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Roundtable: Rethinking Transit In San Diego

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February 15, 2019 11:43 a.m.


PANEL:

Charles T. Clark, politics and county government reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Andrew Keatts, assistant editor/senior investigative reporter, Voice of San Diego

Sara Libby, managing editor, Voice of San Diego

Jennifer Van Grove, growth and development reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Transcript:

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.

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San Diego might need a total rethink of how it approaches transportation. White sand AG is sounding the alarm on growth and climate change. An ambitious redesign of Balboa Park may not happen. How the Plaza de Panama project turned out to be just too expensive and the Board of Supervisors wants to take the Trump administration to court over its treatment of asylum seekers in San Diego. I'm Andrew Bowen and the KP B.S. roundtable starts now. Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Andrew bowing in for Mark's hour.

And joining me today at the PBS Roundtable are Andrew Keats assistant editor and senior investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego and Sarah Libby managing editor for Voice of San Diego. Also Charles Clarke politics and county government reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune. And Jennifer Van Grove growth and development reporter also for the San Diego Union Tribune. Well you know Scott who knew stopping climate change would be so darn hard. San Diego will have to make deep and fundamental changes to its transportation network to meet the state's goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that came straight from the mouth of the county's top transportation official this past week.

He says sandbag will need an extra couple of years to come up with a plan that gets enough people out of cars to comply with state law.

Now Andy let's start with the goals what are the goals that have been set for San Diego County to reduce its carbon footprint.

So San Diego County much like the other four large metropolitan areas in the state got a target last year it was given to them of 19 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2035 which is pretty steep. But but you know wasn't completely outside the realm of possibility. Those four agencies had lobbied previously to the state to get a little bit lower than they thought they might be able to hit 18 percent 19 percent proved to be a bridge too far.

And so those are the state goals. But we've also got some local goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. What about those.

So the city of San Diego for instance has its own climate action plan. That plan would have our carbon footprint by twenty twenty five thirty five point twenty thirty five as well 50 percent reduction so bigger than that. Now granted it is a bigger reduction but limited to the more urban area of the city. So it's not exactly an apples to apples comparison but then downstream from that within that plan also is a commitment to get essentially half of the people who live within areas that are very close to transit stations to commute by some means other than a car either walking biking or taking transit and so we know that transportation is the biggest driver of climate change here locally and statewide what has to change in order to meet these statewide goals.

Well one way to frame it is that you have to get people out of their car. The other thing you could do is simply allow them to drive less or to have them when they drive drive cars that are that produce fewer emissions. So any combination of those things would work. It just turns out that the actual transportation networks that the county has long been proposing that people have been fighting over that local officials have been kind of angling for funds from one source or another over all of those things no matter which way or arrange them no matter how you cut it aren't enough to get to the level.

So this was basically the Truth Bomb moment where the director said all this stuff that we've been talking about all this time is not enough. We might be able to do it another way but the things we've been discussing aren't going to get us there.

So that that's Masonic right. He's the new director of the San Diego Association Association of Governments which plans transportation in the county. So that was his message to the mayors and city council members who sit on the sandbag board. How did they react to the news there.

It was interesting. I mean it was pretty much just stunned silence in a lot of ways. There was just a couple of different people had different responses. People said that they were a little bit concerned about the idea of delaying for two whole years where it was going but you didn't get the sort of pushback that you might have expected which was kind of raging against the state the unfairness of the state mandates or simply asserting their lack of a desire to follow through with this or anything like that. It was sort of taking it all in.

They were not. They did not seem to be expecting that news. And then they were sort of asking Is there a way we could do this faster or do we really need to wait all the way until 2022 just to adopt this plan because there are some risks involved with waiting that long aren't there yet. So you have to have one of these plans. This is not just a bureaucratic exercise. You must have it to be eligible for state funding to be eligible for federal funding. So are period where we need to have one is coming up at the end of this year if things hadn't changed in November of 2019 we would be adopting this new plan they already had admitted that that wasn't going to happen but they were angling more for like a six month delay something that would be potentially risky potentially would would subject us to a loss of state funds or federal funds but something they'd be able to manage something that would be just an administrative task a two year delay makes that much harder.

