Transit Tax Referendum Is Postponed Until 1987

Times Staff Writer

Worried that voters might reject a November sales tax measure for transit improvements, San Diego officials have voted to delay the referendum for a year.

The San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag) board of directors voted unanimously Monday to delay consideration of a half-cent sales tax increase until the November, 1987, ballot. Last year the state Legislature cleared the way for the county to consider the sales tax increase, which would give Sandag new spending power and is favored by transit planners to offset cutbacks in state and federal transportation grants.

A vote on the tax, which would be used for roads, buses and trolley extensions, was originally scheduled for this fall. But Sandag board members said private support for the tax had not developed, and that they feared competition from another sales tax increase on the November ballot--a half-cent sales tax boost for jails and courts.

"I think we have a much better chance by waiting," said Lee Hultgren, Sandag director of transportation.

He said surveys showed 53% of voters would support the transportation tax, with upwards of 63% supporting a tax to upgrade specific roads. But he said only 43% would approve if the tax is coupled with the jail tax, far short of the needed majority.

"Regardless of the poll, I think logic and reason and common sense will tell you that with two of these competing for the same tax vote, the chances of either one passing are hurt," Hultgren said. "A 1% sales tax is very hard to pass."

Sandag directors also had other reasons for holding up the ballot question for a year.

"The public in November will be inundated with so many things, and this could get lost in the shuffle," said Ernie Cowan, Sandag board vice chairman and former mayor of Escondido.

Most members admitted the public relations blitz and broad coalition of business and community groups needed to pass the transit tax had not materialized.

"We have the public sector support, we have the cities and county on line, but we also need the business and environmental and all the other civic concerns on this issue," said Jean Carr, Sandag communications director. "People in this region are very aware of traffic problems, which are visible on a daily basis. . . . The board feels that people need to know more about how to control those problems."

A high-profile campaign was partly responsible for passage of a similar tax in Santa Clara County in November, 1984.

"It was a broad coalition that supported it and the people themselves saw the need," said Bob Halligan, Caltrans South Bay public affairs officer. "They were very aware that if they wanted to keep their electronics firms down there, they had to get their people to and from work."

Another key in Santa Clara County was specifying on the ballot three roads that were to be funded. Officials said Orange County lost its June, 1984, campaign for a transportation tax by more than a 3-1 margin because of vagueness, and earlier open-ended fuel tax proposals--including one in San Diego in 1982--also lost.

"The trick in Santa Clara was, and I guess they learned their lesson from Orange County, that they specified exactly what they were getting for their money," said Halligan. "They weren't just getting a pig in a poke."

Sandag is revising a menu of transportation projects the tax would fund, and will probably propose that a third of the tax go to freeways, a third to local roads, and a third to trolley extensions and express bus service. Added onto the current 6% sales tax, the 1/2 percent tax would bring in about $2.4 billion in the next 20 years.

Among the favored county projects are extension of State Route 52 eastward, extension of State Route 54 westward to the ocean and widening routes 78 and 76.

If passed, the transportation tax will be administered by Sandag's board of directors, under the title San Diego County Regional Transportation Commission. Sandag is an agency run by representatives from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and from each of 17 cities in the county. Contra Costa, Alameda and Fresno counties also have been cleared to vote on a transportation sales tax.

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