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San Diego falling behind in infrastructure development

A state hearing in Chula Vista yesterday painted a picture of San Diego and Imperial Counties as a rapidly expanding region falling dangerously behind on infrastructure development. The Senate Committee on Transportation was in town to gather information on which projects should be included on a massive bond measure that will be on the ballot this year. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

Transportation planners turned out in force to describe the many highway projects that will need money, lots of money, in the coming years.

Southern California's freeways are being used more and more for freight that comes from across the border, and border traffic was a major topic of discussion. Armando Friere representing the Truckers Association said slow traffic and long border waits have made moving goods from Tijuana to Los Angeles a time consuming ordeal.

ARMANDO FRIERE: "You can very easily be looking at 14 to 18 hours to go 130 miles from T.J. to L.A. You cant keep drivers driving that long every day and so the infrastructure issues here, it's really, really bad.

The San Diego Association of Governments put out a study earlier this week showing the long border waits have resulted in $700 million in lost productivity for the State of California. Pedro Orso Delgado of Caltrans said for a new Port of Entry at Otay Mesa is in the planning stages and it will need connecting freeways. He says, trucks are already forced to drive along surface streets when they come through the existing Otay Mesa crossing, because highway 905 is not built.

ORSO DELGADO: "Right now big trucks are having to stop at signal light intersections accidents happen regularly in fact last week there was a terrible accident in this area with 21 individuals involved."

Talk of developing a rail system to take the pressure off the roads did not get an encouraging reception from Senator Dennis Hollingsworth of the senate transportation committee.

HOLLINGSWORTH: "I'm just saying if trucks are where its at now and where trucks are where its going to be it doesn't seem too wise to me to do when they don't have something to conjugate with that in Tijuana either."

Planners agreed more freight rail lines would make sense in Imperial County, where thousands of box cars of winter vegetables are shipped out to destinations around the nation. Imperial County Supervisor Victor Carillo said trucks used to take up one lane of their four lane highways.. now they take up two lanes and they are edging into the third!

Carillo also brought up the possibility that the San Diego airport could move to Imperial County. It is one of six remaining sites on the airport authorities list of alternatives.

CARILLO: "We want it and not only do we want the cargo airport, we also want the passenger airport. To make that a reality it would have to be coupled with a high speed rail and that would be maglev."

Back on the coast, San Diego's Port is also making major demands on the region's roads. Bill Hall of the Port District said San Diego is the nation's 4th largest automobile port, and moves cars across town to get to northbound freeways.

Cruise ships are another expanding enterprise, and one that creates air pollution when the ships are docked. Hall says the state should invest in a system called cold ironing, where the ships turn off their engines in port and plug into electrical sockets on the docks.

HALL: "You've got to have compatible plugs let's say so we can actually plug those ships in when they come along side."

This idea was warmly received by committee chair Senator Alan Lowethal, who said Alaska and Vancouver Canada are on board with the concept.

LOWENTHAL: "If we can do this and have a similar technology in all our ports throughout the west coast, we will really lead the planet, cause once we have this west coast strategy that will set the stage for Asia and for the rest of the world also."

One of the fears voiced by representatives from San Diego, Imperial and Riverside Counties was that legislators in Sacramento would make decisions on how to allocate the billions in infrastructure bond money, and impose it on the regions. Gary Gallegos of SANDAG pointed this out and committee chair Senator Lowenthal was quick to respond.

GALLEGOS: We prefer for the decisions to be made as part of the regional process and work there way up rather than top down where Sacramento tells us 'that's very important for us to hear today.'

It is still not clear how many billions of dollars in infrastructure bonds will be put to the voters this year. San Diego State Senator Denise Ducheny says however much ends up on the ballot, it wont satisfy the needs on the ground.

DUCHENY: "No matter what we do, we're going to have too little money for what's needed, so trying to understand everybody's different priorities, and what can we do and get the biggest bang for whatever bucks we can put there and obviously we're hear to make sure that San Diego and the border region get out fair share."

Past experience suggests bond measures have more chance of being approved by the voters if they contain specific language about which projects the money will fund. The timeline is short for all the competing interest groups to get their wish lists on the ballot.
Alison St John KPBS News.

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