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San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump

January 9, 2017 2:10 p.m.

San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump


Andrew Bowen, reporter, KPBS News

Related Story: San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Every year more people in San Diego are driving to work in a for the last year if you are already in public transit. This is bad news for the city. San Diego has a climate action plan that expects thousands to ditch their cars for greener transportation. KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen takes a look at why the trend is going the wrong way.
Reporter: every morning thousands of San Diego inspected twice how will like it to work? Will I drive a car pull? Will it take a bus or trolley? For most of us the choice is easy driving is faster more reliable and more convenient and with low gas prices is often cheaper as well.
If gas prices were twice as I am sure it would be a different story.
Reporter: Paul Jablonski as CEO of the Metropolitan transit system in the last fiscal year they measured a 4.3% drop in ridership. That's a loss of nearly 4 million passenger trips over the previous year. He says there are probably several reasons why. Uber and Lyft are competing high employment and low interest rates mean that more people can afford cars. As housing prices skyrocket more people cannot afford to live close to where they were to. -- Work.
There are more cars in the red they're traveling more and riderships are down. It does not take much to draw that conclusion.
Reporter: well most of us would rather drive that comes at a cost. There is more traffic congestion and that makes for my air pollution and MTS is getting less fair revenue which means less money to improve services. San Diego City Councilman and MTS board member David Alvarez says this is cause for concern.
The system is important to help us function as a society in general. Secondly as we see the problems and the reality of climate change trying to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation costs we need to look at alternatives.
Alvarez says the city is already paving the way for more transit ridership by encouraging housing and commercial development around bus and trolley stops.
We are at a Crosspoint in San Diego were all of these goals have sort of come together.
Reporter: but the city has already measure the effectiveness of its high density growth plans and neighborhoods like Northpark and Hillcrest and found that they will get some people out of cars but not enough to meet the city's goals. What else can I do?
I would be remiss not to a mention that people respond to price.
One of the most effective ways to curb driving is to simply make it more expensive.
You cannot force people to take one particular mode of transit so it is either a stick or a carrot. You can raise the price of driving by making gasoline more expensive or harder to get. That is all sort of a stick approach. People do not necessarily like it but will encourage people to stick to transit because it becomes expensive or difficult to do other things.
Is a double whammy they can take money from gas to give a lower transit. Lower fares increased frequencies California does this to an extent with its cap and trade system which charges companies for pollution permits. San Diego has its own goals and will likely need their own solution. Some that they say work best are unpopular. Neither politicians or voters have shown any appetite for raising the cost of driving. They're working on increasing ridership with the limited resources they have. They admit this can only go so far.
I think that given where we are with ridership revenue on sales tax revenue and where we are right now we will not see a lot of added service on the Street.
As the climate plan expects to triple the Sheriff public transit riders in the next four years critics say the city is already lowering expectations. Officials believe the climate action plan is a mandate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by any means. If the city finds another way to get there that can fill the transit goals and still claim success.
Andrew Bowen joins us now.
The climate action plan is always described as ambitious but it seems from your report that the public transit part of it is virtually impossible.
How did city leaders think that they were going to increase public transit used -- usage so much it is short of time.
The main tactic that the mayor has taken so far with the community of a process. We talked about it a lot on this show. It involves increasing. The goal is to create more opportunities for people to live and work near public transit. These things can take decades. -- They said it is not enough to just create my house in around public transit. We have to add service if we are hoping to achieve these goals. There's a plan to extend the trolley but it will not begin until -- they said that the city has not been taken a serious leadership role they will have to take a more serious approach in the future.
There's a new bus route with the Mesa border crossing. A lot of ridership
There also some increases in routes and the city area and a lot of the routes that are seeing more ridership are rapid routes. So limited stops and that's what we could possibly see more of in the future for MTS.
I want to talk more about the carrot and stick approach if it happened -- to get people out of their cars. The stick approach would be a local gas tax or fees for parking or miles driven. Do you know of any cities in California that have tried that?
Many cities already have what's called the parking occupancy tax. In LA it is 10%. In San Francisco it's 25%. This is essentially a tax that the city assesses on private parking operators for whatever revenue they get this has already been discussed and proposed by the independent budget analyst in the city of San Diego. It is a way to get more revenue and sort of help close this big infrastructure deficit that we hear a lot about. It has not really been discussed on a policy level the city can also just raise the price of public working to a rate that is more reflective of the actual demand. San Francisco a few years ago implement a dynamic pricing in the city so meters are more expensive in areas where there is a high demand for parking and less expensive in areas where there is a low demand and that has the dual benefit of both increasing the efficiency of your parking resources and also increasing revenue. I also want to mention bowler -- Boulder Colorado they have a carbon tax which works out to be a carbon tax on 30 energy and gas and they are using it for climate friendly projects like public transit. This is not entirely just in the idea phase that is being done in other cities.
So far in San Diego nobody has taken these ideas and pushed them in public policy discussions. That is what you are saying.
Not that I'm aware of.
Much was made at the time of these climate action goals when they were approved that they were legally enforceable. Does not mean the city has to reach the goals that set for public transportation?
It depends on who you asked. The city believes that the only enforceable part is the greenhouse gas emission reductions. There are many ways to get there in the plants. There's 100% renewable energy by 20 25. There sees transportation goals which we are talking about. Each of those individual methods to get to the greenhouse gas reductions is not enforceable according to the city. Environmental advocate for the transportation goals would not be in the climate action plan if they were totally irrelevant to the overall goal. The reductions were meticulously quantified but we saw recently with the greenhouse gas emission inventory that the city just put out last year that the 2020 goals for reducing emissions were met even before the climate action plan was signed. A lot of activists are somewhat worried -- they are glad that we are ahead of schedule but they are also worried that maybe the making investments in public transit and the urgency will be lost in the city will not really take this climate plan seriously.
Even if we do meet the overall goals what are some of the cons of not reaching the public transit goals.
There's a quality-of-life aspect to it. Many people in San Diego would like to take a bus or trolley to work but they simply don't have a choice. It is so inconvenient. It takes a long time and getting to work is not the only transportation that we need. It would really take a citywide serious and expensive investment in public transit and without -- if the city chooses not to necessarily he could find another way to get a cost to that as well.
They have been speaking with Andrew Bowen. My pleasure.