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BONUS: Hasan Ikhrata

 July 25, 2023 at 9:37 AM PDT

S1: Hey , listeners. Andrew here with a big announcement. I am currently working on season two of Freeway Exit. I'm really excited. I've got lots of fascinating stories about freeways that I know you're going to love , but this kind of storytelling takes time. So while you wait for season two , I'll be bringing you some bonus episodes like the one you're about to listen to. And if you're a fan , I have some more exciting news. We have merch , you can get a freeway exit t shirt by making a donation to Kpbs. Just go to Click the Give Now button at the top of the page and type in freeway. In the search bubble. You'll be looking hella fly in this t shirt , but more importantly , you'll be supporting the awesome nonprofit news organization that made this podcast possible. Thanks again. And here's the show.

S2: Admitting that some freeways were a mistake. Does that mean it's a mistake that can be corrected or it's a mistake we're going to live with for the rest of our lives ? And I believe if we get to the understanding that this mistakes could be corrected , it is an amazing added value to the discussion of the future of transportation in San Diego and everywhere else in the country.

S1: From Kpbs in San Diego , This is Freeway Exit. I'm Andrew Bowen. Today we're bringing you an interview I did last November with Hassan Ikram. He's the CEO of Sandag , the government agency responsible for planning and building regional transportation projects in San Diego County. And few people have done more to shake up the conversation around our freeways than he has. This is from an interview I did with him in December 2018 , a few weeks after he started the job. Do you believe that widening freeways reduces congestion ? No.

S2: Maybe for a while , but later demand will kick in. I don't think we're going to solve our problem by widening freeways , period.

S1: Now , Icardi's statement here is totally uncontroversial among transportation experts and academics who actually study freeway widening. But among San Diego's politicians , let's just say it's been a hard sell. Coming up , Akron shares how his personal history shaped his view of the freeway and what he thinks about that radical idea of decommissioning the 163. If you're a new listener and you don't know what I'm talking about here , I highly recommend you go back to episode one and start listening from there. More from the transportation czar of San Diego County after a short break. We're back. You're listening to a bonus episode of Freeway Exit. Here's my interview with Hassan Kuroda , CEO of San Diego County's transportation agency Sandag. Let me back up a little bit and ask you a bit more about yourself and your own career and your evolution on some of these ideas. So like , I mean , going all the way back to Jordan , like when you were growing up , when you studied in the Soviet Union , were there were freeways a part of your daily life where I mean , like , was this kind of a concept in your mind that had already been formed and you figured out what you thought about them at that point ? Okay.

S2: So I grew up pretty much in the middle of nowhere in a farm in Jordan. I didn't have an access to TV or electricity. I mean , freeway was like a remote concept that I read about somewhere else. So finished high school in Jordan and left to the former Soviet Union. And as you know , in the former Soviet Union , I was there in 1978 to 84. For six years I did my bachelor's and master's. You didn't really see a lot of freeways there either , but you saw a beautiful subway station and you saw a beautiful way to get around in public transportation. I lived six years in Europe. I did not own a car. I had a bike. And I could go anywhere , everywhere , at any time , whether I wanted to. So I kind of grew up in Jordan and through my school in Europe , thinking that this is really not like it's not the dream that you have here , that you have a car and drive. And frankly , I didn't mind at all not owning a car. I came here to the States in 84 , Los Angeles , of all places. And what I saw here , like , mind boggling. I read about it , I knew about it. And I think my thinking did not change in the fact that this is not a good recipe for the future. And during my career , from the 80s on , I've been promoting that multimodal approach , not thinking that you're going to solve every problem by adding capacity , which a lot of people still think. In San Diego. The biggest thing I'm facing right now is people said , Well , what happened to my project ? And , you know , obviously we don't have money to build them. But even if we had money , I would not recommend that they do because really adding capacity the way people did in the past is a waste of money. So my thinking has been really consistent in the in the need for multimodal approach. I have never been exposed to the freeway system that we have in the US here anywhere else. And I think culturally and it's no different than San Diego , if you create an atmosphere for young generation to be exposed to different modes , they might take it. And I give you an example. Last May we started the 18 or younger Youth Free Youth Pass. Everyone in San Diego , 18 or younger , can take our trolleys or buses free. And frankly , not only the the the ridership increased fourfold , but we're creating a culture of young kids who are who are getting used to something they didn't have before. As a matter of fact , one of our board members who's very conservative , anti everything I ever said or dead , came to one meeting and he said , I love this free passes for 18 or younger because I have six kids and now I don't have to drive them. Can you create that culture here ? I don't know. But you should try because frankly , the recipe of thinking that we're going to get out of this mess by just continuing to add or waiting for a magic wand. So my you ask me about my thinking , my thinking. I read about freeways. I read about the interstate system , I read about transportation. I am a user of public transportation in a big way. I'm used to bike and sometimes coming here I had to drive because I didn't have that choice. And I still believe I like I believe when I was a kid in Jordan and in Europe that it would be wonderful to give people another option.

