In a last-minute move that came as a welcome surprise to local officials, legislators Thursday sent Gov. George Deukmejian a bill restoring state funding for transit projects, including $8 million toward the 11-mile extension of the San Diego Trolley to El Cajon.
If Deukmejian signs the $35-million bill, which would be financed by a recent windfall from federal lawsuits against oil companies, 25 transit projects around the state could be assisted. But the biggest winners by far would be commuters and transit officials in San Diego County.
The Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB), which operates the trolley system, stands to gain $8 million for the East Line extension. In addition, the City of Chula Vista would get $981,000 for its new Bayfront trolley station and San Diego County would get $2 million in funding toward the planned Escondido Transit Center, state transportation officials said.
But the bill by Sen. Barry Keene (D-Benicia) provides no new funds for Amtrak’s San Diego-to-Los Angeles inter-city train or the $4.4-billion Metro Rail project in Los Angeles.
Citing a catastrophic drop in tax revenues as a result of lower gasoline prices, Deukmejian slashed $110 million in subsidies for far-ranging transit projects from his own budget in May. Legislators put $55 million back into their final version of the budget, but in June, Deukmejian vetoed that, too.
He said at the time that he would restore the funding if legislators approved a $300-million transfer of funds from the state employers pension fund. Lawmakers so far have balked at the pension fund transfer.
Backers of Keene’s bill expressed hope Thursday that Deukmejian would approve it, since the money would come from a special account that can only be used for transportation projects. But Deukmejian’s aides were vague about the governor’s reaction to the legislation. The money is from the state’s share of negotiated settlements between the federal government and oil companies for price-control violations between 1973 and 1981.
Keene’s bill surfaced this week, as legislators continued their extended session two weeks past its scheduled adjournment. It was one of several measures approved in recent weeks that seek to use $266 million added to the so-called Petroleum Violation Escrow Account (PVEA) this year.
The Assembly passed the bill, 65-to-1, on Monday. And, although several senators from rural areas complained that all the projects being restored were in urban areas, the Senate approved the measure Thursday by a 27-0 vote.
Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach), who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he opposed the measure because “there was not one single dime for Orange County” and because he believed it violates restrictions imposed on the PVEA money by courts and Congress.
Frizzelle said San Diego and Los Angeles counties have for years received a disproportionate share of state transportation funds at Orange County’s expense.
MTDB officials, who want to open the El Cajon extension of the East Line in 1989, said they were “uneasy but not panicked” when they learned earlier this year that some of the funding they were seeking was threatened by dwindling gasoline tax revenues.
The $87-million El Cajon extension, like the rest of trolley system, has been planned as “a no-frills project with a couple of extras,” MTDB spokeswoman Judy Leitner said.
She said transit officials are moving ahead with plans for a December ground breaking. But in light of Deukmejian’s vetoes earlier this year, Leitner said transit officials have considered standby cost-cutting plans, such as using single, instead of double, tracks along part of the route.
As with the El Cajon extension, state funding is only part of the financial package for the $5.2-million Bayfront trolley station in Chula Vista, scheduled to open in October, and for the $10-million “multimodal” transit center in Escondido, where trolley officials have long-range plans for a link with local and inter-city bus routes.
Legislative backers of Keene’s bill said they did not know if Deukmejian would sign the measure, or whether it would add a new twist to their funding tug-of-war with the governor.
Kevin Brett, deputy press secretary to Deukmejian, said the governor “supports each and every one” of the programs the lawmakers are seeking to restore. But he said many of them may be subject to line-item vetoes because lawmakers have sent him $280 million in spending proposals, but only $150 million in new funding.
“He is not going to go into the reserve,” Brett said.
Brett said Deukmejian may approve temporary funding for the transit projects and other programs, forcing the new Legislature to wrestle with money questions when it convenes in December.