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Tax hike to connect San Diego airport to transit fails to qualify for ballot. Or does it?

Efforts to connect transit to the San Diego airport and dramatically expand rail service across the region hit a major roadblock this week.

A proposed half-cent sales tax hike to fund those and other projects has failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, according to a document released Friday by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters.

A coalition of labor and environmental groups spearheaded the signature drive for a measure that, if passed by voters, would provide a down payment on a $160 billion transportation blueprint drafted by the San Diego Association of Governments. The plan was approved in December by SANDAG’s 21-member board of elected officials from around the region.

Pulling in the local funding would be crucial for capitalizing on the $1.2 trillion national stimulus bill approved by Congress last year, according to SANDAG officials. The agency’s plan calls for three half-cent sales tax increases by 2028, as well as so-called road charges on drivers.

However, proponents aren’t giving up hope just yet.

The campaign, dubbed Let’s Go! San Diego, has questioned the registrar’s count, saying the government agency is missing 22,990 signatures from its official tally. The group is led by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 569, and includes the local nonprofits Environmental Health Coalition and Climate Action Campaign.

“There’s a big discrepancy between what we turned in and what they counted,” said Dan Rottenstreich, spokesman for the campaign. “The question is what’s going on here? Is there a clerical issue with the registrar or did our petition gathering firm have some issue on their end?”

In response to questions, the registrar issued this statement to the Union-Tribune: “The Registrar of Voters is committed to fair and secure election processes and carefully conducted the count according to appropriate procedures. As part of the process, the law affords the proponents the right to review the petition once it has failed, as well as to discuss the disposition of the entirety of the petitions as they were submitted to the Registrar of Voters office by the proponent’s representative. Our office remains open and available to meet with the proponents.”

The county agency reported receiving by a May deadline 141,326 signatures, a 3 percent sample of which were counted. The number of projected valid signatures was 94,787, falling short of a needed 115,788 signatures, or 10 percent of countywide votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

Signatures are disqualified if they do not belong to registered San Diego County voters. Because the projected number of valid signatures was less than 95 percent of the required number of signatures, in this case 109,999, the registrar is not required to conduct a full count of the signatures.

Opponents celebrated the announcement. Republican leaders have blasted SANDAG’s vision and the proposed tax hike for shortchanging long-envisioned highway expansions in favor of public transit. They’ve also criticized the idea of imposing per-mile fees on drivers, which are expected to replace traditional fuel charges as gas-powered vehicles are phased out.

“The failure to qualify this massive tax hike just shows how wrong the proposal was from the get-go,” said Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego City Council member turned conservative talk-radio host. “How much special interest, union money was wasted on this?”

Supporters of the proposed tax increase vowed to try again in two years when the presidential election is expected to boost turnout and potentially favor such measures.

“We’re not giving up. We can wait until 2024,” said Nicole Capretz, founder and executive director of Climate Action Campaign.

The ballot proposal — named the San Diego County Improvement Measure for Traffic Relief, Infrastructure, and Safety Ordinance — also earmarked money to stabilize the train tracks atop the crumbling Del Mar bluffs and building a rail extension from South County to Kearny Mesa.

The ordinance also would have factored into a revised $4-billion plan recently released by SANDAG to connect transit users to the international airport in downtown San Diego. The idea is to build automated people-mover systems between the terminals and two locations, Santa Fe Depot and a 13-acre plot of land currently owned by the Port of San Diego, half a block from the Middletown trolley station.

In addition, the tax would’ve paid for a suite of road projects, such as highway maintenance and other upgrades on state Routes 56, 76, 78, 94 and 125, and Interstates 5, 8, 15 and 805. It would have also provided funding to improve wildfire evacuations on state Route 67.

The broader SANDAG plan, which reimagines much of the region by 2050, calls for building a 200-mile commuter rail system stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to downtown San Diego, El Cajon and Oceanside. It includes two massive transit stations, including potentially in downtown San Diego and San Ysidro.



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