San Diego has a rare opportunity, thanks to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill signed by President Joe Biden on Monday.
Over the past three years, top transportation officials for the region have drafted a $160 billion blueprint that would, among other things, expand transit, improve cross-border goods movement and relocate train tracks threatened by coastal erosion.
If San Diego voters approve a half-cent sales tax hike on the November 2022, the region would be well positioned to compete for billions of dollars in federal grant money under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
However, without the local matching funds, officials fear they could miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The federal infrastructure bill “raises the stakes” for San Diegans, said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, the agency that created the transportation plan.
“We’re in good shape to bring a lot of money home,” Ikhrata said. “But it’s important to understand in the history of transportation there are very few cases where federal and state money paid for the full cost of a project. You still need the local money to match.”
The citizens’ tax initiative — which, pending required signature gathering, could be before voters next winter — is being spearheaded by labor and environmental groups. Top priorities laid out in the ballot measure include a transit connection to the downtown airport and moving the costal train tracks off the crumbling Del Mar bluffs.
Not everyone supports the vision. Supervisor Jim Desmond, a Republican, has opposed the tax hike because it doesn’t include long-planned freeway expansions outlined under the region’s previous tax measure for transportation, Transnet.
“I support money coming into San Diego County, but it needs to be spent on projects San Diegans use, like roads and highways,” he said. “I will not support any new taxes or fees upon San Diegans until the promised projects from the previous ballot measure are completed.”
The only other conservative on the county Board of Supervisor, Joel Anderson, declined to respond to questions about the proposed tax hike and the implications of new federal infrastructure spending.
A significant amount of funding from the bill signed by Biden will come to California and San Diego regardless. The state is poised to receive nearly $30 billion for highway and bridge projects under so-called formula funding.
That money — which will help address the state’s more than 1,500 bridges and 14,000 miles of highway that are in poor condition — could start flowing out of Washington D.C. early next year.
“We certainly saw that type of fast action for these fairly modest but important state-of-good-repair projects when the last stimulus funding went out in 2009 and ’10,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.
The new law would also send California roughly $384 million over the next five years to expand electric-vehicle charging stations. The state will also have the opportunity to compete for $2.5 billion in competitive grants to further expand its charging network.
The state is expected to pull in at least $100 million to help improve internet access across the state, including for the estimated 545,000 Californians who lack a broadband connection.
Meanwhile, nearly $20 billion in competitive grants are slated for major infrastructure projects, such as the new high-speed transit system envisioned by SANDAG. That money could take longer to wind its way through the bureaucracy.
The infrastructure bill in some cases will create completely new funding programs, which will require the federal Department of Transportation to engage in “complicated and time-consuming rulemaking procedures,” said Elkind.
“If the rules are litigated,” he said, “it can take years to finalize them after any judicial review. Then you’d have to tack on the time it takes for local project leaders to apply and wait for a decision under these new programs, once they’re in place.”
Still, Elkind warned that regions like San Diego could miss out if they aren’t ready when those grant programs finally launch.
“A lack of local funding can also indicate lack of political support for new projects, which matters to federal leaders,” he said. “They don’t want to spend money on projects that don’t have basic support from most voters and local leaders.”