S1: So , you know , there was a real boom of building freeways in the mid-century. You mentioned 90% was funded by the federal government.

S2: I look , there is no question that we designed our life and our form around the freeways development and the way we develop. Is about the car and the freeways. Have we had some freeways not built ? We probably be in a more suited situation for a multi-modal transportation system. No question about that. And that goes for not only San Diego , but for many places in the in the in the state. I would say , Andrew , the the thing that people miss when we talk about freeways and by the way , many people , if you go to the street now and ask people say why they call it freeways , what do you think people are going to say because it's free freeways doesn't mean it's free. Freeways means free flowing. There is no signals , right ? So the misconception of here is a public good. It's free for you to use and as and you're not responsible for all the health impacts that you put. You're not responsible for the the productivity loss that is to me is what's failing us to think about the future. And that's why some of these freeways that we built actually could have should have never been built and have people thought about it from that standpoint would not have been built and that would have led to a different urban form and maybe more likelihood of a multimodal approach in transportation.

S1: So if it's true that some of the freeways were probably a mistake. Does that mean we're still stuck with them for all eternity ? Or is there some day when you could envision just decommissioning a freeway.

S2: In South Korea ? They converted freeways to parks in San Francisco after the work they didn't do ? I think no question in my mind I'm speaking for myself now. No question that some freeways are a mistake and they shouldn't continue to be. No question.


S2: Andrew , you will be the first to call when we get because right now we're working with many stakeholders that wouldn't want to see this out. But definitely not only that , they're a mistake and they need it to be. It's a costly mistake. That's one. Number two , people talk about social justice and social equity. I'm going to remind your listeners and viewers that we have a lot of transportation sins. In the past , we divided communities. We actually attributed to the social injustice. And to overcome that , we need to do something. Maybe , maybe not getting rid of a freeway , but cover that freeway with a park like we did in the Heights. In the Heights , trying to do the one on one Hollywood Freeway. But Andrew , I would say mistakes to build some freeways and that we shouldn't live up with that mistake just simply because it was there. I think in San Francisco , God forbid they had an earthquake and that kind of eluded let us say that you get to a point where you need to do a major rehab. So Caltrans is saying , well , maybe you need to rebuild something because maintaining it is going to be costlier. I think the region should think about maybe maybe we need to think differently and we have to think differently because the capacity we have today is not going to be enough into the future.

S1: So I actually just this morning , somebody sent me a link to a new Caltrans program that is sort of piggybacking on the Reconnecting Communities pilot program that the federal Dot is doing. The state is coming up with its own sort of companion program to that , looking for ideas of freeways , to boulevards. So not like actually you I mean , it is essentially removing a freeway. There's still some road there , but but it is no longer a freeway. And I'm wondering like , are there are there places in San Diego where you feel like that would be a good choice ? Yes.


