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San Diego’s Transportation Future


Local rush-hour traffic is getting worse, and the Metropolitan Transit Service plans to drastically reduce bus service on Sundays. What kind of changes should we make in the future to improve our local transportation system?

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): Let’s move on to our next subject. Moving right along…


ST JOHN: …unlike some of our freeways this morning. Let’s talk about traffic in San Diego. So we’ve had a couple of things, we’ve had a bit newspaper article and Caltrans held its annual update this week to talk about which freeways they’ll be working on this year. We got an update on changes to the trolley, the train and the bus services. Everybody, especially people listening to the radio, is concerned often about traffic. So what are some of the big issues that we’re facing in this coming year in your estimation in terms of keeping things moving in the county?

TOM YORK (Contributing Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Well, I think that, first of all, let’s talk about traffic and congestion during the commute hour. The fact that we have, you know, congestion and we have traffic is a good sign. It shows that our economy is still pretty strong and I think that is reflected in, you know, the congestion. The problem is that when – the economy is strong now but it will come back even stronger as, you know, what are we going to do to prevent, you know, even longer tie-ups and things like that and, basically, you know, the county, the state right now are planning on working on I-5 to fix that up so – because that’s where a lot of the congestion is. And also looking at other spots along the 805 and also up in north county where it just happens to be that two of the most congested spots are now located.

ST JOHN: So $1.2 billion worth of projects in the works apparently, according to Caltrans. Do you think that drivers are actually going to be seeing a lot of roadwork this year then?

YORK: Well, I think that drivers will see a lot of frustration in the beginning because of the construction that’s underway like we’re seeing on the I-15 going north and south in north county. But I think at the end of the day, these improvements will help a little bit. But I think the problem that San Diego County has is a problem that most areas have here in California is that the work areas are widely separated from where people live. In other words, people live where housing is cheap or affordable and then they drive to where the work areas are. For example, you know, if you go along the 805, people are driving in the morning, they’re driving northbound to Sorrento Valley, Torrey Pines area, La Jolla, and then at night they’re going back and, you know, there’s a lot of congestion because the housing itself is in Chula Vista so I think part of the issue is, is that, you know, there may have to be some longterm planning underway as to how to moderate growth because you can widen I-5 as much as you want. You can make it into a ten-lane freeway…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

LEWIS: Double deck…

YORK: You could double-deck it and, you know, put a – probably put a train down the middle of it. But it still probably wouldn’t take care of all the demands for traffic because of just the ways the social setting is set up, that housing is in one area and the work is in another.

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): I think we’ve learned one lesson. You can’t build the freeways fast enough for the traffic. It never will catch up. As soon as you finish it, they’re packed. You’re right, we need long term planning. I know part of the – one of the goals was to have trolleys along routes and then build villages along the trolley routes and have jobs there. And that’s not really taking place.

ST JOHN: Well, you say we need longterm planning, JW, I mean, that’s what SANDAG, San Diego Association of Governments…

AUGUST: Well, realistic longterm planning.

ST JOHN: That they have a plan. And, in fact, they’re updating their…

AUGUST: Right.

ST JOHN: …current Regional Transportation Plan right now for up to – looking ahead to 2050, and they do say that we are the first county in the state to be doing it under this new state legislation that requires you to look at carbon emissions as well as everything else. So, you know, they’re ahead of the game, one hopes, in terms of planning. I mean, what’s your take on how their plans are working so far?

AUGUST: Well, I mean, are we focusing on the realistic solutions? Is the solution trolleys? Is that the answer for the mass transportation? Is the solution a bullet train for billions of dollars? Is the solution, you know, double-tracking for Amtrak up and down the coast?

ST JOHN: That would take some cars off that 5.

AUGUST: Oh, absolutely.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

AUGUST: I’m not a transportation expert by any means but I just often feel like we are a little behind the curve instead of ahead of the curve.

YORK: Well, let’s take…


YORK: Let’s take the double-tracking issue along the, you know, it’s not really Amtrak, it’s a railroad track that serves a number of different transportation services including a freight rail service. Even if you double-tracked it and you had twice the number of trains going up and down the coast, the problem is once you get to your destination, you get to your station, how do you get from the station to your work site? Or how do you get to the station, to your home? And I was reading a statistic here before I came in that said only 3% of the transportation services are, you know, are buses, and they’re cutting those back. The MTS is cutting that back. So, you know, if you’re going to have mass transportation, you have to really sit down and plan it out. You really have to think it through.

