Reducing Traffic Congestion In North County
Friday, June 18, 2010
What can be done to reduce the daily traffic congestion on the freeways that run through North County? We discuss the proposal to widen I-5, the issues with I-15, and how public transportation could improve the traffic problems around the county.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll examine mammoth plans to deal with worsening commuter gridlock on I-5, the battle lines firming up over Councilman Carl DeMaio’s managed competition measure for San Diego, and moves to expand the tax money and the power of San Diego’s redevelopment agencies. The editors with me today are Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times. It’s good to see you again, Kent.
KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): Thank you for having me.
PENNER: Of course. David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat. Always a pleasure to see you, David.
DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): It’s good to be here. Thanks.
PENNER: And Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org. Andrew, this is your second time here at least this week, so you’re becoming a constant visitor.
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): It’s always good to be at my second home, Gloria.
PENNER: Ah, glad to hear that. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS. Well, let’s start with everyone’s complaint. San Diego’s roads and freeways are already a nightmare during commuter hours and they’re getting worse. Traffic gridlock depletes productive hours, leisure time, the pocket books and equanimity. I-5 from La Jolla northward is particularly frightful but help is on its way according to highway officials. Kent, first of all, what is this help?
DAVY: Well, it’s part of the TransNet Extension, the SANDAG and CalTrans have plans to build out I-5 north, I think, for about a 26 mile stretch and would add either – anywhere from 6 to 8 lanes in various configurations to try and ease that bottleneck. The – each of the plans that is being put forward in an ERI (sic) that is supposed to be released sometime this summer would include HOV lanes. One of the plans has a couple of regular lanes on it as well.
PENNER: Okay. I don’t think we have to translate what all those initials mean but just for the sake of a few people who might not know what EIR is and HOV…
PENNER: …speak the language.
DAVY: Okay. EIR, environmental impact report, that is what is it going to do to our world if they build that many lanes. And HOV is something occupancy vehicle.
DONOHUE: High occu – high occupancy.
DAVY: High occupancy. Thank you, Andrew.
PENNER: That’s more than one person in a car.
PENNER: Or more than one person in a bus, I guess.
DAVY: Or you pay a toll, I think.
PENNER: Okay, so let’s talk about those environmental impact reports for a second. My understanding is—Andrew, I’ll go to you on this—there are six lagoons on this 20-mile stretch between La Jolla and Oceanside, and I would assume that those six lagoons are going to cause a real problem when you start spreading out that highway.
DONOHUE: I think I would assume exactly the same thing. I believe I read in Kent’s publication that this is actually going to be the largest environmental impact report done in the county’s history. So that speaks to how big of an environmental, you know, problem this potentially creates. I mean, we all know when you drive up the 5, you go through all those beautiful lagoons. It’s in, you know, La Jolla and Del Mar and Carlsbad as well. So that seems to be sort of the key sticking point for opponents, you know, the point that you keep expanding these things and you’re going to keep damaging the environment.
PENNER: So then why? And let me turn to David on this. Why is the thinking apparently limited to expanding the freeway rather than investing in public transit?
ROLLAND: Well, I wasn’t around when, you know, these are probably, you know, this plan is probably part of the larger Regional Transportation Plan that was passed some years ago, how many I don’t know, and so I wasn’t around for those discussions when that was taking place. But, you know, of course I would much rather have mass transit…
PENNER: Would you use it?
ROLLAND: I would absolutely use transit if it was convenient and efficient. And in San Diego, you know, where I live and work, I don’t even have to go very far but for me to take public transit would take like four times as long as it takes to, you know, drive in my car. So the thing is, I would much rather, like a lot of people, have a viable transit alternative. The problem is if you don’t have that viable transit alternative, you cannot discourage and deincentivize driving. That’s the big conundrum here. I don’t want to see – I mean, how wide can you make that freeway ultimately? I mean, the population’s going to continue to grow. You cannot keep widening it forever and ever and ever. So there has to be some kind of, you know, point where you have to stop growing. You have to start thinking about some other alternatives.
PENNER: Start thinking now at this late state? I mean, I’m just wondering why wasn’t this thought of a long time ago? There are other metropolitan areas—spread out metropolitan areas—that have mass transit. I mean, I’m thinking about the New York area. I mean, I grew up there and we had the Long Island Railroad that would take you out into the island and then if there was any driving to be done, somebody would pick you up at the train station and transport you back. I mean, we’re, it seems…
ROLLAND: Well, not to mention any place in Europe, really, that you can go and, you know, you never have to drive a car at all.
PENNER: Okay, before I go back to the editors on this because everybody wants to talk about mass transit and why we are limiting our vision to expanding the highways, let me ask our listeners about it. First of all, have you thought about this? And which freeways frustrate you on a daily basis? What’s the worst traffic spot that you have to hit? And what do you think the answer is? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. You know, sometimes when you get a lot of public opinion on something like this, it does give fresh thinking to an old problem. Let’s hear your fresh thinking, Kent.
