Perhaps the biggest long-term financial decision faced by the city of Coronado in many years is the question of Relinquishment. The broad brush details include Caltrans, the State of California’s Transportation Agency would pay the city $16.95 million to repair State Route 282 or Third and Fourth Streets west of Orange Avenue; State Route 75 from the Toll Plaza to Tulagi Road; and State Route 75 from Tulagi Road to the southern City Limit with Imperial Beach, to adequate levels. The city of Coronado would then take over all operations of highways. The deal would be in perpetuity, the highways could not be returned to State control and turning the highways over to Coronado would require legislative action at the state level.
There’s a lot more to Relinquishment than that. There is past history which could charitably be described as ‘fractious,’ and there is a very real fear of the unknown. The financial risk cannot be quantified at this time, and information gathering is just now underway.
Early discussions on Relinquishment have found Councilmembers Bill Sandke and Mike Donovan on opposite ends of the thought spectrum on the issue, at least during council discussions on the topic. Over the weekend, both were interviewed and asked the same nine questions in separate phone calls. In many instances, their thoughts were similar and in a couple of cases, identical. Just for ease of reference, we’ll quote Donovan first, then Sandke.
The first question was, ‘What are the areas of greatest benefit to the city and citizens of Coronado for Relinquishment?
Donovan - The benefits we’re looking for are to take control of the streets, that would allow us to do some things we would like to do that either are not allowed by Caltrans or that we have to go through a lot of approval processes that are set by Caltrans. The highways in Coronado aren’t their typical highways. They are used to high speed highways like the Silver Strand. The point is our residential highways, Third, Fourth and Orange doesn’t fit into their model and it’s harder to get things done. One benefit of taking control would be that it would be easier for us to make changes on the streets if we wanted to.
Sandke- Local control gives responsiveness to residents, which is the most important part of it. Fundamentally, that’s what I think. As far as the Business District is concerned, the encroachment process goes away, and we have the ability to control what happens in our Downtown. In the residential areas of Third and Fourth Streets we have significant opportunities to increase safety and return a residential quality of life to those areas without state interference. Basically, those are the two areas to think about, the Business District and the Residential Area.
Question No. 2 dealt with the detriments to Relinquishment.
Donovan- Well, the downside would be the cost. The obvious ones are the costs of maintenance and operations of taking ownership of these streets. I have major concerns. At this point I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. I have to know what we can and cannot do. My primary concerns are, who are the outside stakeholders who would have a say? Then, also what are the other influencers, like state law, that would maybe not allow us to do certain things? And again the decision has to be what are the benefits? Then there is the concern relating to the other liabilities besides maintenance and operations. What I advocated for at the council meeting, was for a study of the lawsuits for the last 10 years on the streets, Caltrans’ payout in damages, and the costs for legal fees and activities. Also from an engineering standpoint, they have given us numbers of annual maintenance costs. During that same period of time, streets have degraded into poor condition. Lastly, if they give us money to bring the streets to good condition, we would still have to manage all the work, find contractors, evaluate them and that has a cost as well. Then there are additional street engineers we would have to add and that cost. We need to understand what all of those different liabilities are versus what the benefits are going to be.
Sandke- Certainly there will be increased local costs with Coronado maintaining the roadways. But there are significant portions of the costs that could be offset through state transportation funding, along with the dollar amount of the Relinquishment agreement. The State of California has several programs available and Transnet is certainly an option. So cost and a second important consideration is liability. A Caltrans report about two years ago indicated their five-year financial liability for the roadways in question was about $260,000 total for that period, which included a tragic pedestrian death. That liability is a significant concern.
Question No. 3 dealt with the fact that Relinquishment at this stage comes in three segments, with Coronado apparently able to select which areas, if any, appeal to them.
Donovan- My view is that at this point there are two options. To take all of it or just take the Third, Fourth and Orange Avenue portions and not take the Strand. Those trade-offs would have to be evaluated, but those are the two options.
Sandke- Coronado’s ability to maintain local streets and roads are greater than a freeway like the Silver Strand. My preference would be SR 75 from NAB to the Bridge and SR 282, or just two of the three sections.
Question No. 4 was if either councilmember thought there was flexibility in the initial Caltrans offer of $16.95 million to the city of Coronado.
Donovan- It would certainly be a negotiating point. One of the things we need to find out in the engineering study (which the council has already commissioned) is to verify the true status of the streets to see if they are in good condition. If a third party contractor brings back a higher number, that would be a strong negotiating factor on our side. That is one of the exact reasons why we want to get a third party view and a second opinion.
Sandke- The legislation is very clear. The process is a negotiation. Fundamentally built into the process should be some flexibility on the part of Caltrans.
Question No. 5 was a 1-10 assessment of the collective state of the roads in question, with 10 being the top score. To save space and since both answers were identical, we’ll just say that Donovan and Sandke both replied, “Between a four and a five.”
Question No. 6 was regarding the Navy’s possible role in the Relinquishment process.
Donovan- I wouldn’t expect the Navy to be overly involved, but they will be watching very closely. If they see something that would alarm them regarding the future use of the streets, they would let the city know and if they still had major concerns they would elevate that to the higher levels of the Navy and influence that more than we realize. I would say the city understands the concerns they have, so I would expect they would trust us to do the right thing. If we miss something, I have no doubt in my mind they would insert themselves if they thought it was necessary.
Sandke- The Navy’s first comments in the process have been a little worrisome. We clearly understand the importance of access to the national security facilities that we are lucky enough to call neighbors.
Question 7 again found agreement between both Councilmembers that the $40,000 study they and the rest of the council commissioned, to be conducted by Dr. Lynn Reaser, Chief Economist of the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute at Point Loma Nazarene University was a good decision. Donovan said of Reaser, “She has an excellent reputation in San Diego County, and she has done numerous studies regarding the military and traffic. I personally am fully convinced we will get a good study from her and her team.” Sandke added, “I’m comfortable with the approach the city manager has taken on this. And I also like that our studies are broken into two portions, the economic as well as the engineering sides.”
Question 8 addressed the matter of public outreach on the Relinquishment, which was not directly discussed in the last city council meeting, mainly because it wasn’t part of the agendized item. Both councilmembers were in agreement that public input would be forthcoming.
Donovan- Yes, absolutely. We definitely will have some public forums and get feedback from the community before we make the decision. This is the biggest decision the council will make in the next 5-10 years. If we take these street over, its forever. It’s an extremely important decision. It is going to affect Coronado for the rest of history.
Sandke- I am confident that we will have a robust and complete process of outreach and public engagement. At one point I suggested a ballot measure on Relinquishment, but the timing wasn’t right, and the information wasn’t available for the public to make a sound decision. I hope it’s clear my position is that I respect the public’s thoughts.
Question 9 was the opportunity for any final thoughts relating to Relinquishment.
Donovan- This is the biggest decision we going to make, and it could affect future councils and the future of Coronado in a big way. We need to understand everything going in so we can make a very informed decision.
Sandke- The final page of the State’s report indicated the offer made to Coronado was a good deal for the State of California. If the State repaired the roads, it would have cost them $23 million (as opposed to $16.95 million). My final thought is we need to make sure this is a good deal for the City of Coronado and not just for the State of California.