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Budget Battle Brewing Over San Diego’s Climate Action Plan

A sign reads

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: A sign reads "50% Transit, Walk, Bike" at a press conference calling on Mayor Kevin Faulconer to prioritize green transportation projects in his budget, March 29, 2018.

San Diego environmentalists are gearing up for a battle over funding for green transportation infrastructure in the coming fiscal year, as Mayor Kevin Faulconer prepares to close an expected budget deficit of up to $24 million.

Representatives from several nonprofit groups held a press conference outside the City Administration Building on Thursday, calling on the mayor to prioritize bike and pedestrian safety projects in his budget and to use his influence at the county's transportation planning agency to prioritize funding for public transit.

Chief among the advocates' concerns is a network of protected bike lanes downtown. Faulconer's original project timeline promised to complete the bike network by June 2019. KPBS reported earlier this month that the bike lanes are facing major cost overruns and potential delays of several years because of a change in their design requested by the mayor.

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Mobility Budget Letter

Mobility Budget Letter

A group of environmental organizations call on Mayor Kevin Faulconer to prioritize biking, walking and transit in his budget for fiscal year 2019.

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Councilman Chris Ward, whose district includes downtown, said many would-be cyclists are discouraged from riding because they don't feel safe.

"Our downtown mobility plan has been and remains a key solution to the problems that riders are experiencing," he said. "It provides a clear path to achieving a bicycle and pedestrian safety network across nine miles of our downtown community."

San Diego's Climate Action Plan requires the city to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2035, in part by encouraging more people to bike, walk or ride public transit to work. Cars and trucks are the city's biggest contributors to climate change, accounting for about 55 percent of local greenhouse gas emissions.

Ward acknowledged that the city is ahead of schedule in its progress on the climate plan, but said the greenhouse gas reductions to date had come from "low-hanging fruit" and that the city has to plan beyond just the next few years.

"The hard part… is transportation," he said. "We've chipped away at that, but we really need to make those investments today if we're going to be able to sustain that course and dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions on a road to 2035."

RELATED: SANDAG Budget Has More Delays For Priority Bike Projects

All nine council members mentioned the Climate Action Plan in their budget priority memos sent to the mayor's office, but no single project or program related to the climate plan received majority support from the council.

Sophie Wolfram, director of programs for the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said the mayor also needs to engage more actively with the San Diego Association of Governments as that agency puts together a long-range transportation plan for the county. Environmental groups have blasted previous SANDAG transportation plans for focusing too much on freeway expansions and not enough on improving and expanding bus and rail services.

A state law passed last year dramatically increased the mayor's voting power on the SANDAG board of directors. Faulconer attended most SANDAG board meetings last fall but has not shown up to any meetings in 2018.

"The city cannot reach its greenhouse gas targets and its transit goals without SANDAG changing course, and it's on the mayor to steer the ship," Wolfram said.

Faulconer's office released the following statement in response to Thursday's press conference:

One of Mayor Faulconer's top priorities continues to be meeting the goals of the landmark Climate Action Plan, including improving infrastructure that will encourage the use of alternative modes of transportation such as the transportation master plan and the downtown mobility plan. He is currently preparing the 2019 budget, and funding for CAP initiatives and mobility efforts will be released when the budget is completed.

The city's Independent Budget Analyst released a report this month that sought to quantify the short-term costs of implementing the Climate Action Plan. The report acknowledged, however, that the city currently has too little information on those costs to come up with a reliable estimate.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is under pressure from environmentalists to increase funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, as he prepares to release his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story cited an out-of-date figure for the projected budget deficit in fiscal year 2019.

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