DAVY: Well, the point of fact is that congestion on I-5 ends at the 805 split. People who live south of the 805 split have got freeways where they can actually move around on, albeit there’s congestion on some points. North County and I-5 is a congested mess every single day, and it is not necessarily people going from Oceanside to the city. It is people trying to get from Encinitas to Carlsbad. There are inadequate…
PENNER: You’re talking, what, maybe six or seven miles. Oceanside to Carlsbad.
DAVY: Well, all – it runs all the way from Del Mar to Camp Pendleton.
DAVY: And the worst congestion is up by Oceanside. There is tremendous congestion at the I-5/78 intersection. There are chokepoints all the way along there because there are inadequate arterials to carry local traffic. The problem with mass transit as a solution is it doesn’t fix the problem that I-5 in North County has.
PENNER: What would fix it?
DAVY: Putting the extra lanes on there and expanding it to allow enough traffic that people can actually use that highway.
PENNER: But my understanding is, and maybe my understanding is correct but I doubt it, is that we are going to have a population explosion over the next 20, 30 years in San Diego and that we can expect as the population increases, the highways are going to fill up no matter how large we make them. David.
ROLLAND: Yeah, that was the point I was making earlier. I mean, at some point there is, you know, you cannot keep widening the freeway.
PENNER: And, Andrew…
DONOHUE: Yeah, and we keep…
DAVY: But until you get there, then why don’t you widen the freeway so you can at least allow people who live up there not to suffer the kind of misery index that they currently suffer?
ROLLAND: Well, I guess, you know, it’s people’s misery index versus the environmental destruction that you might create and continue the demand for oil and continue the problems with, you know, in the atmosphere there.
DONOHUE: That’s right.
PENNER: Well, San Diego wants to be heard on this one. I’m delighted because I think that we really do need to have more voices. If you put highway officials in charge of the studies rather than public transportation officials, isn’t it clear what the highway officials would focus on? So let’s hear from the rest of San Diego. We’ll start with Marco in Encinitas. Marco, you’re on with the editors.
MARCO GONZALEZ (Save our Forests and Ranchlands, Cleveland National Forest Foundation): Hello, Gloria, this is Marco Gonzalez.
GONZALEZ: I represent Save our Forests and Ranchlands and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and we’re working at SANDAG to try to focus funding and efforts on a 30-mile trolley ring in the urban core and what I’d like to hear from the editors is how they believe SANDAG’s structure might actually get in the way of transit being implemented and funded.
PENNER: All right, so when we talk about SANDAG’s structure, this is a regional organization of elected officials. Am I correct?
GONZALEZ: Correct. And so what you have is, we have an urbanized area of high density living that would benefit from a strong transit focus but what we have at SANDAG are folks from all around the region, the sprawling areas of the region who want to see their transportation dollars spent in their communities. And I think it’s the politics and the financing that’s really been keeping us from being able to get transit effectively implemented in the urban core of San Diego. And I’m wondering if the editors can see some of that with kind of the way SANDAG plays out or perhaps just opine on the fact that no one’s really paying attention to what SANDAG’s doing?
PENNER: Well, the editors are always happy to opine on just about anything so let’s hear some opinion on this one. Kent.
DAVY: Well, I think, you know, Marco’s right in terms of SANDAG and its distributed authority. On the other hand, the notion that if you could only centralize the power that, therefore, you could put a trolley in when a trolley may not be the solution for North County, it speaks exactly to the point of why North County people, I suspect, would rather see the power keep – stay distributed.
PENNER: Okay. Thank you. And, Marco, thank you for your call. Let’s turn to Joe now, from Coronado. Joe, you’re on with the editors.
JOE (Caller, Coronado): Yes, hi, Gloria.
JOE: Thanks for taking my call.
JOE: I just – I feel that SANDAG has a real issue on its hands that’s going to be hard to solve and I’m looking at what we can do at an individual level and perhaps if more of us would choose to live where we work, that would make our lifestyles better and also reduce traffic on the freeways.
PENNER: Okay, thank you, Joe. Andrew, do you live near where you work?
DONOHUE: I do, actually. I live about 3.4 miles away from where I work but I realize that that’s not possible for a lot of people. But I think that’s the key issue in all of this is that if you – we need to address the gridlock but if we do that just by expanding lanes, all we’re doing is incentivizing and rewarding the continued use of cars and more and more urban sprawl. And what does that lead to? That leads to more and more gridlock in the future. So this may alleviate things in the very short term but until we put in an actual public transit solution we’re not going to have any long term problem – or, long term solution and we’re going to have to deal with expanding our freeways another two more lanes 20 years down the road.
