COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JIM SCHMIDT

A 'no' vote on the Coronado tunnel idea can have popular solutions

The city of Coronado, placed on the June ballot as Proposition H, to vote "yes" or "no" on whether it should continue to fund a study to build a tunnel under Fourth Street from the west end of the bridge to the Naval Air Station North Island.

Opposition continues to mount and The San Diego Union-Tribune recently urged a "no" vote. If a "yes" vote continues the expensive study there is still no assurance that it can be built because of the funding needs, which last year were estimated to be in the $600 million range.

This writer was involved in the bridge as Gov. Reagan's appointee as chief deputy and assistant secretary of the Business and Transportation Agency and on the California Toll Bridge Authority (CTBA) after my return to San Diego. Reagan inherited a situation where the bridge had been approved when Brown was the CTBA chairman, just after Reagan defeated Brown in November 1966. The bonds were sold and the bridge was a "done deal" with a lot of problems to correct when Reagan took office in January 1967. It was very difficult with a lot of surprises but we solved the financial problems and the bridge was built and opened in 1969. Reagan and his CTBA set in place a plan to make the bridge toll free, but the city of Coronado led the way to keep the tolls after the bond debt was paid off in 1986.

Last year there were writings and public comments that the probable source of funding for the tunnel would be bringing back the bridge tolls, which were ended by SANDAG in 2001. Information that the tolls would probably be $5 each way was not well received. This year the idea of tolls has not been discussed because of its negative reception. At meetings at the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and the Taxpayers Association that I have attended the idea of funding was directed as primarily federal and state funding instead of bridge tolls.

In San Diego we are facing a shortage of transportation funding for two reasons. First, it is easy to divert state sources of transportation funding like sales taxes on gasoline to other uses. Second, federal funding is a key part of our funding as well and with the Washington deficit situation you can't count on anything. Also, a tunnel would certainly not be a good competitor for local transportation funding with the many major and badly-needed projects in San Diego.

Readers should think about important priority projects that are badly needed in their areas like South County, North County coastal/inland and East County. The tunnel would have a low priority so the issuance of bonds with bridge tolls would be the probable financing that Coronado would have to seek.

Commuters, including Navy, civilian workers at the base, hotel workers and others going to work using on the bridge would be hurt badly with a $50 a week toll cost. A $10 toll for travelers would hurt small businesses, restaurants in Coronado and the four large hotels, which attract many events/conventions. Also, many San Diego area based organizations that use hotels like the Hotel Del or the Loews Resort for their annual and other events could move away because of the tolls.

If Prop H is turned down, what are some solutions? Some things that will be looked at will be to add one traffic lane on Third and Fourth (three to four lanes), more park and ride plans and ferries for commuters to the Navy Base, from other both public and Navy locations. It also should be understood that the traffic flows fairly well through Coronado. The worst problem is occasionally when the traffic on I-5 from the north and south is congested to be able to get on the bridge from the San Diego side.

Another concern on the use of municipal bonds funded by bridge tolls is the risk of issuing the bonds. Who would issue the bonds with the need for a $5 each way toll? Consider the current situation with the SR-125 toll road going into bankruptcy. Bond investors could lose, particularly when you consider that in order to avoid paying the tolls many drivers would go through Imperial Beach to get to and from Coronado. When there was a $1 toll only going west to Coronado and "free" going east, some traffic took the Strand in the morning and used the free crossing in the evening. Also, would the Navy require use of a tunnel for drivers to the base?

In summary, let's hope Prop. H is turned down and a team effort is created to come up with traffic solutions that are feasible and can be funded with low costs. With SANDAG and CalTrans District 11 teaming up with the city of Coronado, good things can happen. The three of them could appoint a committee of local civic leaders to provide input and help them analyze the situation. The bottom line is that we want to and need to help Coronado and the commuters. So, let's be positive and have a team effort to go all out and make less expensive traffic relief alternatives happen.


Schmidt is a retired banker and attorney who is active with the chamber of commerce and in civic affairs in transportation, housing and sports. He also serves on two public boards and was Gov. Reagan's appointee to three positions in state government.

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Coronado Councilwoman Carrie Downey 12:49pm May 12, 2010

The Bridge was built to get commuters from the freeway to North Island. It was supposed to end at North Island. The height of the bridge required too great an impact on the San Diego side causing the alignment change to place the traffic on what are now the BUSIEST residential streets in the county. Citing a toll study that discussed how much could be raised as proof someone has suggested tolls would be the sole funding source or what the amount would be, prevents honest dialogue.

Karen Finch 3:41pm May 11, 2010

Mr. Schmidt left out text of what Prop H specifically asks: Do you support the City continuing to use and seek federal, state & local funding to complete the study of long-term traffic relief options, including a tunnel, between the Coronado Bridge & Naval Air Station North Island? The project is about finishing the study of long-term traffic relief options between the Coronado bridge & NASNI, which examines the engineering, environmental and fiscal impacts of 9 different alternatives.