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Is I-5 Expansion An Environmental Disaster?

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We've heard from SanDag and CalTrans. Today, we find out what environmentalists think of the proposed 1-5 expansion's impact on land-use, energy and air quality in San Diego County.

Public Events

I-5 expansion town hall meeting

Sponsors: CAFÉ and PLAGUE, organizations opposed to expansion

When: Thursday, 7- 9 p.m.

Where: Solana Beach Presbyterian Church Debin Hall

Two More CalTrans Workshops scheduled:

Tuesday, Aug. 24: Solana Beach, Skyline Elementary School, Activity Room

606 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. Solana Beach, CA 92075, 5 to 8 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 9: Oceanside High School, Multipurpose Room

1 Pirates Cove, Oceanside, CA 92054, 5 to 8 p.m.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The second Caltrans meeting to gather public input on the proposed Interstate 5 expansion was held in Carlsbad last night. People are being introduced to proposals to build express lanes in the middle of I-5 and increase traffic lanes along a 30 mile stretch of freeway from La Jolla Village Drive to Oceanside. The project will cost between three and a half and four and a half billion dollars. In June, we had the I-5 corridor director for Caltrans and a SANDAG representative on this show to explain the program. Since that time, some organized opposition to the plan has taken shape, and the first town hall meeting organized by that opposition takes place tomorrow. I'd like to welcome my guests, who will be a featured speaker at that town hall meeting. Duncan McFetridge is executive director of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and founder of transitsandiego.org. Duncan, welcome to the show.

DUNCAN MCFETRIDGE (Executive Director, Cleveland National Forest Foundation): Good morning, Maureen. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Also here with us is Pamela Epstein. She is an attorney with the Sierra Club and the organization called CREED, Citizens for Responsible and Equitable Environmental Development. Pamela, good morning.

PAMELA EPSTEIN (Attorney, Sierra Club): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think the I-5 expansion will eventually make your commute easier or do you think this may be the time for a big change in San Diego’s transportation goals? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Duncan, as I say, we heard Caltrans and SANDAG describe the plan to expand I-5 and why they think we need this expansion. We will – we’ll go into the conversation about that a little bit but how would you describe this plan from your point of view?

MCFETRIDGE: Well, I’ll respond just with the question you raised here to start the program. A time of change? Caltrans and SANDAG, the authority for this project, have not given us a good reason for this project at all. And if there’s one subject that is of importance to all of San Diego, it is transportation and land use. And the backdrop here, think about it, Maureen. We’re in a time of unprecedented challenge, economic challenge, job loss challenge, environmental challenge, energy, you know, water use. This project is exactly the wrong project for these challenging times.

CAVANAUGH: Now what do you do about what Caltrans says is this immense increase in the amount of traffic that is going to occur in that area in the next 20 to 50 years?

MCFETRIDGE: Well, there’s an answer to that, too, because we could mention Los Angeles. And isn’t it interesting how we keep doing the same thing and expect different results? We’ve been building freeways and you know what they do? There’s a slow – SANDAG – and everyone listening to the program now, they might even be stuck in traffic and they may have passed by a sign that said, your tax dollars for congestion relief. Building freeways actually produces congestion. So this plan is not for anything, it’s for, they claim, congestion relief but the evidence is overwhelming that it produces congestion. So we will literally have 14 lanes of a parking lot after they build this thing.

CAVANAUGH: We’re – I’m talking with Duncan McFetridge. He is the executive director of transitsandiego.org and a featured speaker at a town hall meeting in opposition to Caltrans’ plan to expand I-5 in the North County. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 if you’d like to join the conversation. Tell me, Duncan, what – from your point of view, how does the expansion of I-5, how will that impact the surrounding communities?

MCFETRIDGE: Well, this is very important. My partner here, Pamela, is going to talk about the environmental impacts but you know what’s not being talked about here? And I just alluded to it, is the land use and impacts off the freeway. Where are the people coming from, these millions of trips, where are they coming from? Where are they going to? The impacts to the city of San Diego, the arrival point of a lot of these trips, will be absolutely horrendous. You’ll have an economic gridlock in the city of San Diego, for example. This book here, the Downtown Complete Mobility Plan, actually details that. So the whole point of transportation, providing transportation for a community, is to lessen trip length, to make – And we’re arguing for transit, investing in transit, so that makes building in the center city possible without traffic impacts. Now this project is more of the same with no transit solution whatsoever, so we think this is a monumental mistake, wrong project, wrong time, for all the wrong reasons.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Philip is on the line, calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Philip, and welcome to These Days.

