Roundtable: I-5 Widening Option Chosen
When Caltrans first unveiled its options to expand Interstate 5 from La Jolla to Oceanside, there was an outcry: "We can't keep paving over paradise to make way for more cars"! But gridlock looms over our future, and so this week everyone is analyzing the plan Caltrans has picked.
We'd love to hear from you. Do you drive the coastline? Do you ride the coaster? Do you care about what happens there in the next 20 years?
GUESTS: Tom Fudge, reporter, KPBS News and author of the KPBS blog "Off Ramp"
Roger Showley, writer, growth and development, San Diego Union Tribune
Jose Luis Jimenez, social media editor, Fronteras, KPBS News
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
ST. JOHN: It's Friday, July 8th. I'm Alison St. John. And with me today at the Roundtable we have Tom Fudge, reporter, KPBS news, and author of the KPBS blog on-ramp. Glad to have you here, Tom.
FUDGE: Hi Alison, good to be here.
ST. JOHN: Roger Shirley who writes for the UT on growth and development.
SHIRLEY: Hi Alison.
ST. JOHN: And Luis Jimenez, who is the social media editor for both KPBS news and fronteras. Glad to have you back.
JIMENEZ: Glad to be here.
ST. JOHN: So let's get started.
JIMENEZ: What's your name?
ST. JOHN: When Caltrans first unveiled its option to expand interstate five from La Jolla to Oceanside, there was an outcry. People were saying we can't keep paving over paradise to make way for more cars. But grid look does loom in our future. This week, everyone is analyzing the plan Caltrans has picked. Will 4 Extra Lanes be enough? Are we doing enough to build alternative ways of getting around? We'd love to hear from you. Do you drive the coastline? Do you ride the coaster? Do you care? Give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. Stow Tom, you're our lead on this issue. Tell us, are motorists actually going to see any relief as a result of this proposed plan?
FUDGE: Probably not for about 10 or 20 years. These infrastructure projects take a long time, but if adding lanes to a freeway results in relief of congestion, then yes, variable they will see relieve of congestion. You simply fill them up, then you have congestion on a larger scale. But they are going to -- if we go ahead with the Caltrans plan, which is also supported by SANDAG, the San Diego association of governments; and will probably, I'm assuming, will be approved by the California coastal commission, then we're going to have more lanes on I-5.
ST. JOHN: That might be ape big assumption, but we'll see. It's certainly true that Caltrans has picked this one plan. Tell us what the options were, and what the decision -- you know, what led to this decision, four lanes. That wasn't the biggest possible expansion, was if?
FUDGE: It's always difficult talking about these infrastructure projects, because there are all these -- they seem like competing jurisdictions, they all have a stake in this and something to say about it. The plans for expanding I-5 in North County began when SANDAG, the San Diego association of governments, started to put together their regional transportation plan. And this RTP is just a huge monstrous thing. It is planning to spend $196 billion between now and 2050 on various modes of transportation from freeways to public transportation to bike ways and pedestrian ways. And one part of that, about $6 billion, approximately, would go to the expansion of I-5. And when SANDAG got together and started talking about it, they came up with a variety of options. One was to do nothing. Of course in planning, you always come up with the no build scenario. One would be to add 4 Express Lanes or some people would say carpool lanes. But there was a third plan, the infamous plan to add six lanes to I-5. And that's the thing that got people really excited and got a lot of people in the North County very upset. So the decision by Caltrans to go with only four lanes would be something that would give relief to people who were concerned about six. The additional question is, how likely were we to ever get six? Or was that something that the SANDAG politicians were throwing out there so they could present people with something real nightmarish, and then back you have and do four and everybody's happy.
ST. JOHN: Roger, we had some feedback from Christine Kehoe on that larger plan. Didn't we?
SHIRLEY: I gather she likes this plan. She backed up her legislation which was going to require that Caltrans do all the public work before the freeway expansion. And I wanted to ask Tom something about this. Virtual, following this off and on over the years, Caltrans used to say traffic is never going to get better than it is today. It's going to get longer, take longer to reach anywhere. Even if we had four lanes or 20 lanes, it's still going to take longer. So if they're only going with four lanes, I guess it's going to be horrible in 20 years, not better. Be happy with what you have now. No matter what they do, two hundred billion, with more people, more cars and everything in San Diego, this is snot going to solve it.
