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San Diego May Move $800 Million From Freeways To Transit

Caltrans has reduced the scope of its planned expansion of Interstate-5 in north San Diego County. And that’s freed up $800 million that San Diego may spend on smart growth, commuter rail projects, and pedestrian and bike transportation.

Two committees of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) will meet on Friday to decide just where the money will go. Their recommendations will go on to the full SANDAG board, which can choose to revise their Regional Transportation Plan.

The original plan to expand I-5 created a huge amount of controversy, as SANDAG set aside money to widen the freeway by six lanes. But Caltrans chose to only expand the I-5 by four lanes, reducing the cost of the project from $4.3 billion to $3.5 billion.

The plan to spend the leftover money, which is now before SANDAG’s regional planning and transportation committees, would add $200 million to the “safe routes to transit” program. That would bring total program funding to $700 million, paying to create safe biking and pedestrian routes, as well as bus shuttle routes and ride-sharing programs.

The remaining $600 million would fund commuter-rail infrastructure and “smart growth initiatives.” Smart growth pays for development projects that are more transit friendly.

The shift in status of the I-5 project could also allow SANDAG to move up construction of a mid-city light rail line by six years.

SANDAG’s massive Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) will spend $110 billion, in 2010 dollars, between now and 2050. The RTP is made up of federal, state and local dollars. Most of the money comes from San Diego’s Transnet tax.

SANDAG is faced with the prospect of shifting money from freeway expansion to transit and smart growth. Passage of revisions is far from certain. But some say the political heat SANDAG felt, after proposing a six-lane expansion of I-5, may force them to take a step in the other direction.

“I think they need this,” said Elyse Lowe, a transit advocate and director of Move San Diego. “They need to show more support for active transportation and transit.”

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