by Tommy Hough
We're fortunate to have a number of local policy professionals members of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, and we believe in the power of city governments to work together with neighboring municipalities to find common ground on shared goals and funding needs.
While we believe the best way forward is by working together, we also recognize the need for overt, vocal leadership when expectations slacken, or when the resulting solution is less than desirable when considering our overall mission.
As Democrats and environmentalists, we're not opposed to institutions or the potential for collective goals among communities. There is significant strength there. But we also recognize having quality leadership on multi-jurisdictional boards sometimes means having to first win majorities in communities where leaders don't share our vision of a cleaner, greener, more livable San Diego County.
Not every measure or initiative is equal, and each one must be considered with care. That's why I'd like to detail some of our reasons for opposing the SANDAG ballot measure, particularly in light of the substantive, nuanced conversation between labor attorney Ricardo Ochoa and Circulate San Diego policy counsel Colin Parent during the latter half of our July club meeting.
Essentially, SANDAG is proposing a measure to charge a 40-year half-cent sales tax to fund a variety of transportation projects. There's plenty of good that may come from this plan, especially with the kind of money being proposed. But being a countywide entity, some SANDAG municipalities will undoubtedly gain more from the deal than others. On that same note, some communities stand to lose more than others too.
One of the concerns we have is with communities that may see an increase in pollution as the result of more freeway lanes and less transit. In particular, the city of San Diego should be wary of any plan that calls for additional freeway lanes anywhere in the county, as San Diego residents now have a legally-binding Climate Action Plan that calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that can only be met by reducing the number of cars being used every day in the city. While additional miles of freeway may be added in municipalities outside of San Diego, we set a poor example as a community and as environmental leaders when we advocate for the very thing we as a city are legally-bound to reduce.
While the SANDAG plan calls for additional transit frequency along existing lines, the measure doesn't guarantee funding for things like Youth Opportunity transit passes, nor does it reduce already high point-to-point fees for the MTS Trolley or bus service. The trolley is an excellent means of public transportation and increased trolley frequency is a welcome step, but the high cost of utilizing this transit resource (beyond a day pass) is as much of a deterrent as the limited scope of the existing trolley rail network in San Diego County.
Granted, the trolley provides excellent service for those commuting from San Ysidro or Chula Vista to points north, and also offers options for those who live in Santee or Lemon Grove and may work in Mission Valley or Downtown. But the trolley network itself needs significant expansion and reduced rates in order for it to have an demonstrative impact that plays into the goals of the city of San Diego's climate plan.
As an organization, we have no philosophical problems with a sales tax, and we can appreciate the work that has gone into crafting the SANDAG plan and the breadth and scope of the items covered. We as a club can also appreciate there are a number of SANDAG member communities whose leaders choose not to believe in climate change or the long-term threat posed by rising sea levels, drought and increased wildfire.
One of our answers to this concern would be to hearken back to one of our club's founding principles – we need more environmental leaders serving in elected office throughout the county. Then we may have a SANDAG that is representing the best, most sensible and most pressing environmental issues in a countywide transportation plan. The best chance for doing so is by electing Democrats who make a point of improving environmental policy.
In addition, the SANDAG plan, however well-intentioned and exhaustive it may be, doesn't have a mechanism to link funding with projects that meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet state targets, or the city of San Diego's Climate Action Plan. It also doesn't contain targets for reductions in vehicle trips, which similarly helps achieve greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
On a related note, the SANDAG plan fails to fund storm water or water infrastructure projects – something that could be addressed given the price tag and the kind of capital projects being proposed – and fails to provide the minimum funding needed for conservation of the county's remaining open space. Any walk, ride or drive through the Otay Lakes area of Chula Vista or along the 56 corridor from Black Mountain to the coast demonstrates the rate at which open space across the county is rapidly vanishing and succumbing to development, further isolating protected areas like the Otay Mountains or Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve as disconnected "islands of conservation."
We believe in the ability of governments to craft policy, and we can wholly appreciate how hard it is to get different municipalities with differing constituencies and different desires to come together and agree on a plan as broad and sweeping as the proposed SANDAG ballot measure. Not one member of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action will deny that the effort to put the proposal together has been Herculean, with several "good actors" laboring to steer the best possible results. This is more than commendable.
However, at the end of the day, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action must evaluate each ballot measure, like each candidate, on its own merits. While there may be candidates with whom we may have a singular disagreement on, we can still potentially award that individual an endorsement (if otherwise earned) with the knowledge that we have an ongoing discussion with that person on top of the abundance that we already agree on. That is realistic and effective.
But the SANDAG plan is not something we can talk to singularly, especially given the breadth of the proposal as it is. Nor is it a plan in which we can take the good with the bad as a half-full win. There are no line-items here.
We as a club want to support the best policy and the right policy. With the understanding of the work put in and the benefits it may bring to some county residents, the SANDAG plan remains something we have nevertheless voted not to support. If it passes in November, we'll find a way to work with the best components of it and continue to work to elect more environmentally-aware Democrats to civic leadership positions, as is our mission.
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