PHILIP (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. My comment is that the building of additional lanes is an archaic concept. This society really should be moving away from fossil fuels and the pollution that fossil fuels create. Also, a strong centered city is based on good public transportation so high speed light rail with express stops between the North County and San Diego city is really what needs to be considered. It’s time for that kind of consideration to happen. Also, strong center cities such as Portland, Boston, New York, Atlanta, they all have very decent public transportation. So my vote is no on expanding the Interstate 5 freeway to 14 lanes and I do think it’s time to move into high quality public transportation.

CAVANAUGH: Philip, thank you for the comment. Let me move on to Steve calling us from the I-5. Good morning, Steve, and welcome to These Days.

STEVE (Caller, Mobile): Good morning. My comment is that if you want to see what an expansion of the freeways might do for San Diego, just look to the north to LA. I drive on LA traffic more often – I mean, in LA traffic more often than I would like to. I can say it’s much worse than San Diego’s and they have plenty more pavement up there than we have here. I do not see expanding a freeway as any way solving the traffic problems of our area.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Steve. And what’s your reaction, Duncan?

MCFETRIDGE: Well, these are two great comments and, you know, I would add to this about the comments about Los Angeles, isn’t this amazing? The mayor of Los Angeles has started a transit campaign up there for exactly the reasons we’re talking about. They call it the 30/10 plan. They want to accomplish in 10 years 30 years of transit projects because they know this whole freeway thing has proven to be a socioeconomic disaster. So there, our lesson is right there. You can Google that. It’s called 30/10 LA (sic).

CAVANAUGH: Well…

MCFETRIDGE: Quite an amazing lesson.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a good thing for our audience to check out. I want to bring Pamela in in just a moment but I do want to ask you a question and that is, having been here and listened to what Caltrans and the SANDAG representative said, it’s one thing to talk about public transportation, it’s another thing to actually get people to use it. And what they’re thinking of doing with this expansion, they explained, is to have more buses using these – this freeway within a freeway, the express lanes, more buses to move more people on public transportation to get those buses there faster so that the idea of people using public transportation won’t take them two or three hours to get somewhere that it would take a car trip 30 minutes to do. So what do you say that – with that goal in mind? Because there is public transportation as part of this expansion plan.

MCFETRIDGE: Well, Maureen, you know I’m a longtime truth speaker in San Diego County. I have to tell you, the idea of calling managed lanes transit is sheer propaganda because you see, it doesn’t – here we’ve laid out the fundamentals of this. The freeways increase trip length, they increase congestion. The so-called managed lanes do – are not an answer. They haven’t answered the land use impacts for what’s happening—the caller just called in, right?—in the cities. What’s happening on the other end? Sprawl. What’s happening when Pamela tells us about the environmental impacts? So this is not real transit. This is a misnaming. Real transit is dedicated public transit. For example, here’s the thing, why aren’t we being told, why isn’t the public being told, that if we had double track Coaster, efficient, fast, double track down the coast, it would take a equivalent of four lanes of freeway, easily. So why don’t – why isn’t that an alternative? Hey, it’s not there. So you led off with a great suggestion here that the fact that people don’t take transit is we don’t have it. And that’s why where transit, you know, sandiego.org has a plan. See, we’re for something. SANDAG is just against something. We need to take the people’s money that is being misused, two and a half billion dollars of local taxpayer money being misused for everything that’s wrong. We need to take that, the people’s money, put it into transit now. I mean, literally right now.

CAVANAUGH: My guest is Duncan McFetridge, and Pamela Epstein is here as well. She’s been very patient. I’m going to be asking her a question in a moment. But I want to tell everyone we are talking about the Caltrans proposed expansion of I-5 and the organized opposition that is growing towards that plan. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call to join the conversation. And, Pamela, thanks for waiting. I know that you are an attorney. You’re working with the Sierra Club and CREED, and tell us a little bit about the environmental impacts of this proposal and – because I know that the thing that comes out is the – that people are concerned about the lagoons, they’re concerned about their own property and they’re concerned about noise.