FUDGE: I suppose they could double deck it, put maybe eight lanes on top, and maybe that would solve the problem. But you mentioned the subject of Chris Kehoe's original bill, it's very interesting, because there's a concept in transportation planning called transit first. And people who are fans of public transportation think that this is the way to go. And that's the way SANDAG should go in its region transportation man. Transit first is pretty self explanatory. That means that if you have a plan to build, say, a trolley line or a rapid bus line and plans to expand a freeway, you do the public transportation first. The argument for this is that if you just go ahead and solve the congestion problem on freeways, then people will keep driving their cars. If you leave that congestion there, but then give people the alternative of using public transportation, that's a better way to build up ridership for public transportation and supposedly reduce green house gases and the whole thing. Chris can hoe when she first presented her bill, it was a transit first bill. She was saying we're not going to expand I-5 until we double track the coaster community rale line, until we do this that and other, Z, as it affects public transportation. That was the original plan, but she ran into a forest of political opposition, and the result is what we see now, that it's a plan to do four lanes of expansion on I-5 rather than six.
ST. JOHN: Okay. Now, I was looking at some statistics from last year, and it said that there were 300,000 empty seats on the coaster that drivers could have filled during the last fiscal year, about 1.25 million people rode the coaster. But that was down from the year before. Under this scenario, you've got to wonder, will people ride the coaster even if the coaster is expanded? I'd like to put the call out to you listeners. Are you someone who uses the coaster? Is it as friendly as it needs to be? What's your experience? What would make you ride it more? Tom, tell us, what is in this plan that would improve the coaster?
FUDGE: What is in the plan, SANDAG's RTP, is a plan to double track the coaster. If you have two tracks, then the train doesn't get stuck when it's running in different directions, and it's got two tracks, and so it moves more official. You can have more trains, and that is part of the region transportation plan. The big question has been, though, when is it going to be created? And Chris Kehoe's bill originally demanded that double tracking the coaster would happen before you expanded I-5. But she's backed off of that, and now you can call her plan not transit first but transit concurrent.
ST. JOHN: Ah, ha.
FUDGE: In other words, are the double tracking of the coaster would happen as they are expanding I-5. And, well, for mass transit supporters, I guess that's better than building I5 first and then doing the corer.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is our number here. And Donald is on the line from Solana beach. Go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: I am a resident -- coastal resident. But I think I speak for all coastal residents and taxpayers as well. When I question the wisdom of squandering billions of dollars more of our funds to double track what we know to be a failed experiment called the cover, not with standing the comment just made that there are 1.2 million passengers for the cover last year. In fact, every single passenger who commutes on a regular basis is counted 500 times as a passenger. Of the actual core ridership of the coaster is less than 1 tenth of one percent of the population of the county. It doesn't work.
ST. JOHN: May I ask you, if the coaster doesn't work and you were a planner, what would you do to avoid grid lock? Would you just keep on expanding the freeway?
NEW SPEAKER: I would not. I would redirect those dollars that are going to be squandered on something that's going to do further environmental damage to our beaches and lagoons for no reasonable payout, redivert those funds to bus rapid transit down the existing highway infrastructure. This doesn't require -- the advantage of buses is that they are clean burning, it's a flexible and scaleable alternative. And it does not destroy the coast. If we were to really think outside the box and think boldly, this entire rail corridor is really a right-of-way. For purposes of heavy diesel rail, it would revert to the coastal communities and could be redeveloped as property and sales tax generating assets right along the coastline.
ST. JOHN: All right, you live in Solana beach, Donald?
FUDGE: I'd buy one of those houses.
ST. JOHN: Thank you for your perspective there, Donald. Tell us, Tom, where does rapid transit fit into this plan? ?
