A key part of the state’s 2017 gas tax increase aimed at fixing local roads has generated more than $125 million for the San Diego region, but most of the money remains unspent.

Records obtained by inewsource show only about $50 million of the gas tax money from the Local Streets and Roads program had been spent through the middle of last year. Those are the latest figures available from the California Transportation Commission, which tracks that spending.

Why this matters

A 2017 gas tax increase narrowly passed California’s Legislature and was the target of an unsuccessful GOP repeal effort in 2018. The tax revenue represents significant new money to help improve local roads.

Officials in some cities said the delay in spending has been deliberate. With this influx of new money, they wanted to make sure their design and bidding processes were fair and well-planned.

“There is a lag time,” Chula Vista City Engineer Bill Valle said, but added there haven’t been “any hiccups or problems.”

“I always wish we could deliver projects faster,” he said.

The state shows Chula Vista spent about $1.6 million of the $6.5 million in gas tax money it received under the program — or about 25%. Some of the funds went for paving projects on Bay Boulevard, East Palomar Street and C Street. Since last June, the city has contracted for about $90,000 of additional work but not yet spent the money, an official said.

Funding for the program, which is aimed at basic repairs such as filling potholes, repainting lanes and bringing sidewalks up to code, is distributed to cities based on population. County funds are based on vehicle fees and roadway miles.

Only one city, Del Mar, had spent all of its gas tax money: $104,400. Coronado, on the other hand, had not spent any of the nearly $598,000 it had received.

San Diego had spent 53% of its $34.3 million, while San Diego County had spent 29% of the $57.7 million it had received.

The long path to improving San Diego’s roads

Even before the Legislature narrowly passed the gas tax increase, Californians paid gas prices well above the national average. Then, under Senate Bill 1, the gas tax increased by 12 cents a gallon and in July will be adjusted for inflation. The legislation also increased vehicle registration fees.

Current gas prices in California are second only to Hawaii, according to AAA. In San Diego, the average is $3.56 a gallon.

SB 1 was a significant win for former Gov. Jerry Brown during his final term in office. Republican lawmakers fiercely fought Brown and a coalition of Democrats who held a supermajority in the Legislature when the gas tax bill passed in 2017.

Among the Democrats behind SB 1 were two prominent San Diego lawmakers: state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, who is seeking re-election in the March primary but running unopposed, and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, now running for San Diego mayor. After multiple requests from inewsource, neither gave an interview for this story.

When the measure passed, San Diego became homebase for a statewide Republican-led effort to repeal the gas tax. Carl DeMaio spearheaded it and remains critical of spending under the legislation.

“Are the roads getting better? No. Are the potholes getting filled? No,” said DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman now running for Congress in the 50th District.

“When you see the actual deterioration of our roads, you see the worsening of our congestion, that is the reality. And no amount of spin from government bureaucracies is going to change it,” DeMaio said.

The repeal measure failed, with 57% of the state’s voters rejecting it. The majority of voters in most coastal counties, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, were opposed to it. That wasn’t true in San Diego County, where 53% of the voters backed the repeal.

DeMaio said he wants to try again to repeal SB 1 and is targeting a second statewide ballot measure for 2022. He also has plans for a potential local ballot measure in November that would put more requirements on overall spending by the San Diego Association of Governments, which oversees regional transportation planning.

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What else has gas tax funded in San Diego County?

To see more SB 1 projects in the San Diego area click here.

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Meanwhile, money from SB 1 continues to roll in – an additional $86.4 million has been allocated to San Diego County and its 18 cities for the current fiscal year under the local streets program. Spending reports for that money are due in October.

Some cities told inewsource they have spent more of the gas tax money in recent months.

In Imperial Beach, where state records showed just 24% of the funds had been used, city officials said the spending has since sped up. The city has now spent all of its funding for the past two fiscal years, nearly $678,000, Public Works Director Eric Minicilli said.

“There’s a lot of billing that’s happening as we speak, and our contractor carries on and does work,” Minicilli said.

The funding in Imperial Beach has gone toward a large scale project to improve Imperial Boulevard. The project includes underground utility repairs and added bike lanes and medians.

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How much has each city spent so far?

To see a breakdown of spending by all 18 cities and San Diego County for the Local Streets and Roads program, click here.

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In El Cajon, the records showed just 25% of the funds had been spent. Public Works Director Dirk Epperson acknowledged the city’s slower pace of spending and said it has picked up since the reports were submitted to the state last year. So far, about 86% of the gas tax money has been spent, he said.

Construction work takes place on the Imperial Beach Boulevard Enhancement Project, which is partially funded with money from the gas tax, Jan. 30, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“We took some time to develop a new program,” he said, explaining the city strategized how to use the money most efficiently and get a good contractor on board before spending funds. El Cajon received about $2.5 million for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Before receiving the SB 1 program funding, El Cajon was falling behind on road maintenance, Epperson said. The new gas tax has fast tracked pavement repairs on highly deteriorated streets, he said.

“It’s probably doubled what we’re spending annually on road maintenance,” Epperson said.

Gas tax going for carpool lanes, transit and more

For the state’s counties, Los Angeles and San Diego received the largest amounts of gas tax funds in the state under the Local Streets and Roads program. It was the same for cities, with Los Angeles and San Diego coming in first and second.

SB 1 revenues also pay for several other programs – and the payment flowchart is extremely complex. For the San Diego region, the local streets program makes up roughly 30% of all SB 1 funding, said José Nuncio, a SANDAG department director who oversees financial plans for the gas tax.

Despite the lags in the local streets program, Nuncio said he believes the gas tax increase has boosted the overall pace of construction in the county, Nuncio said.

A road sign directs motorists away from ongoing construction on the Imperial Beach Boulevard Enhancement Project, which is partially funded with money from the gas tax, Jan. 30, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“If you look at the projects that are being built across the San Diego region, I think that people would agree that some of the greatest needs are being addressed,” he said.

In addition to the local streets program, SB 1 is funding carpool lanes under construction on Interstate 5 near Carlsbad and upcoming transit and bike lane projects.

Some transportation policy experts believe the legislation is providing crucial funding, given the dire state of California’s roads.

“It is a short-term fix that was absolutely necessary,” said Martin Wachs, professor emeritus of urban planning at UCLA.

But as fuel mileage rates increase and more people drive electric vehicles that don’t use gas and don’t pay the tax, different solutions will be necessary, he said.

“We’ll be selling less gasoline in relation to the driving that we do as years go by,” he said.

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Correction: Feb. 6, 2020
An earlier version of this story had the wrong last name in two references for El Cajon Public Works Director Dirk Epperson.

Mary Plummer is an investigative reporter at inewsource who covers infrastructure and government accountability stories. She’s been a reporter, editor and radio producer in Southern California for more than 10 years. Her reporting has ranged from major breaking news, such as covering some of...