Which is why they're now asking they say they're gonna ask some legislators at the state level to carry legislation that may basically say it's OK that San Diego missed this deadline and that they're going to start lobbying the federal government to see if there's some sort of a ministry to fix the risk is you can't get funding for state and federal projects and all of the local projects that we built every freeway every transit line every trolley line is is helped along by some significant portion of state or federal funding. We don't do it all alone with local funds.

So if you lose that money you may have to say goodbye to these projects or you might have to delay the timeline and delivery of those projects and so you know on that issue of funding.

We know that a plan is really only as good. It's only good if you can actually build it and you can only cut greenhouse gas emissions if you can build this new transportation network. So is this new network something that San Dad could even afford.

They won't be able to afford it at all without some new amount of local funding Transnet the local sales tax that they use to pay for these sorts of large regional projects is by and large tapped out. Sandy sandbag has been coming to grips with this reality over the last two years. They still think that they'll be able to build all the projects that they've promised in there although it's on account of the new director has acknowledged that that itself is not a short short thing by any stretch of the imagination but they won't be able to build anything beyond that.

And even the things within that that they're building are the early action projects some of the fast tracked promises there. So you know the Mid Coast trolley line that's under construction they'll finish that the South Bay BRT that they've that has recently opened and that has another phase they'll finish that there will be some other projects but some of the things at the end of that list will be cut off and anything beyond that that's going to be the make up the brunt of this. This plan that they say needs to be fundamentally different.

There's no real idea for how to fund those things and it'll come from some new tax increase whether it's the measure that NTSB is discussing now or a future sandbag one or two future Diego ones or another state gas tax. I mean it's will require more funding than is in the realm of possibility today.

And so there was a bit of other news that I dropped in the transportation round this week Governor Gavin Newsom in his State of the State address said that the high speed rail link would between San Francisco and L.A. would be essentially be a pipe dream. Let's hear what he had to say about that.

But let's be real. The current project as planned would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There's been too little oversight. And not enough transparency. Right now there simply isn't a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego let alone from San Francisco to L.A..

I wish there were and now Sarah you were at that speech and there was a bit of confusion over what those words actually meant. Wasn't there.

Yeah it seems like the only thing that's clear is that at least rhetorically it's a major shift for a governor to be speaking this way. It's not something we ever heard from Governor Jerry Brown in the chamber when he was delivering that speech it was you know one of the biggest reaction lines of the day. So certainly the people who were there at the time thought it was a big deal. It's become really unclear since then whether policy wise he's really changing all that much and he's kind of come out and said that he's not.

But there is a lot of confusion.

And so what role will the state's high speed rail project actually play in meeting the state's climate goals.

So I think you know if you take what Andy was saying about how ambitious San Diego needs to be in order to hit its own goals I think the same is true for California statewide. So whether it's high speed rail or whether it's some other mix of huge big projects that are total reimagining of how we get around you know a Hyperloop or something on that scale it's going to take not just one big thing but many big things.

And President Trump never misses a chance to drag liberal California on Twitter. He tweeted this week that it was a green disaster this High-Speed Rail Project.

What was the governor's response to that so he responded in kind. That that was fake news although the governor you know in responding to all this confusion about what he actually plans to do with high speed rail himself had kind of a trumpet in response today where he essentially blamed the media for all of the confusion. He said it wasn't my speech that was confusion confusing it was the media's reaction to it.

What's your take. Do you think it was the media who got it wrong or use should've been clearer.

I think he certainly characterized his plan as massively scaling back high speed rail and so if that's not what he actually intends to do I think he should have said so more clearly.

Yeah well we do have to move on and our next segment is about Balboa Park while taking a stroll through Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama would be a lot more pleasant if there were no cars around. Pretty much everyone agrees on that but a plan to divert cars to a new underground paid parking garage. That's been a tough sell both politically and financially. News broke this week that a rising price tag has put the project on hold again. So Jennifer this idea has been around for quite a while. Tell us about its history and what it would actually do.

So it dates back to August 2010 when Irwin Jacobs co-founder of Qualcomm came out with this plan to remove cars from Balboa Park Central Plaza. And the plan was backed by the time by the Mayor Jerry Sanders at that time. And it's it's had a long tortured history since then. So it was approved by city council that was there was a lawsuit in between. But in 2012 as proved by City Council at the time it was a forty five million dollar project and then it was sued and then it was approved by city council again in November of 2016.