EPSTEIN: Yes, there are a long laundry list of environmental impacts that this project will effect and cause irreparable damage that we cannot fix. Just quickly to run through them, you’ve got wildlife corridors that are destroyed always. An interesting footnote, you cannot put freeway signs to animals to let them know, you know, we’re building in your backyard, in your home, you know, go this way so that you can get to your nesting site so that you can forage. We’ve got water quality impacts. You’ve got runoff from all of these extra, additional freeway lanes that spills over into the water supply, the water stream, and is carrying toxins. You’ve got air and noise pollution. Noise, as you said, you’re building a concrete tunnel, you’re putting at most 14 lanes. That’s an additional car – those are several additional cars. And it – you need to put a concrete buffer, so you’re no longer going to have the visual esthetic of this coastline. Your idyllic, your iconic, San Diego coastline will no longer be there. It’s going to be a concrete tunnel to prevent all of the additional noise.

CAVANAUGH: Let – There are so many people who want to join the conversation, I just want to get in a few calls. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You can go online and join us at KPBS.org/thesedays and leave your comment there if you choose. Let’s hear from Matthew, calling from Encinitas. Good morning, Matthew, and welcome to These Days.

MATTHEW (Caller, Encinitas): Hey, how you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Great. Thank you.

MATTHEW: Hey, I just wanted to know, why don’t they just reduce the price of the Coaster to increase ridership on that. It’s a great form of public transportation. And I’ll take the answer off the air.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, I – Okay, Duncan?

MCFETRIDGE: Yeah, good question, Matt. You know what, all these transit questions about efficiency, lack of service, cost, are all related to the fact that we don’t have a complete system wide transit service because the – they’re trying to catch up with an indebtedness here and when the service is very poor. The transit system is running in debt, a tremendous debt and they actually have to cut Sunday service. So the full answer to this debate and discussion here about transit, including the Coaster, we’ve got to improve transit so it’s fast, efficient, people will love it. They get on it. It works in other cities. But you have to invest in it.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Derek is calling us. Good morning, Derek. Welcome to These Days.

DEREK (Caller): Morning. My question is for Duncan and, you know, I’m a – I’ve lived here for 40 years. I’m a native San Diegan, and I love the city. And I definitely can understand the environmental impacts you’re talking about but when you were first talking you mentioned that there’d be huge economic inputs into San Diego itself because of the increase in traffic. So my question is what – where do you get that assertion with the data there? And, secondly, is there any transit system worldwide that’s full, like in New York or Paris or wherever, that actually pays for itself?

MCFETRIDGE: Okay, yeah. Well, let me put on a unusual hat to answer this question. I’m a licensed general building contractor and so I bring something different to this debate. I can quickly answer your question about why this would be an economic disaster for the building industry that’s practically in a depression now. Is it Matt here? Matt, go downtown San Diego and there’s a host of projects waiting to come online and you know what they’re lacking down there? Transit infrastructure to make them work. We have in-fill developers that are held up because they can’t build. If we had transit infrastructure—and this is what, by the way, Los Angeles, if you Google that website I mentioned, they point out that this investment in transit is going to create a economic bonanza in terms of building in-fill development, business. Go to any street, go to 30th Street, go to Hillcrest, you can’t get there because of parking. The businesses are dying for more pedestrian traffic so that’s, in a very, very short – the economic answer here, we desperately need this and, yes, one city – certain routes pay for themselves, Matt, and very efficient systems do pay for themselves. I’ve been studying, for example, Bordeaux running a profit in their transit revolution but they took it very, very seriously. So, again, that question of running a profit has to do with the efficiency of your system.

CAVANAUGH: Let me go back to you, if I may, Pamela, because one of the things that we’re talking about today is the fact that there seems to be some organized opposition growing to this. The first time we had this show, we had many callers call in and most – most of the calls were negative towards the plan but there didn’t seem to be any localized, you know, organized opposition. And now we hear that there are two groups, Citizens Against Freeway Expansion, called CAFÉ…

EPSTEIN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …and PLAGUE, Prevent Los Angeles Gridlock Usurping Environment. And those two are going to be sponsoring a town hall meeting this week. I’m wondering, what – Are you foreseeing a legal challenge towards this proposal by Caltrans?