FUDGE: Like other transit programs. . I went to the opening of a bus rapid transit line in Escondido just about a month ago. Bus rapid transit is -- to an extent, it's I bus that goes on dedicated lines, they time the lights so it doesn't get stuck behind traffic lights, and they're being planned for -- well, already for Escondido, for university city, and I'm sure a few other places in San Diego County. Whether that is a better solution than the cover, I'm not sure. I can't vouch for our caller's comment that people riding the coaster are counted 500 times. I'm not sure where he gets that.
ST. JOHN: Some people say I'm not interested and riding the bus, but the trolley and the coaster are school. So that is a public transit that they would use.
FUDGE: Yes, and I think in some communities, not sure about San Diego, but there is kind of a class difference between people who ride the train and people who ride the bus. The bus is viewed as a low income thing. And the train is viewed as something that is actually -- train and trolley is used by middle class people.
ST. JOHN: Which is not true in Europe at all.
FUDGE: No, it's not. But that is a perception in the United States. I think with bus rapid transit, though, the transportation manners are trying to create a bus product, so to speak, that really will appeal to the middle class, that really are going to be used by commuters going to work.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727. Johan from San Diego has got a comment.
NEW SPEAKER: I live downtown, and I try to use the coaster, when I was working in -- and the problem with the coaster is not only that it's a little slow. I grew up in Germany. The problem is not only that it's too slow, but once you actually arrive at the destination, the problem is getting where you really want to go. I tried to look at getting to my work place by bus because there was nothing else, and it would have taken me an hour for a ten-minute trip to go by bus. So that's one of the problems with the coaster situation. Then obviously here in the United States , you have a completely different problem of having -- neglected infrastructure investment in public transit for decades. You have to see that your infrastructure now with the freeways, with the combined infrastructure of freeway public transit and that is degrading into a third world country status. Don't get me wrong. But it's really not up to speed.
ST. JOHN: That's a very interesting comment, Johan. Thank you for that. Someone who presumably has come from another country and seen a place where public transit does work. Jose, what do you think the chances are of building a public transportation system that works in San Diego?
JIMENEZ: I have personal experience with his comment. I went once from a home to my job in Escondido and it took me three hours. Upon the train was efficiently. Got to Solana Beach in about an hour. Then I had to wait half an hour for a bus which wasn't meandering all the way through North County before I got to my job. That's the big debate. If you build, will they come? Or do you have to wait till the pent up demand is there before you can build these things?
ST. JOHN: And Roger, what does the business community think about the way we're headed? Is this plan that's being proposed by Caltrans going to work to keep the economy rolling?
SHIRLEY: Well, I think we've built ourselves into a box, buzz we're now dispersed all over the county in employment centers, housing developments, shopping. We're built into a car related economy in San Diego. And business people are really worried about access efficiency between their offices and their customers. And you can argue with these infrastructure investments one way or the other. I think what we should expect is the market to deal with, in other words if it's congested, you carpool. If you want your employees to get to work on time, you set up van pools for them. The employers have to spend time on this. Instead of spending billions on concrete and trains, with shared -- cars that you share with each other and everything else. And bike, and whatever. So I could see why Caltrans wants this, because they build highways. That's their job. But the economy, I don't know if we get anything out of this.
ST. JOHN: Tom?
FUDGE: I just wanted to say in response to the caller's comment, which was a good comment, one problem with public transportation in San Diego as it affects rail transportation is much of our trolley system in our commuter rail system was built along existing rail right-of-way. When he talks the coaster not taking you to where you want to go, it's because of following that rail right-of-way because it's cheap cheaper to build that way. The one trolley line that seems to have broken the mold is the green line. It's the one that goes from downtown to old town, and then out to San Diego state. They really built that line I think with the intention of taking people to places where they really want to go as opposed to simply using existing rail right-of-way. So -- but that's something you gotta do. You gotta take people where they want to go, not it say place where you then is they have to get on a bus and spend another 45 minutes to an hour getting to where they really want to go.
ST. JOHN: We've got to wrap up this discussion here, but it looks like at least we now know that in the future, we're only going to have another four lanes up interstate five, which leaves a lot of questions as to whether or not that's going to be enough and what the alternatives will be. Stay with us, we're going to be speaking with immigration reform. We have learned from new studies that there are far fewer immigrants coming across the U.S. Mexico border. What's the reason and what does it mean for San Diego? Stay with us.