PENNER: And just think, you have to think that with what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico now, you have to also think about the consumption of oil as fuel and how that all plays into it even though we are looking at different options for making our cars go. Right now, it’s still oil, isn’t it? You’re shaking your head yes at me, David.
ROLLAND: Yeah, I mean, everything—everything—points to planning your transportation around transit, mass transit, rather than people driving around solo in their cars. Unfortunately, the political leaders of 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago were not on board with that and didn’t have the foresight to really put in the infrastructure to make our transportation transit oriented rather than car oriented.
PENNER: What about the political leaders of today? I mean, didn’t we have a concept in San Diego, something having to do with villages. Do you remember what it was called?
DONOHUE: City of villages.
PENNER: City of villages.
PENNER: Wasn’t it Dick Murphy?
DONOHUE: It was Dick Murphy, yes. That was one of his famous 10 Goals.
PENNER: And it never happened.
DONOHUE: It never happened, no.
PENNER: But that was, you know, that was his leadership, that’s what he wanted to see.
DONOHUE: Exactly, that was sort of urban infill, high density development within the urban core built around public transit but, you know, like a lot of things in San Diego, they’re announced to great fanfare and then sort of fizzle away.
ROLLAND: But we do have – I mean, politicians, by and large, have gravitated towards that as the way to plan cities and regions, you know. These particular villages might not have, you know, caught fire but, more and more, you have – I mean, some-odd years ago, 20, 30 years ago, you know, you wouldn’t have as many politicians that you do now that talk about smart growth and infill development and higher density core, city cores and things like that, so it’s slow but it’s happening.
PENNER: So you see it as an evolution rather than a revolution and that we may be the generation that has to suffer through it all until that evolution takes hold. We’re going to take a break now and when we come back we’re going to take more of your calls. It looks like all of San Diego wants to get in on this conversation, and we’re going to let as many as you (sic) in as we possibly can because you deserve to be heard. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I’m Gloria Penner and this is the Editors Roundtable.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner and I’m at the roundtable today with David Rolland from San Diego CityBeat, Andrew Donohue, voiceofsandiego.org, and Kent Davy from the North County Times. We’re leaning on Kent during the break a little bit because, you know, Kent is talking about how difficult it is to drive from Carlsbad to Escondido?
DAVY: Well, Carlsbad – The topic on the table is I-5…
DAVY: …so that’s Carlsbad to…
DAVY: …Oceanside or Encinitas to Oceanside or Del Mar to Oceanside, that stretch. The point I was trying to make during the break is that the mass transit solutions in a suburban environment are typically vastly inadequate to moving people to where they need to choose to go, that freeways, indeed, do become an efficient way, albeit expensive and currently oil dependent. But as the fleet inventory turns over, we go more and more to hybrid cars, gas mileage improves, some of those things start to go away. And it’s worth remembering that freeway congestion is an enormous – has an enormous impact on the environment by the amount of additional carbon emissions from people sitting on a freeway waiting, breathing fumes.
PENNER: I’m breathing fumes right now. I’m thinking, years and years ago, though, we lived out in the suburbs. I didn’t but my friends all lived out in the suburbs in New York and we all took public transportation.
DAVY: From the suburbs to the center of the city.
DAVY: And then back. But when you want to go from Encinitas to where? Look at the Sprinter line. The Sprinter runs from Oceanside to Escondido. It takes about an hour to get from one end to the other when driving on a noncongested day on 78, takes you about 25 minutes. It’s – And then you’ve got to figure out where am I going to go once I get to the transit system in Escondido. It is from there to downtown about a mile, so I can walk that on a hot day, which is okay, good for me, good for my heart.
PENNER: Well, while the editors are sort of pondering on how to answer Kent on this, I’m going to go to the callers and we’ll get Kiara from La Mesa. Kiara, you’re on the Editors Roundtable, actually.
KIARA (Caller, La Mesa): Thank you. I actually drive from Coronado up to La Mesa and I have to take the I-5 North to the 163. It goes from 5 lanes to 1 lane and the congestion is ridiculous. Sometimes I wait 45, 50 minutes just to get from the 5 to the 163 so I can get on the 8 so I can go up to La Mesa. We need a little bit more room than 1 lane. I think we should spend a little bit but we shouldn’t spend it for forever. We do need public transportation to get us more around because I’m from Detroit and we have a lot of public transportation. I never drove anywhere, so for me to come to California and there be absolutely no way for me to get from La Mesa to Coronado without driving is just ridiculous. Thank you.
PENNER: Well, I understand the not driving. I actually didn’t get my drivers license until I was in my mid-twenties because I didn’t need a car. I always lived in areas where there was public transportation. It wasn’t until I hit, actually, California and Hawaii that I needed it. Thank you so much, Kiara. Thomas in San Marcos is with us now. Hi, Thomas, you’re on with the editors.