S2: I mean , you take take the 8 or 5. Right. Very congested , goes through many communities. I think there is openness and like you said , getting rid of a freeway doesn't mean you bulldoze the streets , but you redevelop it in such a way that it actually makes sense for the residents that that use it and for the reason that live around it. But there is there is that the area of south San Diego County that gets into downtown the central downtown. I think this is all prime areas for doing exactly freeways to boulevards and again , not getting rid of the roads , but redevelopment in such a way that it is not the freeway that just people driving and pollute and we go home. So some of it could continue to be a boulevard , a tree lined boulevard. What beautiful boulevard like you have three line boulevard in Europe for people to walk and bike on and even drive sometimes , you know , if you visit the Netherlands , they'll say the car is a gift to the street , not the vice versa versus the bikes. I envisioned that in San Diego there's a lot of places where it actually could be that where we the boulevard that we convert freeways to becomes a place where people could safely bike , walk , you know , have fun with with their loved ones and and go. But so I do see that in San Diego. Is it something that's going to come soon ? Probably not. But this is something I dream about for San Diego. Absolutely.

S1: Well , I'm also I mean , there is there was a Reconnecting Communities program in Rochester. You probably are familiar with that there. Freeway ring around the downtown and they redeveloped it into a boulevard. And you know , when when it's the government that is actually directing that redevelopment of that land , they can use it for what government sees as the most needed , you know , like affordable housing. Or you say you can dream like if we're dreaming big , if we're really thinking about , you know , imagining a future in which the sky's the limit.

S2: I mean , if even the stations that are owned by two our transit agencies , if we make that , let alone converting Boulevard , we can provide a lot of public look , the public sector is in the business of providing public goods. By golly , the last thing they're providing is public goods. By having ghost parking lots of stations and by having freeways and trying to add to them as you go along. If you truly if you were to dream in San Diego , I think there should be no parking lot at any transit station. There should be no freeways that divide communities. And we should figure out a way not only did in Rochester , but they did in a way in South Korea and kind of a similar way where where freeways become part of the community , they're still streets and you can drive on them. But there is a lot of places where you can develop on them. That's my dream. I don't think that's a dream far fetched because , yes , the the political world is not there and they're still fighting about , you know , we're going to add lanes or we're going to build transit. They're still fighting us. I mean , this board , they have been fighting me from day one for trying to not get rid of freeways or converting by trying to just have a multimodal approach to things that's hard politically.

S1: After the break , Hassan and I talk about his most controversial policy proposal , a 2% charge for every mile you drive in San Diego County. And what does he think about decommissioning the 163 ? Stay tuned. We're back with more from my interview with Sandag CEO Hassan Kuroda. The biggest fight at Kuroda has been having with his bosses , The mayors and city council members who make up Sandag board of directors is over a policy called the road Usage charge. In a nutshell , drivers would have to pay Sandag $0.02 for every mile they drive in San Diego County. For the average driver , it would cost about $20 per month. Akron likes the idea for two main reasons. One , it raises a lot of revenue , and without that revenue , Sandag can't fund the massive investments in public transit that'll be necessary to give folks a meaningful alternative to driving. In addition , the road usage charge is a climate policy on its own make driving more expensive and people will do less of it. You'll hear Hassan explain a bit about the back and forth over this policy. Not much has changed since we spoke here. Three more things. VMT stands for Vehicle Miles Traveled. The Air Resources Board is the state agency that oversees Sandag. And the five big moves is Sandag branding for their regional transportation plan. Okay , Now that you've got all that background , here's the rest of our interview. The road usage charge is really like the kind of flashpoint. It's what the board has actually stated its opposition to. So is there an alternative to the road usage charge that could accomplish the same goal of reducing VMT , of raising revenue to for all of these major transit projects ? I'm thinking of something like just make every freeway a toll lane. I mean , if the board is asking you figure out something else to get to these goals. Is is it enough to say , well , here's another way to price the system ? It's just a different way of pricing it. But here's another way. Sure.