EPSTEIN: Yeah. We’re at the stage where we’ve got a draft environmental review document and we can attack this project from several legal angles, both statewide and federally. And so under the California Environmental Quality Act, you can attack this project for all of the environmental impacts that we’ve mentioned that are not mitigated past a threshold of significance, which is, as we’ve said, incredibly high. So you’ll have all these groups coming together and forming what we call public comment, and anybody can comment and send in their perspective on this project and their opposition. This project is going to have over 40 bridges and overpasses and, therefore, they’re going to need a permit from the California Coastal Commission. They’re also going to need a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, so you’ve got regulatory agencies also that they’re going to have to go through. So there are several legal channels and we will be putting legal pressure at all those different points, including financial. How are you going to finance this particular project? They’ve slated to use TransNet funds and that’s supposed to be for transit and, as Duncan has said, managed lanes are not transit or they are questionably transit at best.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So you’re seeing a lot of different things that can either dismantle this project or at least slow it down.

EPSTEIN: Right. We’ve got different legal pressure points that we’ll be using.

MCFETRIDGE: And let me jump in and add to her list there about groups. This – the opposition is building and it’s not just environmentalists. I mentioned building, for example, and the builder. The City of Solana Beach, you have homeowners, you have people that just called in, people driving. They know this thing is not going to work. So this opposition is widespread. I think it’s a matter of simply getting the word out, and we’re doing the best we can because for our community it just couldn’t be, you know, in a time of scarce public money, a worse project.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Ted is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Ted, and welcome to These Days.

TED (Caller, San Diego): Thank you very much. It’s probable that worldwide oil production is in permanent decline. If that is a fact, the implications of that are catastrophic. And to think that we’re going to put three to four billion dollars into more consideration for automobiles is crazy. We need mass transit and – and deeper thinking. I’d just like a response from your guests to that statement.

CAVANAUGH: Ted, thank you.

MCFETRIDGE: Thanks. You know what, this is a very important discussion we’re having because, you know, it touches everything. And could oil dependence and energy be higher on the list? So the caller is right on target. And I began my comments to you, Maureen, saying what is the backdrop of this discussion we’re having? It is a time of unprecedented challenge and the energy challenge that we are facing as a nation, many mil – generals are saying our dependence on oil is actually a strategic threat. It’s a national security issue. So this is truly a time of change and that’s why this is drawing wide, wide concern here.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a question. I know that you – not only, Duncan, do you oppose this particular I-5 expansion but you’ve got a real problem with the 2050 Regional Transportation Development Plan that SANDAG is coming up with. And I’m wondering, you know, a lot of people spend a lot of time, city planners, regional planners, developing a plan like this and yet at the same time when we have a program like this we have intelligent guests such as you and intelligent callers really railing against this. Why do you think perhaps Caltrans and SANDAG came up with this plan? Do you think – Why do you think they were not more creative in developing a Regional Transportation Plan for San Diego?

MCFETRIDGE: Well, I’m not totally certain how to answer this question. You know, I’ve been around San Diego for a long – I was born here, by the way, so I’ve watched misplanning for a long time. It could be the ozone layer possibly affecting, you know, having mental consequences here in San Diego. But all humor aside here, I think to answer your question is some things become habit. We’ve had a long habit of kind of a free-for-all in developing farms, watershed, sprawling. And the response – the transportation response has been building freeways. So I just think it is literally a habit and – but the fact is now, with the changing circumstances, the wall of opposition you see, in terms of facts, just like the caller just called in, what about oil dependence? So, indeed, SANDAG does have plans for a transit plan but, oddly enough, that’s way off in the future. We have that detailed in our website. And they’re actually going to build out the freeways as part of their 2050 plan first and this is what we say is upside down about this. So, you know, I guess it’s political habits. We’re in a time of change. Many of my friends in the building industry know change is coming. We’ve got to start making these city centers work now. So…

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both really quickly because we’re kind of out of time. But a lot of people, when this plan was introduced, just thought automatically it’s a done deal. They’re going to expand I-5. They’ve got the money. They’ve got the plans. It’s happening. What do you say? What do you two say to that?