THOMAS (Caller, San Marcos): Well, Mr. Davies (sic) made my first point which was we spent almost a half a billion dollars on the Sprinter line which all it did was really transfer people from the existing bus line that ran from Oceanside to Escondido and they cut that bus line out so they moved those people to the Sprinter. But it hasn’t done anything, really, for congestion on 78 to the Coaster. There’s been a lot of planning or attempted planning by people, transit people in San Diego, but the Coaster, that line was going to be expanded in the eighties and the environmental people in North County fought tooth and nail against any double tracking of the rail line and they’re the ones destroyed – it was going to be built by private enterprise and then, three, you have the trolley in San Diego. That would have been extended out to La Jolla years ago but Dick Atkinson, when he was the chancellor of UCSD, fought it tooth and nail because he said the vibrations from the trolley would harm the research going on in the science lab.
PENNER: I remember that.
THOMAS: So, you know, let’s have a little reality check here. There’s been a lot of attempts to expand mass transit here and people have opposed it for the same reason that people now will oppose the freeway, they don’t want any environmental change.
PENNER: Any comment on that, Andrew?
DONOHUE: Yeah, I mean, the – It’s interesting. I don’t think we’re – Everybody’s agreeing that gridlock is not a good or productive thing. I think the key question is just what we think the longterm solution is. If you look at the $4.5 billion that is potentially being talked about to being spent on widening the 5, I mean, you can – you could probably, if you think one mile of light rail costs $50 million, I mean, that’s 90 miles of light rail that could be constructed. So I’m not going to, you know, defend the Sprinter or the Coaster or anything like that but I think it is healthy to talk about all these different options.
PENNER: It is, and the CalTrans I-5 corridor director, Kent, said that it’s up to our regional agency, SANDAG, to ensure that rail expansion keeps pace with freeway construction. Why shouldn’t rail expansion be the focus instead?
DAVY: Well, because it doesn’t solve the freeway problem in the first place. Rail works when people can go to the destinations that the rail is going. And, in fact, rail is being worked on at the same time. There are double tracking projects going on up and down the coast. There will be a study released in July for new double tracking projects. So it’s not like this is one or the other. In fact, there are both things going on.
PENNER: Okay, well, finally I guess I need to look at where will the leadership come from, who will make the decision, where does the vision come from that will actually decide how we are going to deal with all the people here and all the people that need to move around here? What do you think about that, David?
ROLLAND: Well, that’s just it. It’s who you choose as your leader who will make these decisions. And the choice before us is always going to be somebody like, say, Todd Gloria in San Diego who is very committed to transit as a – as the future, you know, the way of the future. Or you have, you know, the Bill Horns of the world who want to keep, you know, putting sprawl – urban sprawl development all over the county and connect these developments with freeway.
ROLLAND: That’s the choice.
PENNER: …in all fairness, Todd Gloria lives in the middle of a pretty dense—and works in—a pretty dense area where mass transit would work, and Bill Horn represents the spread out North County.
ROLLAND: Yeah, but it’s only spread out because you choose to spread it out. You know, if you keep your development limited to existing transit corridors as much as possible and you build up your more dense urban environments, then you’ve lessened the need for people to, you know, to drive 20, 30 miles a day.
PENNER: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I’m just going to stay with you for a second on that. It seemed to me that when the Sprinter went in, there was a hope that that would develop – that there would be a development corridor along that corridor that the Sprinter was in, there’d be more homes, more businesses, more general development. But I don’t think that happened.
ROLLAND: I – I’m not the best person to talk about what has gone on along that corridor because it’s North County and, frankly, you know, my focus is on urban San Diego, my paper’s focus. And so Kent would probably be the person that’s best to talk about that.
PENNER: Well, let’s get a final comment from Kent.
DAVY: I don’t think there has been much in the way of development along the Sprinter line. However, in fairness, it’s not been very long since the Sprinter’s been operational, just a couple of years. So development typically takes a much longer time period.
ROLLAND: Just one last thing, though, that I think that – my sense is that so far we have done transit in sort of half measures, partial measures. It’s the kind of thing that people generally think is a touchy-feely liberal boondoggle so you never really have a full-on commitment to it and it does not work unless you make a full-on commitment to it and build it out and make it so. Like Kent talks about, well, you can’t use transit because it doesn’t work. Well, it doesn’t work because you haven’t built it, you know, full-on. You haven’t made a 100% commitment to it.
PENNER: I like that comment because it’s going to take me to my next subject. Just keep thinking full-on commitment as we move into a big political battle that’s shaping up. But, first of all, I want to say to all of our callers who called in, and there are many that we couldn’t get to, please go to our website, it’s KPBS.org/editors, and record your comment because we do read them and a lot of other people read them, too, so you’ll have a chance to get your opinion heard. KPBS.org/editors.