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SANDAG transportation plan forces debate over costs of climate action

Freeway traffic on interstate 8 on May 21, 2012
Erik Anderson
Freeway traffic on interstate 8 on May 21, 2012

Elected officials from across San Diego County will vote Friday on a regional transportation plan that aims to transform how people get around, with a massive expansion of rail and bus services and bike lanes, as well as adding toll lanes on freeways.

The plan is expensive — costing roughly $163 billion over three decades — and funding it would depend on local voters eventually approving three new sales taxes and motorists paying a fee of 2 cents for every mile they drive.

But officials with the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, argue the plan is a necessary investment to prevent LA-style smog and gridlock from taking over San Diego County as it continues to grow its population and economy. The transportation planning agency also argues it's the only way the region can achieve steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions mandated by state regulators.

"There will be more choices for the 3.3 million San Diegans," said Hasan Ikhrata, SANDAG’s executive director. "If you decide not to drive to certain areas, or if you decide to own one car instead of two, this system will fill that vacuum for you."

SANDAG transportation plans must be updated every four years, although the latest plan was granted a two-year extension. Ikhrata argues past plans have pitted individual transit and highway projects against each other without taking a holistic approach to meeting the region's long-term mobility needs.

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Climate hawks and environmental justice advocates have lauded the new plan's ambitious approach and its improvements to public transit in the next four years.

"We see frequency increases in the transit system, 24-hour service, a study to improve the Blue Line (trolley) that goes to the South Bay, as well as bathrooms and essential services that are really key in making the transit system successful," said Carolina Martinez, climate justice director at the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition.

The support from environmentalists is a striking departure from history when groups such as Martinez’s were in constant battle with SANDAG over plans to widen freeways in areas that already suffer from high levels of toxic air pollution. The shift is largely thanks to Ikhrata, who took the helm at the agency three years ago.

"I want to commend the staff at SANDAG, they've done an amazing job of integrating our communities in the planning process from the get-go," Martinez said.

Despite all the support, detractors such as San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones have attacked the transportation plan from all angles, from its relatively high price tag to its abandonment of certain highway widening projects, particularly in North County. Instead of those widenings, SANDAG aims to repurpose existing lanes and freeway shoulders into managed lanes that can be used by carpoolers, buses and solo drivers willing to pay a toll, akin to the I-15 express lanes.

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In recent months, critics have focused their attacks on the "road user charge," the fee charged to drivers for every mile. Conservative radio host and right-wing organizer Carl DeMaio has called it unaffordable to working families and "an invasion of our privacy – as it would include a tracking requirement that is still being determined by government bureaucrats." His website states: "We plan to make the Mileage Tax a key issue in every close race for local and state office in the upcoming election!"

Originally the criticism was mostly limited to Republicans on the SANDAG board of directors. But last week, the board's three top leaders — Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria — also came out against the mileage fee.

All three are Democrats who could run for reelection. Blakespear is especially wary of controversy as she campaigns for a state Senate seat next year that is currently held by a Republican. And there's already evidence the mileage fee proposal could be on the minds of voters, with Republican Laura Lothian using it to win a special election for the La Mesa City Council last month.

"Over the past weeks we have received a resoundingly clear message that a proposed road user charge in San Diego is unsettling and unsupported, and the uncertainty over this impact is looming large in our region," Gloria said at the SANDAG board's Dec. 3 meeting. "Right now, I don't think that this particular part of the plan is something that we should be considering."

Gloria suggested he would support the plan as drafted on Friday to meet a year-end deadline, but would direct SANDAG staff to immediately start amending it to remove the mileage fee and seek alternative funding sources.

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Ikhrata said he was surprised by the sudden turn and wished the board leadership had shared their reservations earlier, but that he would follow whatever the board directs on Friday. And even if the road user charge is ultimately stricken from the plan, he said, the debate has forced policymakers to confront the tough decisions that lie ahead as the growth of electric vehicles continues to deplete gas tax revenues that pay for maintaining public infrastructure.

Even more critical, Ikhrata said, is the debate over how to get San Diegans to drive less. Most greenhouse gas emissions come from cars and trucks, and experts warn it will be impossible to meet California's climate goals without a dramatic shift away from cars in favor of biking, walking and public transit. Economists also argue policies that make driving more expensive may be controversial, but they're extremely effective at getting people into more sustainable transportation modes.

"We can't get where we need to go with subsidies alone," said Mark Jacobsen, a UCSD economics professor who researches transportation and climate policy. "Maybe we could, but the amount of subsidies that would be needed, and the budget that that would take, would just be extraordinary to pull everyone into better behavior instead of using some pushes."

The plan also includes a massive commuter rail network, with new subway lines running from El Cajon to Hillcrest and National City to Sorrento Valley. Colin Parent, executive director of the nonprofit Circulate San Diego, said he supports most of what's in SANDAG's transportation plan but fears those megaprojects will distract the agency from cheaper and faster improvements to the transit system like rapid bus lines.

And, if voters choose not to approve the taxes that would pay for the rail infrastructure, Parent said, SANDAG will need a plan B.

"You want to be optimistic with our revenue," Parent said. "But not so optimistic that we’re planning for things that we could never hope to actually build."

SANDAG transportation plan forces debate over costs of climate action