EPSTEIN: It’s not a done deal. It’s not a done deal at all. We’re at the draft stage of these environmental review documents. There is a process that we’re going to go through, and it’s several points. The public is involved and it’s invested. You need to be an invested party. Come to the town hall meeting, get the information. There are several different angles and, like Duncan was saying, the first steps in change are the hardest. And so we do have a great platform. We’ve got greenhouse gas goals that we need to meet, greenhouse gas emission goals that we need to meet with AB-32 and SB-375, which go into the 2050 RTP that we were just talking about, the Regional Transit Plan. And these all have to coalesce and come together to make a great project, and so Caltrans has to take the input that we give them and use it to respond to comments in a way to make this project either better or to involve an alternative that is transit based, solution based, a robust multi-modal transit system.

CAVANAUGH: And Duncan.

MCFETRIDGE: Yes, thank you again for that question about what can we do about this, and that is get on the phone, get to your local city representative. They have a voice at SANDAG, all the 18 cities. It’s a little bit of a mystery here to SANDAG, you know, who are they, what do they do? Well, your city, wherever you are, Oceanside, Vista, whatever, you have a representative at SANDAG and this is the time to go, either go to that representative, your city, City of San Diego, for example. They’re spending your tax dollars, you know, in a questionable way and you can make a difference. Go to those meetings at your, you know, your local town hall.

CAVANAUGH: We – I’ve been notified that we can go a little bit longer with this segment and take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s go to the lines right now and speak with Ronnie in Lakeside on line two. Ronnie, good morning. Hello, Ronnie? Lynn in Carlsbad, are you there? Good morning.

LYNN (Caller, Carlsbad): Hello?

CAVANAUGH: Hi, Lynn. Good morning.

LYNN: Hi. Hi. Well, this is a button pusher for me, I can tell you. I live in Carlsbad in a community that is just at the side of I-5. And it’s, you know, a button pusher for not only me but everybody else in my community and I – just some of the questions. I heard a caller earlier say why hasn’t Caltrans planned more carefully and all I want to say is Caltrans is doing what Caltrans does, it builds roads. So to ask them to be thinking about some of the other serious questions that don’t involve road building that we’re concerned about is asking too much of them. I think the main question that the people in my community seem to be asking is, one, why when we’re being told that the state of California is broke are we planning to build the largest freeway in the world right here outside my front door? Secondly is the whole question of dependence on oil, which you’ve aired generously today, and that is, you know, when it becomes very, very clear that, yes, we’re running out of oil worldwide but, secondly, even if we weren’t, mining and excavating for it has cost lives, has cost money, has cost the environment. Why do we continue down the oil road? Why aren’t we looking at clean – spending our money on clean energy alternatives?

CAVANAUGH: Lynn…

LYNN: Those are two of the big issues we’ve talked about.

CAVANAUGH: …thank you so much. I appreciate the phone call. You’re our last caller on this subject, and let me get a reaction from you, Duncan.

MCFETRIDGE: Well, we’ve had great calls here, and this is a summary statement of exactly why the people need, literally, pick up that phone, call your local representative. Ladies and gentlemen, we can’t keep doing the same thing and especially – you know how she began her question? We’re in massive debt, local, state, national debt. Hey, we got to spend our money wisely if we’re going to work our way out of this recession. So thank you on that call.

CAVANAUGH: And Pamela.

EPSTEIN: And, Maureen, they should look on the Caltrans website. There is a contact information for you to submit your comments. These are all great comments, great concerns, great questions to pose to Caltrans that they need to answer as part of this CEQA Review process, so go on that website, look it up, and submit your comments. I would strongly urge you to do so.

CAVANAUGH: Pamela Epstein, thank you so much for speaking with us today, and Duncan McFetridge, I’m having a hard time with your name. Duncan, thanks for being here.

MCFETRIDGE: It’s a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to let everyone know that this – we will most likely have Caltrans back to talk about this again. So if you thought that the conversation was a little bit too one-sided, I want to remind everyone Caltran (sic) representatives were on our air to speak about this program in June and they will probably be back. I want to let everyone know the town hall meeting sponsored by CAFÉ and PLAGUE is tomorrow night at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church. Caltrans plans two more informational workshops, August 24th in Solana Beach, and September 9th in Oceanside. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, high tech equipment for back to school, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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