LEWIS: And, you know, while it’s commendable that SANDAG is doing this transportation projection and study and vision, it has to be much more than just transportation. And I think this community is in a situation right now where it’s primed to picture what it wants to be in 20, 30, 40, 50 years. And what is – where does it want industrial? Where does it want jobs? How does it want its neighborhoods to grow? That process is not happening right now. There’s no comprehensive vision project taking place that’ll help us see what is this community – You know, what kind of education standards do we want to have? Do we want to make sure a certain number of people have a certain level of education? Do we want to make sure that neighborhoods are certain densities? I think that all of that needs to be wrapped up and we all need to picture that and then – And it’s not just a transportation question. If you treat it just as a transportation question, you’re not going to ever solve the transportation problem.

ST JOHN: Well, let’s put out a call here, see if anyone in our audience is wanting to contribute to this discussion. 888-895-5727, 888-895-KPBS. You say that this isn’t happening but, of course, that’s what SANDAG is job – is, you know, supposed to be doing and they have representatives from each of the 18 cities in the county.

LEWIS: Right.

ST JOHN: They meet a lot. They are putting out this update, so it is happening, in a very fragmented sort of a way. But, Tom, what was your point?

YORK: Well, I think the issue here is that currently the question of jobs, creating jobs, is trumping everything else, every other issue on the table. And I think that we have to take a longer term look than…

LEWIS: Right.

YORK: …just creating a few temporary jobs for a year or two to build a highway or build…

LEWIS: Right.

YORK: …tracks. And that’s the problem, is the jobs, it’s, you know, it’s the all-encompassing issue right now. And I think that’s very, very short-sighted. Besides, these jobs are taxpayer jobs, they’re not really private service – or, private sector jobs.

AUGUST: Yeah, Caltrans workers.

YORK: And Caltrans.

ST JOHN: Scott.

LEWIS: No, you see that with every discussion right now. The downtown library is being touted as a jobs builder. You see the convention center, how many jobs it would create. The airport touts its new expansion and effort over there as, you know, it’s creating a certain number of jobs. It’s not its longterm benefit that’s being touted, it’s its...

AUGUST: Right.

LEWIS: …short term investment. And it’s obviously got benefits for all of us but I think you’re exactly right, we have to think of those things that not only pay people now but that spur the kind of infrastructure and entrepreneurial activity that would pay people for decades to come.

AUGUST: Well, but that’s part of the…


AUGUST: …mentality of Americans, I think, it’s the short term, you know, like corporations. We want to know what we’re going to do this quarter.

LEWIS: Right.

AUGUST: You know, the longer look, a little more thoughtful discussion of the issues and looking at all the ramifications in what you do, unintended consequences.

ST JOHN: Well, of course, one of the things is that, you know, you get these notices of planning meetings at SANDAG or the county’s right now doing its general plan update and, you know, people’s lives are busy. So you could say the agencies are trying to get public input but is it really out there enough? John is calling us right now from San Diego. John, thanks for calling. What is your point?

JOHN (Caller, San Diego): Yeah, you know, I’ve been around San Diego long enough when SANDAG was known as the Comprehensive Planning Organization.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

JOHN: And I remember they came out with a plan, I think, in 1980, of what San Diego would look like in 2005. Okay, take a look at what they talked about, balanced transportation, communities near work, blah-blah-blah. And then you look at what San Diego looked like in 2005, you’d see sort of the futility of these grandiose plans. And the best example of all is there’s the county plan, the SANDAG plan, the city plan, yet we’re very close to the county board of supervisors approving, what, five to ten thousand new homes north of Escondido…

LEWIS: Umm-hmm.

ST JOHN: Two thousand…

JOHN: …which will clog the I-15 even more. And Caltrans came out with a report in 1982 that said the I-15 would be clogged because of all the development that was anticipated for that corridor and that’s probably the only long range plan that proved effectively (sic) and truthful.

ST JOHN: So, John, I mean, the plans are projecting. Are they just projecting gridlock so that we know ahead of time that that’s what’s going to happen? Or, from your experience, have they actually had any impact on mitigating that gridlock?

JOHN: Well, we never get to the point of sheer gridlock because you have Caltrans and hundreds of other agencies that are set up to make sure that we never approach total gridlock. You get more and more…

LEWIS: Yeah.