It was sued and then it was going forward as of October actually even as of as of January. And the big controversial pieces are obviously the bypass bridge which would get the people off of the the debris of the eastern end of a badge that you'd be able to drive in. And then there'd be a bypass bridge that would loop you around to the other side to speckles organ pavilion the parking lot that's there now. There would be an underground parking lot there. And that was also extremely controversial.

Yeah. And so this as you mentioned this project has been held up in court more than once. What were those legal challenges about.

They varied. So you could argue that though the legal challenges were technicalities there was environmental review issues with Soho and then say Save Our Heritage.

Yeah. Is a red herring to preserve architecture. Absolutely. And you know really.

But their issue was just OK. So this bypass bridge is going to destroy the look of Balboa Park from from that western side. And it's interesting argument to contemplate. But they they thought that there was more environmental review that needed to be quiet and they lost that suit. And then Corey Briggs with San Diego saying against for open government sued based on the legality of the bonds so the city was going to be responsible for 49 million dollars of the project that was approved in 2016 because it ballooned to a 79 million dollar project.

And the way that they were going to secure those bonds or pay for the the the bonds was through lease revenue time misspeaking. But they're going to pay for it their lease revenue bonds and those bonds were secured by what they were going to charge for the underground parking garage. And I thought that those were legal he also thought that there was some impropriety in how Mayor Kevin Faulkner who is now very supportive of the plan was promising the Plaza de Panama committee which is the nonprofit raising money. He was he was giving them naming rights for four certain elements in the park and court took issue with that as well.

And so you know these lawsuits were all ultimately unsuccessful but they were successful in delaying the project and you know last month we find out how much this is going to cost. What happened there.

Well that was super interesting. So the city you put this out to bid the construction bids came in. And so for the construction portion the city had approved 75 million of that 79 million dollar budget the lowest bid for you know the basest of features was eighty three and a half million and not went all the way up to over 100 million for that one single bed. And the city kind of like. So Christine and Chad to get the mayor's office like we had lots of conversations about it and there was some sort of tension between you know what the actual bid was but realistically we're talking one hundred million dollar construction bid and the Plaza de Panama committee which is responsible for the nonprofit portion of the funds.

There were also responsible for any cost overruns and so they would be responsible for coming up with that that difference between the seventy five million number and they just weren't interested in doing that.

And so they decided to then just halt their fundraising activities. So some advocates have said that you know this goal of making the Plaza de Panama pedestrian only could be accomplished a lot more quickly and cheaply if we just shut the bridge off to cars and forget about the parking garage.

Why not just do that. You know that's been something people have talked about since 2010 and it's still a very valid point and I get e-mails about it all this time from readers. And I don't have the answer and I don't know that the city has the answer. I think that there were just so gung ho once they cleared the lawsuits of moving forward and there is money allocated from the city which we can get into later but you know it's just like this is what we're doing and this is what you know what Jake was wanted and he was you know he was always the major fund raiser behind this.

So I don't have a clear.

Well yeah.

So I think one of the issues is that some of the neighborhood groups in the Bankers Hill area on the western side of the park think if you shut down that bridge it'll push the people will instead of just driving all the way around the park they'll park in our community and they'll.

And so it's run into some essentially maybe opposition from the stuff that I saw and that makes sense totally but from the stuff I saw people were really advocating for like temporary closures. Right. No one time off things.

And and the museums in Balboa Park are also kind of concerned about you know if we push the parking to the outer edges of the park then people might not come to the museums right.

Well and yes and then when you get into the underground parking garage which was always going to be a four charged lot I think of you know eight to 12 dollars to park there then you have an issue of are we cutting off access to the public you know to maybe lower income individuals who can afford those rates because that would be the only place to really park in the park if this plan went forward. And so that was extremely controversial as well. It was like That was certainly a derailing factor here. Yeah.

