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SANDAG Board Selects New Executive Director

Hasan Ikhrata, incoming executive director of SANDAG, speaks during a press c...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Hasan Ikhrata, incoming executive director of SANDAG, speaks during a press conference after his hire was announced, Sept. 14, 2018.

Board members of the San Diego Association of Governments on Friday selected Hasan Ikhrata as the agency's new executive director, tapping an experienced professional at a pivotal moment for the county's transportation planning agency.

Ikhrata has served as executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, a similar agency that covers Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire, for the past decade. Prior to leading SCAG, Ikhrata worked for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

SANDAG is San Diego County's regional planning agency and is responsible for overall climate and transportation plans, among other things. Its former executive director, Gary Gallegos, retired after Voice of San Diego found agency officials had overestimated how much money they could raise from a 2016 tax measure, but failed to alert voters before election day.

RELATED: In Patchwork Of Transportation Agencies, What Makes SANDAG Unique?

The scandal also led to state legislation that mandated new auditing procedures and reformed the agency's governance. Speaking at a press conference after his appointment was announced, Ikhrata said he would work to rebuild the agency's credibility.

"Moving forward, you should expect only honest information, not based on politics but based on good policy and good information," he said.

Ikhrata takes the helm as San Diego and California take on ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the lion's share of which come from cars and trucks. SANDAG is currently developing its long-range "Regional Transportation Plan," which determines where the agency will invest limited transportation dollars and what kinds of projects it will fund.

Environmentalists and public transit advocates have long criticized SANDAG for investing too much money in car-centric infrastructure like highways. Ikhrata said he welcomed input from environmental and labor groups, but that pitting freeways against transit was the "wrong debate."

RELATED: How SANDAG Worked The Media On Transportation Plan

"I think we should be focused on designing the best transportation system that contains all modes, because there is not one single mode that is going to answer all the challenges we have," he said.

Advocates who have worked with Ikhrata have praised him as a consensus builder. Denny Zane, executive director of the transit advocacy nonprofit Move LA, said Ikhrata is not a partisan figure and is skilled at navigating competing priorities amid difficult political landscapes.

"He's an advocate in the sense that the mission of the agency is his responsibility, and he will tell his board what he thinks needs to happen to fulfill their lawful responsibility, which includes (greenhouse gas) emissions reductions," he said. "But if his recommendations don't get approved, he is respectful of the process."

As they were discussing Ikhrata's terms of employment Friday morning, some board members balked at the large salary the agency had negotiated: $414,149 per year, with a potential 7 percent bonus for "superior performance." Ikhrata's predecessor made $302,823 in regular pay in 2016, according to Transparent California.

But supporters said given Ikhrata's experience leading large transportation agencies and his past achievements attracting state and federal dollars, the high salary was justified.

Ikhrata's first day on the job will be Dec. 3.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m.

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