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SANDAG Wants More Rail, Managed Lanes In Transportation Plan

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata speaks to board members at a meeting,...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata speaks to board members at a meeting, April 26, 2019.

County transportation officials Friday unveiled a framework for its next regional transportation plan, as they push for a shift toward more mass transit to meet state climate targets.

The San Diego Association of Governments held a joint meeting of its board of directors and various advisory and oversight committees, laying out five "big moves" it said will guide the regional plan. They include a big expansion of high-speed and high-frequency transit service, managed freeway lanes, shared electric vehicles and an "operating system" that would manage demand on the entire transportation system.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata told board members his primary concern was creating a plan that would comply with state law, which mandates a 19% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, as well as cuts to car travel.

"I will not put in front of the board any project that will increase vehicle miles traveled and not reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he told reporters after the meeting. "I think what people need to get away from is stop saying transit versus highway. We're looking at this as a system. These five big moves apply to the highway as much as it does to transit."

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The plan does include concepts that could allow the existing freeway network to carry more people by prioritizing more dedicated lanes for buses and carpools. But it does not include several freeway widening projects that some elected officials have been pushing for more than a decade.

The presentation was mostly well received by the region's mayors, city council members and county supervisors who sit on the SANDAG board. Many praised its ambition and agreed that freeway widenings should not be the priority.

"Because you had an initial plan, and technologies change, and the future of mobility is constantly changing, it's always good to review what you've approved in the past to see — does that particular project make sense today for the future," said Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas.

But there was dissent as well, mostly from North and East County conservatives who have long been pushing for widenings of state Routes 78 and 52, among others. Both of those freeways were included in the 2004 tax measure, Transnet, that was approved by voters. Some also expressed skepticism of research that shows freeway widenings do not reduce traffic congestion, but rather induce more driving.

"I do agree with the vision, I think in the long-term it's worth it," said County Supervisor Jim Desmond, whose district stretches from Oceanside to Borrego Springs. "But we've got to make sure that we keep the promises that we made."

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Included in the 2004 Transnet ordinance is a provision that allows board members to amend the list of projects slated for funding with a two-thirds majority vote. Several environmental and community activists showed up to the meeting to express their support for Ikhrata's vision, and to urge elected officials to support such an amendment.

"It's hard to stomach this idea that SANDAG's integrity is contingent on building freeway projects that will worsen the climate crisis," said Sophie Wolfram, director of programs for the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign. "What actually takes integrity is standing up for what's right and acting to protect kids' futures."

The biggest unknown in the plan is its price tag. Ikhrata said he expected agency staff to come up with a cost estimate later this year, and that they would look beyond the traditional revenue models of sales taxes to fund the projects.

SANDAG board members agreed earlier this year to put off adoption of the regional plan until late 2021 to allow staff to put more effort into the plan and ensure it complies with state climate targets.

The San Diego Association of Governments has unveiled a broad framework for its next regional transportation plan, including a big expansion of the rail network, bus-only lanes and managed freeway lanes. Notably absent are a number of freeway widening projects.

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