Andy Well I mean I think that you know one of the things that you see here with the park is in most issues with the park is there are just so many different stakeholders there and they all have ever so slightly different interests and so they tried to make this grand compromise that was had a lot of moving pieces and was very I think fair to say overengineered as a way to solve everybody's problems. And then in the end it didn't really. But you know you had as you say the institutions kind of demanded that there be some car access because they were very concerned about what it would mean for people at the Old Globe and the Museum of Man if you couldn't drive right through there.

And so that and and they very strongly believe that there needs to be substantially more parking and if you stack all of these different problems on top of each other you start to get yourself to this being the only solution the problem is it opens up a bunch of other different problems. So it's sort of like trying to nail Jello to a tree.

And Jen now Balboa Park has a long laundry list of unfunded needs. So is there is there a debate going on about whether this is really something the city should prioritize or should we be fixing the roofs and you know all those build.

I think there's always been that debate and I keep trying to schedule a tour to kind of go through the park and and get a sense of what all these deferred maintenance costs are. There is the sense though that the mayor who when he confirmed that the Plaza positive Panama committee will no longer be fundraising on this. He he said that you know the city will invest in baseball parks. There is a sense that you know maybe he'll put some of the money that's been set aside towards kind of the basic projects of upgrading the restrooms and repairing the buildings and there's a project going on right now with them the California tower kind of retrofitting that site.

For you know earthquake. Yeah yeah. Well so maybe possibly the pillars of Panama will be on hold for a while it could always just rise again.

Who knows.

Yeah you know it was like disbanded before and then it resurfaced. You never know and they're reluctant to say that the project is dead.

Yeah. So we do have to move on to some news at the border and this one is not about the wall. For years immigrations and immigration and customs enforcement has run a so-called safe release program for legal asylum seekers. They enter the country claiming persecution at home and the government makes an effort to connect them with sponsors or family members. Ice quit that practice a few months ago and started dumping asylum seekers in San Diego County with no effort to keep them sheltered. Not so fast said the county board of supervisors who voted this week to challenge that policy change in court.

So Charles let's start with the reason for this shift in policy why does ice say that they stopped this safe release program right.

So they kind of give two reasons. You know initially they stopped back in October and part of what they pointed to was oh there's so many more family migrant units at the border. The other line that they've kind of you know said repeatedly and. Homeland Security Secretary has said is that you know she put some blame on Congress for you know and the courts for forcing them to not be able to detain children past 20 days which means that you're having to release more and more of them more quickly and that goes back to the family separation issue.

Right. Yeah. So those were kind of the two factors that this indicates to contribute to this. Now there was a coalition of nonprofits that swooped in after this policy change happened to shelter these asylum seekers. What have they been doing.

Right. So the San Diego Rapid Response Network they quickly opened a shelter. They've had to move five times and they're about to move into their sixth now hopefully final location through the end of the year. That's actually a county provided building. But what they're doing is really know not only providing shelter but they're providing the resources to connect these people to you know their sponsors who are often not in the state of California and certainly not in San Diego. And this was all work that the government used to be doing.

Exactly. So they're really picking up where the government left off and that's what you've seen with you know a lot of different nonprofit groups and even some localities across these border cities.

So as you kind of hinted at both the county and the state have had stepped in to help these nonprofits out what did they do right.

So the county is spent kind of a gradual shift since the new board of supervisors were sworn in but initially what they did was they set up a task force and they started looking at potential county properties that could be used as a shelter for these family migrants. They then you know a few weeks ago approved a temporary shelter at the old county family courthouse building. So they're moving the Rapid Response Network in there. They're going to be providing the services out of that at the same time. The county has also been providing public health screenings for the different migrants which cost staff staff hours money right like that.

And that's where typically the county points to is their biggest cost in all of this.

So let's move on now to talk about this lawsuit. The county has voted to sue the Trump administration and we have a sound bite here from Supervisor Dianne Jacob who spoke to KP B.S. week this week about the planned lawsuit.

But this is the federal government's responsibility. And by filing the lawsuit the intent is to send a very strong message that it's costing us money and it's not right and it's not fair for agencies in San Diego County to be picking up the tab and taking care of asylum seekers which is responsibility of the federal government.

Now Charles there was one vote against filing this lawsuit that came from supervisor Kristin Gass bar. Why did she. Did she explain why she voted no.

