SANDAG board approves 30-year transportation plan in partisan vote
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Leaders from the county and San Diego's 18 cities make up the membership of the San Diego association of governments or SANDAG. And last Friday, that organization gave approval to a 160 billion proposal to transform transportation throughout the county. The new regional transportation plan, public transit, including high speed rail lines increases managed lanes on freeways and complete San Diego's long plan network of bike lanes. But the plan still faces hurdles voters will have to approve sales tax increases to fund some of the proposals and SANDAG members are asking at a fundamental piece of the transportation plan, a per mile fee for drivers be removed. Joining me as KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen. Andrew, welcome
Speaker 2: (00:51)
Time, Maureen. Thanks. Can you
Speaker 1: (00:53)
Remind us why sand ag needs to draw up a new transportation plan for the county?
Speaker 2: (00:58)
Sure. Regional transportation plans are required by both state and federal law and they have to be updated every four years. Although SANDAG is currently operating under a two year extension, uh, because they, they decided in 2019, they needed to put a whole lot more work into this overhaul. The purpose is basically just to make sure that large metropolitan areas are planning for their long term transportation needs. So they're projecting decades into the future. How many people will be living in your region? Where are they gonna be living and how are they going to be getting around in sand A's case in California? Uh, the state has also imposed a pretty strict and, and ever increasing requirements to reduce driving and greenhouse gas emissions. So that's a key component of this plan and the requirements often the discussion, I think, around these things ends up giving people the impression that these projects are gonna be happening tomorrow. Uh, but in fact, the really big ticket items in this plan wouldn't happen until 2035 at the earliest. And many of them not until 2050. The other point to keep in mind is that SANDAG, as you kind to alluded to in your intro SANDAG, didn't vote on any individual project that they're going to build. Uh, last week you can think of the regional plan as kind of the blueprint and then the implementation of that plan requires a whole host of other actions that have to take place.
Speaker 1: (02:18)
Let's talk for a minute about the vision though. How would this plan transform the waste and Diegos get around? Yeah, well,
Speaker 2: (02:25)
I think maybe it's helpful to frame it through, uh, the way that SANDAG, um, structure, this plan, which is kind of the branding strategy. Um, the five big moves, so five sort of like overarching, uh, strategies in their approach to transportation. One of them is called complete corridors, and this is the idea to transform our highway network. And, uh, in some cases, perhaps even surface streets to include more high occupancy vehicle or carpool lanes, um, that would also then be open to solo drivers. If they're willing to pay a toll, this of course already exists on the I 15, the express lanes there and also kind of reorienting major surface streets to include more bike pedestrian and transit infrastructure. The second big move is transit leaps. So this is, um, big improvements to, uh, bus services, new commuter rail lines, uh, that would connect major population and employment hubs.
Speaker 2: (03:18)
Uh, the next is mobility hubs. So this is a strategy, more oriented towards land use, where you concentrate your population growth, your housing development in dense walkable areas that are less car dependent. The fourth is flexible fleets. So this is the, um, sort of smaller vehicles that allow you to get from your home, a major transit hub. Um, that might be too far to walk. And these could include autonomous vehicles, um, shared shuttles, uh, regular old bikes or scooters, either owned by an individual or maybe even rented like the companies that exist out there now. And then the fifth big move is the next operating system. This is the technology that would allow you to open your phone, look at all of the different options that you, um, have for getting to wherever you have to go, how much each one will cost, how long it'll take. And then the bigger vision is just to provide people with more options and incentives to live more sustainably without relying on a car all the time.
Speaker 1: (04:18)
Now, supporters are excited about what this regional transportation plan could mean for San Diego's future, but there are dark clouds surrounding this particular vote. It was divided on partisan lines, wasn't it?
