Next year is shaping up to be a crucial year for transportation in San Diego County.
A state board charged with backing infrastructure projects decided Dec. 17 to freeze $3.8 billion in public works funding; the new presidential administration is pushing high-speed rail and an infrastructure stimulus plan; uncertainty surrounding fuel prices; and mass transit getting significantly less in state funding are among the factors that local leaders are dealing with.
“We all know the state’s facing a large budget problem. The one ray of hope we have here is that the federal economic stimulus plan will get these projects moving in 2009,” said Ruben Barrales, CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
President-elect Barack Obama said Dec. 6 that he planned a major public works construction plan that would fund private, ready-to-go projects.
While opinions vary on which projects will take priority if federal funds become available, the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, completed its economic stimulus proposal Dec. 5. The report details the highway, transit, local transportation and public works projects that could be ready for construction within a year, grouped by those ready now, in six months, and 12 months.
The cost for the immediate projects totals $2.3 billion, while the proposal estimates all 1,043 projects at $7.4 billion. These projects will boost the local economy, Sandag claims, by creating 96,000 jobs that receive more than $5 billion in wages and raising the region’s gross metropolitan product by more than $12 billion.
Next year will also see decisions made regarding the nation’s venture into high-speed rail transportation and California’s proposed system.
In November, California voters approved a bond measure for $10 billion to begin development of an 800-mile high-speed rail system connecting major cities from the Bay Area to San Diego. But with the system costing an estimated $45 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the project will need more private and federal funding to get off the ground.
On Dec. 15, the U.S. Department of Transportation officially requested proposals to develop 11 high-speed rail corridors, due in September. Winning proposals will get $5 million in federal funding.
For the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, 2009 will be a mixed bag of opportunities and disappointments, CEO Paul Jablonski says. MTS is the region’s major transit operator and runs the San Diego Trolley. Operating costs run about $213 million, and it serves 86 million riders annually, according to its Web site.
“One of the big things as far as an outlook goes is that we’re going to have significant budget problems,” Jablonski said.
Sales tax revenues are down, a major source of funding for MTS, but more importantly, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a proposal to discontinue the state transit assistance, or STA, program in 2009. If this happens, MTS will have to make up $17 million.
“For the first quarter of next year, we will be focused on what services we will probably have to eliminate to balance our budget,” Jablonski said.
However, it’s not all bad news.
MTS had nearly 94 million riders this year, a 5 percent increase over last year, said Jablonski, citing high gas prices as the reason for the increase.
The North County Transit District, which operates the Breeze buses and Coaster and Sprinter trains, also is concerned with the possible elimination of the STA in 2009, despite ridership increasing 23 percent this fiscal year, spokesman Tom Kelleher says.
According to Kelleher, the STA funds that the NCTD receives for this year’s fiscal budget could be reduced by $3 million, and if the program is eliminated next year, the hit would be $6.5 million in fiscal year 2010. Additionally, NCTD could end up receiving $2 million less in sales tax-related funding this fiscal year due to the poor economy.
NCTD’s current annual operating budget is $91.7 million.
The state Department of Transportation plans to finish work on the Lomas Santa Fe Drive interchange on Interstate 5 in Solana Beach and a 3.5-mile segment of the Interstate 15 express lanes, extending from Rancho Bernardo Road to Centre Cite Parkway in Escondido, in early 2009, says Pedro Orso-Delgado, Caltrans’ San Diego and Imperial counties director.
For fiscal year 2008, ending in October, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, which runs between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, carried some 3 million passengers with ticket revenue of $51 million. This was a 7 percent increase in ridership and a 9 percent increase in revenue.
Contributing to San Diego’s mass transit ridership this past year has been fuel conditions, an integral indication of where local transportation is headed in 2009. Gas prices, locally and nationally, skyrocketed earlier this year, before dropping to lows not seen in nearly five years.
Jeffrey Spring, spokesman at the Automobile Club of Southern California, said: “It doesn’t take much to change it around. The soft economy here and around the world has really taken the floor out. We would expect (low gas prices) to happen through to the first of the year, but after that we just don’t know.”