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New SANDAG Exec: Climate Change Will ‘Absolutely’ Guide Transportation Spending

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata speaks with in an interview with KPBS...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata speaks with in an interview with KPBS, Dec. 20, 2018.

New SANDAG Exec: Climate Change Will 'Absolutely' Guide Transportation Spending

GUEST:

Hasan Ikhrata, executive director, San Diego Association of Governments

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Transcript

Hasan Ikhrata assumed his post as executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments on Dec. 3. He took the job after his predecessor, Gary Gallegos, retired amid a scandal over forecasts for the agency's unsuccessful tax measure in 2016.

Ikhrata spoke with KPBS about how he plans to lead SANDAG, the county's premier transportation planning agency.

Q: You've been on the job for less than a month now, but you're already laying out a vision for the San Diego Airport, and improving transit there. What is that vision?

A: First of all, I really appreciate being invited. And the vision is simple: We need the 3.3 million San Diegans to be able to access the airport with many choices. Now, most of them drive. We want to give a couple more choices that are legitimate and safe. Transit is one of them. So our vision with our partners — the Airport Authority, the Port, city of San Diego, MTS, NCTD — is to work together to put the state of the art, technologically advanced people mover that goes to the two terminals, connect to what we call "San Diego Grand Central," where we will have the COASTER, Amtrak, LOSSAN, our rail system, and the future rail that we're going to plan for San Diego, come in. This Grand Central will be a great opportunity for a great economic zone: development, housing, shops. People can walk and bike without the fear of getting hit by a car. So our vision is simple: have more options for people to access the airport, because every airport in the world of this magnitude has such a system, and we don't. And it's about time we do.

Q: I want to read you a tweet from someone. This is from (community activist) Joe LaCava regarding the airport plan. He said, "Convince me this isn't a shiny object distracting us from the harder conversation to adopt and fund a transportation plan that implements our Climate Action Plans." And the concern from him is that too much focus on transit to the airport will distract and divert attention and resources away from the transit that people would use every single day. What's your response?

A: My response to the gentleman who wrote this is watch us and believe what we do, not just what we say. This is just because of the timing. We needed to do something because of the terminal improvement. But we have greater plans for the County of San Diego. I believe, and we're going to work hard with our partners and we're going to work hard to put in front of my board the transit region for the whole county that would make it better to use it. If not better, same as getting in your car. So this is just the beginning. And I think we're going to be a net zero when it comes to climate change. And I think you will be proud of the system we're going to put forth.

Q: SANDAG's sales tax measure, Transnet, has been bringing a lot less revenue than was originally forecast. A lot of the projects that were promised to voters are also a lot more expensive now. Do you think that the SANDAG board of directors should consider amending that project list and acknowledging that some of these projects may never get built?

A: I think this should be on the table for discussion because remember not only the project we promised we're going to build but also the things we need in the future to make this a great transportation system. So I think this should be on the table, among other things. At the end of the day, I think it's premature to talk about funding. Let's define the vision, and then let us see how much it's going to cost. And it's not going to be cheap. And let us put on the table all the discussion we need honestly. And I have faith in our board that they are ready for a new vision. And I have faith that San Diegans if they think this vision is tangible for them, they're going to work with us.

Q: The California Air Resources Board came out with a report recently that said that organizations like SANDAG across the state are failing to reduce car travel and that this trend could lead to the state failing its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What do you do with that information?

A: Just so your viewers know, I testified in front of the Air Resources Board, the joint meeting with the California Transportation Commission, two weeks ago, December 4th. And my message to them is this: Yes, I think we need to do more to curb the vehicle miles traveled. But we cannot do that without providing choices. And I think we should give regions a chance to provide choices, and then come and say you need to meet certain requirements. Look, SANDAG is not in charge of land use. SANDAG is in charge to put regional transportation, and hope that our cities work together with us to link that to land use. Right now the travel is going up, with actual data. What we need is provide real options to the car, and then price the system right, and then hope that that will be reduced. That's my message to the Air Resources Board. And I think it can be done.

Q: How much is climate change going to factor into your recommendations on how to spend the transportation dollars that SANDAG controls? Is it front and center, every dollar you spend?

A: Absolutely. We have to be sustainable, environmentally and financially, into the future. And we're going to factor in greenhouse gas emissions. My vision is any system you build has to come close to a net zero. That's what we're going to do in San Diego.

Q: I want to show you a picture. This is a rendering of a future trolley station at Balboa Avenue on the Mid-Coast trolley extension. As you can see, most of the land that's immediately right next to the station itself is a surface parking lot. You said SANDAG doesn't control land use, but it does control this particular piece of land. Is this your vision for a 21st-century transit stop?

A: No. 21st century transit will have every station (be) a redevelopment zone where people could live, shop, walk, bike. I think it's an example of where transit agencies fail their region by not developing every single station. Not just one.

Q: Have you been riding very much public transit here?

A: Yes I have.

Q: And what do you think?

A: We need some work. We need to work on it. It's a good public transportation, but we need it to be faster. We need to be direct. We need it to respond to what we need.

Q: How about biking? Have you biked much?

A: No, I have not.

Q: Do you plan on it?

A: I will. And you know one thing — transportation system is a transportation system. It's transit, it's biking, it's the highways working together.

Q: I think a lot of transit and bike advocates feel that if only the decision makers were riding the trains and the buses every day and biking the streets, they would realize how those are the areas where there are the greatest infrastructure needs. Do you feel that your staff, SANDAG staff, other SANDAG board members, should be experiencing these things firsthand more often to inform their decision making?

A: I think without question that the more our board becomes closer to understanding the options in front of them, the better it is. And I would encourage all of us to experience firsthand all of this. Remember we are looking for a transportation system with all of its components working together, not just one. People say, "When are you going to focus on transit?" And I say let us put a good transportation system for the future that will have all of the components. And if you bike, you should be able to do it safely. If you take the transit, great, it should be as convenient as driving a vehicle. And if you drive, that's okay, too. And all of them have to be priced in such a way that makes sense.

Q: Do you believe that widening freeways reduces congestion?

A: No. Maybe for a while, but latent demand will kick in. I don't think we're going to solve our problem by keep widening freeways, period. And anybody who argues with that, I'd love to talk to them.

Q: Earlier this month, you told SANDAG board members that it's time to start talking about the future in a very significant way. And you've heard some doubts about whether the board is ready for that discussion but ready or not, you're going to be having it. What did you mean by that?

A: I believe my job and my team's job is to bring ideas to the board. It's their job to make decisions. So ready or not, I'm going to bring ideas. It's not my decision at the end of the day, it's their decision. But I can tell you and tell your viewers, I believe our board is ready for charting a new future for SANDAG.

Reported by Kris Arciaga

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