S2: Sure. The road users charge is in the 2021 regional transportation plan , and we were the first in the country to be bold to say put it there. The board took action subsequently to take it out and we said , okay. And that's the direction from the board to take it out. But I want to remind your listeners and viewers that the board taking action is one thing. Getting the state of California to approve it is a totally second thing. We're going to submit it to the state , the 2021 regional transportation plan without the road user charge in it. If the state said no , that changes nothing. The 2021 regional plan , like it is now and will continue to have the road user charge in 2025. Is there any. There's something else. Instead of the road user charge that could get the behavioral change and the money to fund transportation ? Yes. But they're politically unpopular. One of the ideas we were debating as planners here is every like they're going to do in San Francisco very shortly. Every freeway is going to be priced dynamically. If if you think road user charges , not the solution , wait until that gets. Now , let me also remind people that whether we have road users charging the plan or not , the state of California must find an alternative to gas tax. And that alternative is going to be user based. The question is , do they do an equivalent 1 to 1 conversion or do we do something that counts for inflation , etcetera , etcetera ? So we wanted to be ahead of the game. But if you ask me , is there an alternative to get the behavioral change and the VMT reduction and to get the funding ? Yes , but it will be politically more unpopular actually than the road user charge.

S1: And that that idea is just charge every time you get on a freeway , you have to pay. Absolutely.

S2: Absolutely. This is what pricing the system is. I recently did an interview with Times. I was honored to be actually interviewed by them and I told I made this statement and I'll make it again. Bad pricing kills , good planning. You could have the best plan in the world. If the system is not privatized , it's not going to work. What I mean is an alternative to the road user charge is simply what you stated. Every time you get into an interstate system , you pay a fee and that fee dynamically changed with the demand. You generate probably the same money as a road user charge and you get probably a better travel behavioral change than the road users charge. We actually chose the least politically. We thought it's me also , you know , I mean , we had that in the draft plan for eight months before we adopted it and this discussion followed. But , you know , I. The deduction to take it out and submit it to a resources board. We are going to do that very shortly. It's going to be in their hands. If they say yes , great , fine , we'll move on. If they say no , we're back to debating what what else can we do ? By the way , the most cost effective strategy in the five big moves in terms of travel behavior was the road researcher. But Andrew , I would say this with a straight face that I think the region needs to focus in what you started with. Can we do something bold and visionary to change the model we have today ? Because the model we have today is not sustainable and whether it's road user charge or charging everybody that uses freeway , this is up for grabs , but it's all politically unpopular.

S1: Do you have any thoughts on how to make it less politically unpopular ? Yeah.

S2: One is the state of California need to do their part. They had for the last few years what they call the road user charge committee. They have a pilot. One thing that I would urge the state of California to do , get with it one way or another. If you're telling me that converting from gas tax to vehicle miles traveled tax is not going to happen , just tell me how you're going to generate the next cent to to maintain what you have. You're not. So I would say the state moving forward in their work could make it less politically of an issue. Second , other states in the nation , there is about 22 states in the country right now that moving that direction Oregon , Utah , Michigan. I think the more of these states and Oregon right now , it's implemented in some part of Oregon , the more states gets this online because there is a perception about the charge , you're going to spy on me , you're going to violate my privacy , Oh , my God , you're going to tax me. And these are just perception. I would. You only pay taxes if you drive. And there is ways to overcome the social equity issue. Like if you're low income and driving from far. There is ways technology exists today to make sure that you're not hurting the very poor that you're trying. So the one perception is you're taxing me a lot. No , you're you're paying for public good does not provide a ride for a long time. And two , I think nobody's going to violate your privacy at any scenario. Nobody's going to spy on you. I mean , right now , if you use our high occupancy tolling or I 25 , we don't spy on you , but we charge you , that's the same thing. So we need to overcome this perception. But Andrew , more and more of the states are coming and dealing with this issue. And the more that becomes real , the less politically. I mean , this is particularly explosive. This is going to be. And that's my hope.

S1: I guess I'm thinking more just like not specifically about the road usage charge and that being a kind of politically toxic proposal , but just the general idea across California that we've got these extraordinarily ambitious climate goals. I think there's more or less pretty universal agreement or we've reached some degree of consensus in California that this is the direction we need to head in. And people in California really care about climate action. They care about climate change. But when the conversation shifts to how dramatically we have to change the status quo , that's where you start to lose people. And so how do we get to how could we get to a future where that where people are willing to actually talk about sacrifices , about really disrupting their regular lives and creating a new reality.

