SANDAG considers 200 miles of new freeway lanes in next transportation plan
San Diego County would add some 200 miles of new freeway lanes under an early version of a regional transportation plan from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).
The planning agency is currently developing an "initial concept" for their next transportation plan — a rough framework of projects and policies that will later be plugged into modeling tools to determine how effective they'll be at reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The framework includes improvements to the region's bus and rail infrastructure, including a rail connection to the San Diego International Airport, greater capacity on the rail corridor to Los Angeles and the long-awaited "Purple Line" that would take riders from the San Ysidro border crossing to Kearny Mesa. Many of those transit improvements wouldn't come until after 2035, San Diego's self-imposed deadline for achieving carbon neutrality.
But the proposed freeway expansions could prove to be the most consequential and controversial elements of SANDAG's new plan. That's because freeway expansions increase driving, which in turn increases greenhouse gas emissions. SANDAG is required to reduce emissions, meaning it must find ways to offset the climate impacts of its freeway expansions.
"We've known for a long time that adding lanes doesn't solve traffic, it just induces more vehicle miles traveled," Connor Proctor, vice president of the pro-transit group RideSD, told the SANDAG board of directors at its Jan. 26 meeting. "There's 11 highway expansions in this plan. There should be zero."
The freeway expansions would generate roughly 967 million miles of additional vehicle travel per year, according to an online calculator developed by researchers at UC Davis. A state-adopted roadmap to carbon neutrality found over the next six years, the average Californian will have to reduce the number of miles they drive each year by 25%.
SANDAG is tasked with updating its regional transportation plan every four years. The most recent plan was adopted in 2021, then revised in 2022 to remove a policy that would have charged motorists 2 cents for every mile they drive. That policy sparked fierce backlash from conservatives on the SANDAG board, which voted last September to exclude it from future plans as well.
The revised plan without the so-called "road user charge" has not yet been approved by state regulators.
The policy was one of SANDAG's most effective tools at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It both discouraged driving and generated significant revenue for more sustainable transportation infrastructure. Without that policy on the table, the agency faces an increasingly narrow pathway to meeting state climate targets.
SANDAG staff told board members last month that recent changes to state and federal regulations will make achieving those climate goals more difficult than in years past. For example, the state will no longer allow SANDAG to assume that local investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Antoinette Meier, SANDAG senior director of regional planning, told the board that the agency is actually planning fewer freeway expansions than in prior years because state regulators are scrutinizing those projects more than ever before. All the new freeway lanes would be managed lanes open to carpoolers or solo drivers willing to pay a toll — but even those types of freeway expansions have been found to increase emissions.
"We still have a managed lane network, but it's the smallest managed lane network that we've had in a regional plan," Meier said. "It used to be a lot easier in previous plan cycles to come up with a compliant plan. … We don't have as many options (for reducing emissions) as we had in previous plans."
The SANDAG board, which is made up of 21 local mayors, city councilmembers and county supervisors, will discuss the next regional plan again on Feb. 9. It must officially adopt a new plan by the end of 2025.