economic Stimulus Proposal, that detailed 1,043 transportation and other infrastructure projects countywide—such as water, sewer and parks—and broke them down geographically and by readiness (immediately ready, ready in six months, ready in one year). The report estimates that the projects would cost a total of roughly $7.4 billion, create about 96,000 jobs paying more than $5 million in wages, increasing the region's gross metropolitan product by nearly $12 billion. If all the projects were funded, the largest impacts would be felt in the East County congressional district of Duncan Hunter Jr. and Bob Filner's South County congressional district.
SANDAG officials have met with four of the five congressional representatives—Darrell Issa wasn't available—and they hope the region is well-represented when it comes to defining the strings that will be attached to the money. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters this week that the infrastructure portion of the stimulus plan could reach $400 billion nationwide.
SANDAG's Cox probably wouldn't be too surprised that one of the folks who might raise a little hell over how the money is spent locally is Duncan McFetridge of the environmental group Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, which took SANDAG to court over its last Regional Transportation Plan.
“It's a list; it's not a plan,” McFetridge said of the stimulus proposal. “We really have no indication from the SANDAG list what it really contributes to. Does it really make a livable, sustainable community? Or is it taking advantage of a tragedy to do more of the same—more unaffordable homes, more sprawl?”
The Obama election was based on a desire for change, he said, so “in the response to this stimulus package, the highest priority must be given to [public] transit—obviously. It will achieve all those economic objectives.”
Of the projects that are ready to go to bid immediately, $648 million worth are public-transit-related, compared with $246 million for highways. Local road and street projects would cost $190 million; other public-works projects total $1.2 billion.
SANDAG's report includes projects from the city of San Diego totaling more than $330 million, including nearly $100 million in projects that are ready for construction now. These include everything from sidewalk repairs and new traffic lights to major transportation projects and revitalization of the North Embarcadero.
“Assuming that it's an infusion of cash into the economy—in other words, being grants and not loans to local governments,” said Jay Goldstone, chief operating office for the city of San Diego, “then during a time where our revenues are down and our ability to spend is down, we would get federal dollars on needed capital projects and would generate jobs, and that's important.”
San Diego city officials are hoping Obama's talk of bipartisanship isn't just empty rhetoric. Mayor Jerry Sanders was asked recently how the election would impact the city.
“Well,” he quipped, “I think it's gonna help those cities that had Democratic mayors out a lot. Those cities who had mayors who supported John McCain are probably in a little bit more trouble.”
Sanders endorsed McCain.
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