JOHN: …traffic and if you look at the SANDAG graphs of traffic increases over the years, you’ll see how the 15, the 5 and all of that…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

JOHN: …have grown. But we always do just enough to keep things moving and, of course, people, you know, people have short memories. And as you guys have discussed, the short term goals of jobs or we have more people moving in or some other short term…

LEWIS: Umm-hmm.

JOHN: …exigency trumps all along…

ST JOHN: All – all the planning.

JOHN: …the planning in the world.

ST JOHN: John, thank you very much for that call. And John brought up that issue about Merriam Mountain, this huge project with almost 3,000 homes up there north of Escondido, which is on 15, so maybe it’s better than being off in the hills somewhere but that’s a difficult question, where do you put all the extra people that are coming to San Diego? Tom, you have a point to make.

YORK: Well, I would address the other point the gentleman made, that John made, is that if you go to Orange County, Orange County has been very, very aggressive about expanding its – or, you know, working on its freeway system. The other day I was driving along I-5 at southern Orange County and at some point there’s like 12 or 14 lanes. There’s like 7 lanes in each direction. And, you know, it’s almost like something out of the future, if you think about it, and you say this is nuts. You know, 14 lanes, 7 in each direction and…

ST JOHN: Well, isn’t that – isn’t the split here at Del – in, you know, 805-5 split, isn’t that…

YORK: That’s true.

ST JOHN: …even more? I mean, that looks like something out of the future for sure.

YORK: Yeah. And I just wonder, you know, where do you stop in terms of adding lanes to accommodate the traffic. And I think that we do need transportation, mass transportation, but it needs to be melded in with, you know, with all the other things and we need to, you know, look at our work sites and look at our housing sites and see if we can bring those more into balance. I mean, the methodology’s there, the planning is there, we just have to execute it.

ST JOHN: Elyse in San Diego, excuse me, is calling. Thanks for calling. What would you like to tell us?

ELYSE (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Good morning. I’m the executive director of Move San Diego and we actually advocate to SANDAG for more effective public transit in order to work on this problem. We – SANDAG is planning out to 2050, which is the first time they’ve planned out so far away. And there is a new process, a new element in the Regional Transportation Plan that is looking at more than just transportation. The Sustainable Community Strategy is supposed to tie land use, which is where we put our jobs, and housing and our transportation investments together so that they’re better coordinated. And they – the work that they’re doing on that, they’re starting with the smart growth concept map that they adopted in the last RTP update, and what this is is a map that shows all of the 18 jurisdictions and where each of those jurisdictions have plans to accommodate this growth. So – But…

ST JOHN: So, Elyse, exactly, but what I wonder is whether – I noticed you were – used the words ‘supposed to.’ Doesn’t this reflect back to John’s comment that all the planning in the world doesn’t seem to actually work when, you know, politically speaking, a development comes along and people have to live somewhere and so those plans tend to go up in smoke.

ELYSE: Well, we know where approximately 90% of the new half a million housing units are going to go due to the smart growth concept map. So we know where over 400,000 housing units are going to be. But the idea is to create communities where people have transportation choices, and that really falls back to transit. And until we can prioritize our transit system—and that is funding for transit operations…

ST JOHN: Right.

ELYSE: …and creating transit that is actually fast that people would want to take because it’s convenient and fast and easy…

ST JOHN: Yes, that’s right.

ELYSE: …those are the types of the communities that we need to be visualizing and supporting.

ST JOHN: Elyse, thank you so much for that comment. I mean, I think that’s the thing, is that even if you – JW was just saying earlier, even if you try to get somewhere on public transit, it takes so long it’s pretty discouraging. We’ve run out of time here. I wondered, Tom, did you want to just make one last comment about the traffic issue before the break?

YORK: Well, I just say if you’re going to have a plan – I’m sorry, if you’re going to have a plan, you gotta have something in place to execute that plan. You’ve got to have a step by step, you know, way to go to make sure the plan is implemented by 2050. And a lot of plans don’t have any of that, it’s just pie in the sky kind of thinking.

ST JOHN: Okay, sounds like something we need to really be talking about more and keeping an eye on more and bringing into more public focus here. But we’ll be right back talking about the city’s Ethics Commission here on the Editors Roundtable. Stay with us till after this break.

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