Speaker 2: (04:31)
Yes. The Democrats on the SANDAG boarded of directors voted for the plan. The Republicans voted against it, which doesn't happen all that often. Usually it's not quite a clean cut. Um, but in this case it was, and the conservative critiques were several. One of them was just that it was too expensive. It relies on new taxes. Of course, uh, the taxes wouldn't happen if they didn't get approval from voters. Many of them didn't like the elimination of some freeway widening projects, particularly in north county. Um, the, there are plans to expand the capacity of the freeways, but not adding new general purpose lanes that could be used for anybody. And also just building within the existing blueprint of the, of the highway, rather than, you know, expanding with more concrete and, you know, seizing property to make the overall freeway wider. Um, and then they also felt that it was too focused on urban areas and not enough on suburban or rural areas where even decades into the future, people are still likely to, um, rely on cars for their transportation. Let's
Speaker 1: (05:32)
Talk about that per mile driving fee. We've heard a lot about this when the proposal was just being put forth and many believe it's the linchpin for this plan to achieve its climate action goals, but it's still not popular with SANDAG leaders. What's the status of that proposal
Speaker 2: (05:49)
A week before this vote happened on December 3rd, the top three leaders of the SANDAG board of directors, San Diego, mayor, Todd, Gloria, and Sanita mayor Catherine Blake and national city mayor Alejandra. So Salise all three of them came out against this road, user charge, quite unexpectedly, uh, and their decision was to approve the plant, the regional transportation plan as it's drafted, but immediately direct staff to start updating the plan plan and eliminate this, uh, road user charge. So SANDAG staff are now getting started on that. I imagine right now, um, the discussion at the board was this was contemplated before we knew about the passage of the federal infrastructure bill. So I think their hope is that maybe SANDAG can strike this, um, charge from their funding. Again, make up the difference by assuming that they'll just get more money from the state and federal governments.
Speaker 2: (06:42)
What I didn't really hear much acknowledgement of as you alluded to in your question is that the road user charge is not just a funding strategy. It's also a strategy to reduce driving and greenhouse gas emissions when you make driving more expensive. Uh, and if public transit is fast and free, as the plan anticipates, uh, in 2030, when this would take effect, you are going to have more people choosing transit and fewer people choosing to drive. So, you know, SANDAG is gonna have to basically just come up with another way to lower greenhouse gas emissions to come up with new ways to fund all of these projects. Um, after that, it'll have to, um, do, uh, an amendment to its environmental impact report, go through a whole other process of a public outreach and, and review. Um, so you know, this plan is, is not even fully cooked yet.
Speaker 1: (07:28)
I've been speaking with K PBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, Andrew. Thank
Speaker 2: (07:32)
You. Thank you, Maureen.
Speaker 3: (07:38)
Board members of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) on Friday approved a 30-year regional transportation plan that aims to wean the county off of car dependence with big investments in public transit and new toll lanes on freeways.
The vote was along party lines, with Democratic mayors, city council members and county supervisors in support and Republicans in opposition. Democrats praised the plan for its focus on supporting low-income communities and its ambitious goals of making biking, walking and riding public transit competitive with the automobile.
"Advancing mobility choices is a top priority for me especially because our region for far too long has not invested in transit and active transportation options," said County Supervisor Nora Vargas. "These decisions in the past have left our transit dependent communities and communities of color behind since day one."
But Republicans said the plan is too expensive — it's expected to cost $163 billion over three decades — and that it ignores the mobility needs of car-dependent rural and suburban communities. They also blasted the plan's funding strategy, which envisions three sales tax measures and a "road user charge" of two cents for every mile driven in the county by 2030, all subject to voter approval.
"(The plan) sets the stage for taxing people that cannot afford it for a service they will never use or benefit from, and this is anything but equitable," said Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey.
Oceanside City Councilmember Chris Rodriguez attempted to convince other board members to delay adoption of the transportation plan for 90 days. But that would have brought SANDAG out of compliance with state and federal laws, and Rodriguez's motion failed.
The road user charge emerged in recent months as the plan's most controversial element, with conservative activists vowing to use it as a campaign issue in future elections.
But the SANDAG board's Democratic leadership sought to block those attacks by directing the agency's staff to immediately start work on removing the road user charge from the transportation plan. Staffers are expected to present a revised plan without the road charge within six months.
"This regional plan, I believe, is visionary and broadly popular, and I think that this vehicle mile traveled fee — to have that included in the plan is a bit of a poison pill," said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who chairs the SANDAG board.
The mileage fee is not just a strategy to fund infrastructure projects — it also functions as an environmental policy that would reduce driving, and by extension, greenhouse gas emissions. Striking the fee from the transportation plan will require SANDAG to find alternative funding sources, as well as alternative strategies to meet state-mandated climate targets.