San Diego County residents approved their first sales-tax increase Tuesday, voting to reach into their pockets to fund a multibillion-dollar transportation improvement package in the hope that it will mean smoother traveling on the county's increasingly congested roads and freeways.
Proposition A garnered a comfortable margin beyond the simple majority of votes needed for victory. Beginning April 1, most purchases made in the county will be subject to a 6.5% sales tax.
Former State Sen. Jim Mills, chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, said the new tax "means we will be able to catch up with the traffic problems that have been accumulating."
"San Diego voters are not very willing to vote for tax increases, it is a very difficult resistance to overcome," said Mills, head of Citizens for Better Transportation, which backed the ballot initiative. County voters went for the new tax because they "realize that traffic is getting steadily worse and their lives will become less pleasant unless they put up the money to deal with that very real problem," he said.
No Credit From Foe
Proposition A opponent Howard Greenebaum, chairman of the fledgling North County Slow Growth Alliance, said that Tuesday's results showed only that a well-financed campaign can defeat an unfunded one. Proposition A backers gathered more than $500,000, while its unorganized opposition raised no money.
Proposition A appeared to be the only San Diego County spending measure clearly succeeding Tuesday. Ballot initiatives to renovate Balboa and Mission Bay parks appeared headed for defeat, unable to reach the two-thirds majorities required for those measures. A measure to raise the City of San Diego's spending limit was locked in a tight contest.
The Proposition A decision is the first time that voters have approved a sales tax increase for a special countywide purpose. They turned down a similar request to pay for new jail construction last year.
The ballot initiative asked residents to raise the sales tax from 6% to 6.5% for the next 20 years, generating $2.25 billion for highway projects, mass transit and local roads. The tax would be rescinded after 20 years unless approved again by voters.
The $750 million earmarked for highway improvements targeted the arteries that link up the region's freeway system in an effort to relieve the ever-growing congestion on the heavily-used interstates. The projects included widening California 78 from Oceanside to Escondido; extending California 52 from Tierrasanta to Santee, and widening California 54, the South Bay freeway, to eight lanes.
Another $750 million was aimed at public transit. Projects included expanding the regional trolley system; establishing commuter rail service from Oceanside to San Diego and Escondido, and subsidizing transit passes for senior citizens, the disabled and students.
The region's cities and towns would receive shares of a $750-million fund for local road projects based on a formula that combines population and road mileage. An additional $1 million per year would be set aside to build bicycle lanes throughout the county.
In one of the biggest political mismatches of the election year, Citizens for Better Transportation raised $580,000, much of it from businesses and development interests. The committee lined up endorsements from elected representatives at all levels of government and inundated likely voters with geographically targeted mailers.
So much money came in during the final week of the campaign that the committee was unable to spend it all and will have a $40,000 to $50,000 surplus, Mills said Tuesday.
In contrast, opponents of the measure, who argued that some of the spending would stimulate future development, had no formal organization, raised no money and counted on the news media to get their message out.
They were forced to hope for low voter turnout and traditional anti-tax sentiment to defeat the proposition, which has failed in various forms in Orange and Contra Costa counties but passed in eight others during the 1980s.
Proponents noted polls showing that the vote could be close and were mindful that this was the second time that county voters were asked to increase the 52-year-old sales tax for a special, local purpose.
Voters turned down a request a year ago to raise the tax to pay for jail construction. That 1986 measure needed approval from two-thirds of the voters and received 50.73% of the vote. Under state legislation passed this year, Proposition A needed just a simple majority to pass.
Despite the obstacles to persuading voters to tax themselves, proponents were hopeful.
"It's going to pass," Ernest Dronenburg, the county administrator of the sales tax, said during the day Tuesday. "I think the proposition was extremely well thought out. I think the campaign was done very intelligently and there doesn't seem to be any organized opposition."
Mills also predicted that voters would approve the measure. Without Proposition A money, "we simply go along with a worsening situation. We will see a continuing buildup of traffic congestion in the San Diego area."
Proponents said the measure would help the transportation system catch up with past population growth and changes in driving habits.
Both sides agreed that Tuesday's vote would have a dramatic impact on trolley riders and county motorists. If all planned improvements were funded and completed, the county's total number of heavily congested freeway miles would jump from 9 in 1985 to 33 in 2005, when San Diego will be home to more than 2.8 million people.
If nothing is done, heavy congestion will plague 78 miles of county freeways, according to a study by the San Diego Assn. of Governments, which would administer the spending.
"It gets worse," lamented Lee Hultgren, Sandag's director of transportation. "What can I say? It's going to get worse."