The Coast News Group
North County Transit District and San Diego Metropolitan Transit System are looking for solutions to a 40% drop in operating funds from TransNet taxes. Photo via Facebook/NCTD
North County Transit District and San Diego Metropolitan Transit System are looking for solutions to a 40% drop in operating funds from TransNet taxes. Photo via Facebook/NCTD

SANDAG grapples with budget deficits for regional transit agencies

REGION — The region’s two transit agencies are facing budget shortfalls impacting operations, according to the San Diego Association of Governments’ board of directors.

During its Nov. 19 meeting, the metropolitan planning board battled over funding proposals and voting procedures, while admitting the agency has known for years both the North County Transit District, or NCTD, and San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, or MTS, are dealing with a projected 40% drop in operating funds from TransNet taxes through 2048.

The board also discussed amending the TransNet ordinance, which was a half-cent tax passed by voters in 2004, to eliminate some road and highway projects, scale down others and invest more in transit and less on roads, according to the staff presentation.

A fund allocating 8.1% of revenues to the transit agencies is forcing the SANDAG board to reconcile budget deficits, said SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata.

“There is not enough money to do all the things we initially said we wanted to do,” Ikhrata said. “There is not enough money for the 8.1% to get us through 2048. This was presented back in 2016.”

As for the regional transit agencies, NCTD, MTS and SANDAG will have to work together to find a solution to the operating shortfalls, said Ariana zur Neiden, an analyst for SANDAG.

Ikhrata said the 8.1% fund is only generating half of the earnings previously projected by SANDAG. According to Ikhrata, life has changed and so priorities change with it, which means more investment into transit.

Under the current form of funding, there is a 70-30 split, which states 70% will be spent on congestion relief and 30% for maintenance projects. However, if the board opts to reverse course and change the ordinance, much more money will pour into transit.

Also, the board is set to vote on the 2021 Regional Plan, otherwise known as the 5 Big Moves, on Dec. 10. The cost for the plan is $265 billion, although many on the board are calling into question a proposed mileage tax, two half-cent sales tax increases in 2022 and 2024, along with making transit free for all in 2030, which would trim an estimated $18 billion to $24 billion from the plan’s funding.

All of this comes on top of NCTD’s and MTS’ budget shortfalls where the SANDAG board is now trying to come up with funding solutions.

NCTD Board Chair Tony Kranz also raised concerns with the amendments, saying the agency just bought two new locomotives and SANDAG has committed to buying five new train sets. Also, cuts to service would not be in alignment with NCTD’s short- and long-term plans, he said.

“Given that our entire plan is based around transit … I think this is a huge priority that we find a way to fund our transit agencies’ operating budgets,” Solana Beach Mayor Leesa Heebner said. “What is the point of flexible fleets without transit?”

Sharon Cooney, chief executive officer of MTS, said the board must take a more comprehensive look at the proposals before acting. Cooney said SANDAG will be increasing expenditures in at least one pot for the bicycle plan and it will “delete the funding for every other program within the TransNet ordinance expenditure plan.”

Also, adding flexible fleets and intelligent transportation system infrastructure will trigger the 8.1% operations funds and could also become eligible for funding, making less available for other projects.

“How will they trickle down into other programs?” Cooney asked. “Are there other sources of funding (for flexible fleets) rather than deleting bus, rapid transit or trolley service in order to accommodate micro-mobility?”

The board also debated about activating the weighted voting system, which gives a proportional vote to each city based on population. San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones criticized the system, which all but allows the county and cities of San Diego and Chula Vista, which combined carry two-thirds of the board’s voting power, to pass any measure they want.

Jones said it alienates voters and cities by taking away those voices and allowing just three municipalities to control the board.

Jack Shu, a councilman in Lemon Grove, said the weighted vote is fair and is needed to find ways to increase funding.

“By giving small cities an equal voice just wouldn’t be a democratic process,” Shu told the board. “We have to look at other ways to fund. We saw this coming. We knew years ago TransNet wasn’t performing.”