In the News
By Deborah Sullivan Brennan
San Diego — San Diego’s border, roads and beaches could benefit from the massive infrastructure proposals working their way through Congress, local lawmakers said as they recently described their priorities for the federal spending plans.
The legislation could help renovate key parts of the region’s aging infrastructure, they said, everything from designing a new border crossing at Otay Mesa, to shoring up crumbling coastal cliffs and strengthening wildfire defenses.
Democrats also are pushing to boost funding for childcare, education and elder services, saying those systems form a kind of human infrastructure necessary for the economy to flourish.
The legislation is proceeding on separate, parallel tracks. The House of Representatives earlier this month approved the $715 billion INVEST in America Act, which would fund transportation and some water improvements, including at least a dozen projects in San Diego County.
Meanwhile a bipartisan group of senators is drawing up a separate, $1 trillion package of highway improvements and water systems and other public works projects, including $579 billion in new spending. Republican senators Wednesday blocked a vote on the bill, arguing for time to hash out its provisions and funding. The Senate is expected to vote on it next week.
Democrats also are pursuing a third path, which could allocate $3.5 trillion more to fight climate change, preserve the child tax credit and expand healthcare. Democrats expect to pursue it through a process called budget reconciliation, which would allow them to pass it with a simple majority. Republicans object that the package is too expensive and would fund measures such as Medicare expansion and alternative energy projects that they don’t want to bankrolll.
Although the various packages are still works in progress, local legislators discussed the biggest items on their agendas.
Under the House bill, North County Transit District would receive $1.7 million for a hydrogen fueling station in Oceanside — in the district of Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano — that could fuel up to 50 electric buses.
Levin also is advocating for national funding to switch the country to carbon-free energy by 2035. He led a letter to President Joe Biden signed by 133 representatives which details improvements needed to reach carbon zero.
“Complementary policies such as a clean energy and energy efficiency standards, major electric vehicle purchasing, charging infrastructure, manufacturing incentives, and bolstering clean energy research and development are also crucial to this goal,” the representatives stated.
The letter also calls for creating jobs in the clean energy sector, cleaning up communities harmed by pollution, restoring ecologically damaged lands and replacing lead pipes in water systems.
Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, introduced a bill In March called the POWER ON Act that he hopes will become part of the infrastructure package. It would update energy policy to expand interstate power transmission, allowing wind farms in central states to sell energy to populous areas elsewhere.
“It’s a big problem that we have whole regions of the country that can’t access the renewable energy that’s created in the middle of the country,” said Peters’ Chief of Staff Mary Anne Pintar. “That would be a big step for climate resiliency if we can get that energy to places that don’t have it.”
Peters also is pressing for investments to protect the electrical grid against climate hazards and cyberattacks, “so that we don’t have outages similar to what we saw in Texas,” Pintar said.
In April Peters submitted a bill titled the REPAIR Act that would create an independent bank to promote private investment in public infrastructure. He hopes to include that in the bipartisan package.
Wildfire, Water and Climate
As climbing temperatures leave California hotter and drier, the state needs to step up defenses against catastrophic wildfires, representatives said.
“This infrastructure package invests in electric grid and community resilience to wildfires,” Peters said in a statement. “The wildfires we saw in 2020 and in recent years are not an anomaly. We will continue seeing more severe and destructive wildfires if we don’t combat them with significant resources and a comprehensive federal plan.”
Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, said protection measures must include modernizing utilities to prevent fire risk, adding fire fighting aircraft and other equipment, and building new fire stations in the backcountry.
“We have to build more facilities out there for CAL FIRE for national parks and state parks,” he said. “We’re going to need to have much more defense against these wildfires. It used to be a shortened wildfire season, but now wildfire season is all year because of drought and because of climate change.”
The House package also includes language that allows the federal Environmental Protection Agency to work with the United States and Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission to reduce sewage pollution in the Tijuana River Valley.
Vargas said there’s $300 million previously allocated for the Tijuana River, but he is hoping to secure additional funds for those cleanup efforts in the infrastructure packages. He’s also requesting money for cleanup of the New River, another local waterway contaminated by cross-border pollution.
Childcare, Education and Social Services
Along with investments in roads and bridges, Democrats want funding for what some call the “care economy,” including child and elder care, health services and education.
Though less tangible than buildings or bridges, these support structures are needed for a well functioning economy, they say.
“While I’m glad there’s been progress on an infrastructure bill in the Senate, I’m going to keep working for a bill that delivers what my constituents need, and helps us build the economy of the future,” Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-San Diego, said in a statement. “That especially means investing in the care economy, which even before this pandemic was inaccessible for too many families and kept too many providers living in poverty.”
The majority of funding for those goals will likely be included in the $3.5 trillion package, but Jacobs said she added childcare, library and other improvements to the House infrastructure bill as well.
That includes $500,000 for an outdoor children’s area and homework center at Linda Vista Branch Library, $1 million for a multimedia IDEA LAB and performance annex at the City Heights/Weingart Library, disabled access improvements at the Balboa Park Starlight Bowl and $1 million to help small businesses cover the costs of expanding childcare.
Levin’s office said he secured $2.45 million for construction of a 50-bed homeless shelter in Oceanside that would offer housing, healthcare and job placement services. He also earmarked $150,000 for the Oceanside Museum of Art and to promote reading comprehension through art and literature for children.
Transportation and coastal erosion
Roads and transit make up the largest piece of the INVEST in America Act passed in the House earlier this month. San Diego is expected to get $97 million if that bill is signed.
The biggest ticket item is $25 million slated for design and environmental review for the San Diego Association of Governments’ Central Mobility Hub project.
Other items include $5.6 million to build protected bike lanes in downtown San Diego and $8 million to reroute truck traffic from Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal and National City Marine Terminal, to avoid residential neighborhoods in Barrio Logan and National City, which have long endured high air pollution levels.
“Trying to get trucks to not drive through the neighborhood, but keep them on a truck route that keeps them away from these communities, is a matter of environmental justice,” Vargas said.
Vargas said he is coordinating with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Bonsall, on preparations for the East Port of Entry, planned for the border at Otay Mesa. They’re requesting $1.3 million for planning for the project, which will ultimately cost $24 million to $37 million.
Some of that construction money could also come from the infrastructure bills, but it would likely be available through competitive grants instead of specific earmarks, Vargas said.
In Levin’s district, the city of Carlsbad is slated to get $5 million for street lighting and traffic circles in the Barrio neighborhood. Levin said he also secured $12.5 million toward upgrades on the coastal rail corridor from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, which is threatened by bluff erosion on the stretch through Del Mar.
He also is pushing for $10 billion to help the Army Corps of Engineers advance a backlog of projects nationwide. If approved, that could cover efforts to secure North County coastal bluffs from further collapse. That could include $750,000 to study the effects of Camp Pendleton Harbor construction on Oceanside’s shoreline and beaches.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography could receive $800,000 for a new mobile LiDAR system, to conduct state-of-the-art monitoring of beach and bluff erosion across the region.
Vargas agreed that more funding is needed to defend coastal infrastructure from sea level rise, particularly around military installations. He said San Diego should look at alternatives to seawalls, which can hasten beach erosion by reducing sand sources.
“I’m somebody who does not like some of these walls,” Vargas said. “But at the same time we do have to prepare for climate change and climate crisis. We do have a lot of infrastructure tied with the military. We have to protect their infrastructure in case we have to go to war.”
The Senate is likely to take up its version of the bill next week, and Democratic leaders are pressing to wrap up the legislation before Congress recesses in August.