Yes. So she you know she put out a statement and essentially what she got out was you know she she point to a few things one she said she didn't feel that the lawsuit would go anywhere. She also said you know she believes in real fixes rather than legal grandstanding. So she certainly seemed to suggest she thought this was more political posturing which you know I think a lot of people would say it's kind of ironic given the county's past involvement with some Trump affiliated lawsuits.

Yeah well let's let's talk about that now. Kristen Gaspar yes. So the county Board of Supervisors is has four Republicans one Democrat now and they've sided with the Trump administration on other immigration related issues haven't they.

Right. So they joined you know too much controversy at the time as part of the Trump administration's lawsuit against this so-called sanctuary state laws in California. You know I think surprised gasp outside I know speaking with supervisor Jacob she kind of made a point that you know these are two different issues although they both deal with immigration. You know one had to do with you know an undocumented immigrants whereas the other you know still people who are here following the proper legal process.

Now the Trump administration there's another kind of layer to this. They recently started sending asylum seekers who were entering the country from Mexico back to Mexico to wait for their court dates in that country is that at all impacting how many people are ending up you know being dumped out on our streets in San Diego County.

Yes so you know that's really I think the big overarching question with all of this is we kind of move forward as you know it took them a while before they actually started implementing the remaining Mexico policy. I know our colleagues over the interviewing they recently reported that 73 people have since been sent back to Mexico to wait for their asylum claims and literally on Wednesday they finally started sending family units back. That's going to be legally challenged and the ACLU just yesterday actually filed a lawsuit trying to prevent the remaining Mexico policy.

I think in the interim we're all going to have to wait and see how this actually plays out and impacts what we're seeing on the ground here in San Diego. I know the supervisors certainly didn't think that it would make the problem go away.

Mm hmm. And so you think covering the county for a while. Were you at all surprised by this lawsuit and the vote.

So I a little bit I think you know supervisor Jake a she really announced that this was something she'd be pursuing back at the beginning of a month. So that kind of colorful caught us off guard initially I think seeing the support for it didn't surprise me quite as much. And I think it's mainly because you know regardless of where you stand on the immigration issue this certainly has an impact here in San Diego and I think the supervisors they can look at it as far as a public health problem. There's also the fiscal impact on them.

And then you know even within their you know different kind of ways of looking at it they can find something that they'll latch on to as you know the reason that they support this now they could just say you know it's about us protecting our taxpayer. Exactly. Which you know interestingly you know supervisor Desmond he actually put out a statement that said pretty much exactly that.

So and one not known for his opposition to Republican policies or the Trump administration right. Is that true red pickup Republican. Exactly exactly. Yeah.

So this lawsuit has to be filed in 30 days is it. So any idea how long it could take to play out in court.

So we don't really know that yet. We know they're going to file it in 30 days. I think the other thing that'll be interesting to watch is it. Do they get other communities to join in this lawsuit. I have a feeling that committees like El Paso certainly would be interested.

Mm hmm.

Well we've we're just about out of time on this now and that does ramp up another week of stories at the PBS roundtable a big thank you to our guests Andrew Keats and Sarah Libby from Voice of San Diego and Jennifer Van Grove and Charles Clarke from the San Diego Union Union Tribune. A reminder all of the stories we discussed today are available on our Web site KPRC dawg. I'm Andrew Cohen in for hour. Thanks for joining us today on the roundtable.

Just after midnight on New Year's Eve 2003 a shooting shook the Lincoln Park neighborhood in San Diego.

Everybody felt it like you have to. You have two innocent women that. Were just coming from church you know that had nothing to do with anything.

Two women were caught in gang crossfire outside Dr J's liquor.

It's kind of like a three year old type of memory you know for me like I think there was a dragon there. It was kind of like a story from a fairy tale. It's still being felt from the families of the victims to the man convicted.

It's like you're watching somebody get beat with a belt and you're not getting hit but you're feeling the licks and you're doing all the reaction.

If you walk the streets in the area today people still talk about the shooting and the lasting impacts it had. It's. Taking not even a ticking time bomb it's exploding at this point. Tune in for Dr. James R. six part series starting February 20th.

Find it on the San Diego Stories podcast AKP B.S. dot org slash podcasts.