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$2.2-Billion Victory Thrills San Diego Transit Officials

November 05, 1987|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The day after a massive campaign effort resulted in the county's first sales-tax increase, jubilant transportation officials spent Wednesday savoring their newly acquired wealth and laying plans to spend the estimated $2.25 billion expected over the next 20 years.

Officials who 24 hours before were worried about money found themselves Wednesday considering the specifics of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on mass transit and road projects they have longed to build.

"We're ecstatic," said former state Sen. James Mills, who led the campaign for Proposition A and is chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board. "It's very difficult to get people to vote for an increase in taxes. It's the hardest thing you can do, politically. It was an uphill battle to get them to do it."

Traffic Jams Credited

Fed up with increasing traffic congestion on local freeways, county residents approved Proposition A with 53.14% of the vote Tuesday, raising the countywide sales tax to 6.5% from 6% for 20 years. The money will be evenly divided among mass transit projects, state highways and local road improvements.

Because retailers will start to collect the tax April 1 and revenue will begin flowing to agencies July 1, it will probably be next summer before county residents begin to see their sales-tax dollars at work, officials said.

A family of four with a gross income of $25,000 a year can expect to spend an additional $32 a year in sales taxes because of the half-cent increase, said Ernest Dronenburg, who represents San Diego County and seven other counties on the state Board of Equalization. That typical family spends $381 a year in sales tax on the $6,350 they purchase in taxable goods, he said.

Exempt from the tax are items such as food, medical prescriptions, newspapers and eyeglasses.

Anyone trying to avoid the tax increase by traveling to another county to make a major purchase such as a car or boat will be stymied, Dronenburg said. Under a 1986 law, retailers in those counties must charge San Diego County sales tax to San Diego County residents if they can determine that the buyer lives here.

The San Diego Assn. of Governments will administer the new revenue as the San Diego County Regional Transportation Commission, established under Proposition A. The commission members will be the 19 members of Sandag's board of directors, which is made up of representatives from each city in the county and one from the county.

Hastened Funding Expected

The new transportation commission is likely to allow agencies to borrow against the expected revenue by issuing bonds so that much of the work can be done earlier, rather than funding projects on a pay-as-you-go basis. Every official interviewed Wednesday said he expected bonding to be approved to speed the building process.

A big beneficiary of the vote is the county's burgeoning trolley system, which will use its $450-million share of the funds and other revenue to add 33.6 miles to its 20 miles of track. An additional 13.3 miles of trolley lines are under construction or will soon be built without Proposition A funds.

In the next 20 years, money from Tuesday's decision will take the trolley north to North City West, east from Old Town through Mission Valley to La Mesa and out to Santee.

The MTDB probably will spend its first sales-tax dollars on engineering studies for the Santee and Old Town extensions, General Manager Thomas Larwin said.

One of the first results of the new tax increase will be half-price fares on public transit for senior citizens, students and disabled people, said Ken Sulzer, Sandag's executive director.

Cities should begin spending their shares of the $750-million fund reserved for local roads about mid-year 1988, after holding public hearings and receiving approval from the new commission, Sulzer said.

What the Cities Want

Preliminary priority lists submitted by cities show that San Diego's first improvements would be to install 75 traffic signals, modernize old signals and add a new central computer. Chula Vista wants to widen F Street from 4th Avenue to Broadway. Escondido intends to widen El Norte Parkway from Ash Street to Washington Avenue and to add safety improvements.

Caltrans' local district, which will have at least $37.5 million--and possibly more--added to its $50-million annual budget, intends to begin widening California 78 from San Marcos Boulevard to Escondido in the spring or summer of next year, using a small amount of Proposition A funds to match federal donations, said Jack Grasberger, chief deputy district director.

"Our funding has been reduced so much, so radically, in recent years, that we were concerned that we could not keep up with the demand," Grasberger said. "Now, we feel that we can make a good stab at that."

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