S2: For that to happen ? Andrew You need one thing and one thing only , really. You need leaders who's willing to take a stand and willing to upset some people. You know , Steve Jobs said if you want to make everybody happy , go sell ice cream. Leading is a messy business. But they're going to come a leader in San Diego , in the state of California and going to exactly said , look , folks , something has to give. We've been talking about this climate. Everybody , by the way , believes in climate change. Everybody believes we need to do something for the environment. Everybody believe that all these rains and fires and and but when it comes down to it , are you willing to pay $0.02 per mile to. Oh , no , that's taxes. I don't trust government. They're going to have to come a leader , look people in the eye and say , this is good. Uh , when President Kennedy decided we need to go to the moon , he spoke to the hearts of people and said , our aspiration is going to get us there to the moon. And , you know , we need a leader who comes and says , if you believe in this climate action goals , if you believe in global warming , and we stop this political bias about , you know , whether it's real or not , I think it's time to do things differently and differently means really differently where we accept people pay for what to use the system for. We accept converting , sometimes freeways. We accept , sometimes not dividing communities and figure out a way how to unite communities. That leader will come. Is it going to take a lot for it to come ? I hope not. I think in San Diego , I mean , I , I appreciate what Mayor Gloria , his support for the five big moves he's trying to do. He's a mayor of a big city , second largest city in California. And it's in the country. I think with his help , we're going to we're going to probably do things in San Diego better than anybody else in the state and the country.

S1: There's one , um , freeway in particular that I've heard people talk about more than any other , where they think like this is this freeway doesn't make sense in the 21st century. And it's the 163 through Balboa Park , first Freeway ever built in San Diego. It , you know , is literally Parkland that that it's going through. It's a very convenient way for someone to get from Hillcrest into downtown. But when you're driving further north , there are alternatives. You know , you could get there another way.

S2: I think there's no justification whatsoever for 163. By the way , when the 163 meets the 515 , that is the most amount of lanes in the country. You know , how many lanes were the one ? 63 and the 515 merge ? You know , if you drive down 63 or you're coming down the 163 and the 515 , at one point , this becomes like 15 lanes. It's like the 8 or 5 and the five makes no sense. It's really could be an example of how you convert a freeway into boulevard redeveloped communities. And if you're only serving the people on Hillcrest , there's other ways to serve those people. You can hire a driver for them and give them an electric car or shuttle somewhere. So I you know , I don't want to say this in the beginning , but this is probably the easiest idea to sell is where you have conversion. And again , conversion doesn't mean you just bulldoze. You just have a different use for it.


S2: I'm really hopeful that the merit of the ideas that we have in the five will survive. Why ? Because everybody in the country is trying to say , Yeah , I think San Diego's getting it right. We just need to show people how to implement. But the other question I would say people ask with admitting that some freeways were a mistake. Does that mean it's a mistake that can be corrected or it's a mistake we're going to live with for the rest of our lives ? And I believe if we get to the understanding that this mistakes could be corrected , it is an amazing added value to the discussion of the future of transportation in San Diego and everywhere else in the country.

S1: That's it for our first bonus episode. Freeway Exit is produced by me , Andrew Bowen and is edited by Brooke Ruth. If you like this podcast and you want to help spread the word , tell your friends about it. We don't have a huge marketing budget , so word of mouth is really the best way for us to reach new audiences. You can also help us out by leaving us a rating and review. And of course you can support this work and get one of those awesome freeway exit t shirts by making a donation at Kpbs. Org. Thanks for listening.

As the CEO of San Diego County's transportation planning agency, SANDAG, Hasan Ikhrata has done more than anyone else to shake up the conversation around our freeways. Ikhrata has pushed his own board of directors to let go of long standing plans to widen certain freeways. And he's jump-started a debate over charging drivers by the mile to fund a more sustainable system.