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Roundtable: A power struggle at SANDAG

 January 20, 2023 at 12:25 PM PST

S1: There's new leadership at SANDAG. What will it mean for the county's climate action goals ? I met Hoffman , and this is KPBS roundtable. A power struggle at the San Diego Association of Governments leads to a board member walkout. The transportation agency , commonly known as SANDAG. It's tasked with reaching net zero emissions by 2045. But the agency is grappling with how to pay for a multibillion dollar transportation plan that could fundamentally change how we get around. Joining us to discuss all these proposals and all the questions surrounding them are Prius SRI. She's NBC Seven's political reporter and host of Politically Speaking , Joshua Emmerson Smith is here. He's the senior environment reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune and KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen is here with us. I want to thank you all so much for being here on roundtable. And , you know , at Sandbox first meeting , the board was tasked with electing some new leadership. But that didn't happen without some controversy.

S2: Essentially , the elected representatives to SANDAG from ten of the 18 cities had written a letter to the board. And at the time , the board leadership was the chair Was Todd Gloria basically saying that they wanted to discuss this concept of the weighted vote versus the tally vote. So there was some indication that that was going to be something that was talked about at this meeting. We didn't necessarily think it was going to necessarily happen when they were electing leadership. So essentially what happened was everyone voted. Nora Vargas , who was also elected to be the chair of the County Board of Supervisors last week , she was elected to be chair of SANDAG. And then there was another vote for who should be vice chair. And that ended up going to City Council President Sean Isla Rivera. Then there's the position of the second vice chair and Teri Gastelum , and she's a Del Mar City council member. She has been behind this whole push to really reconsider the weighted vote. And she put her name in as wanting to be that in that second vice chair position. And so she actually won the tally vote. And then they decided to call a weighted vote. And when they called the weighted vote , she didn't win. Then you saw nine members from SANDAG walk out of the meeting. And I will say , as someone who was physically sitting in the room , it was quite shocking to see it all happen.

S1: And we're going to get into that whole weighted vote process in just a minute. But first , Joshua and Andrew , what are some of your initial first impressions ? I know you guys were watching the meeting. Sort of.

S3: Almost everyone who left was a Republican , while most of the Democrats who are on the SANDAG board stuck around to to sit out the rest of the meeting. I think it's also noteworthy that the folks who walked out didn't actually constitute a majority of the board. So even when we're just counting the seats in the room of folks who are voting on policies at SANDAG , it's not even a majority of them , much less a majority of the the county population represented by those board members who actually wanted to shut this meeting down. So if the goal was to make a big fuss and get some headlines and get some attention about this issue , they certainly succeeded. If the goal was to shut the meeting down and cause SANDAG to lose a quorum , then that clearly failed.


S4: This comes back to sandbags being $160 billion vision for expanding transit. And the folks that walked out are those folks who are opposed to that. And right now they feel pretty powerless.

S1: And what some of these board members are taking issue with , as Priya pointed out , is this so-called weighted vote process. And it did end up getting San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas the chair position.

S4: The idea is that the votes are weighted according to a representative population. So the city of San Diego , Chula Vista , the two seats representing the county , they have a lot more influence than , say , Terry Gasoline from Del Mar.


S2: Being prioritized over their own interests. So I actually interviewed Terry Gastelum and after they all walked out and I said , you know , can you give me some concrete examples ? And she said , listen , you know , we have 3 to 4 million people who come to the city of Del Mar every year between the fairgrounds and the beaches. And there's really no easy way to get there on public transit. However , she feels as though the public transit is being prioritized in the inner city parts of San Diego versus the city of Del Mar. And I do think it's important for us to also list the names of the cities of the people who are basically disputing the concept of the weighted vote. It's Coronado , del Mar , El Cajon , Escondido , Oceanside , Poway , San Marcos , Santee and Vista. And , you know , Imperial Beach was sort of the swing vote in all of this. They had a representative who wasn't the representative to SANDAG had signed a letter which had sort of indicated that Imperial Beach would also walk out of that meeting. But that isn't what actually happened. So it's politics. You know , it's very interesting to see how things shook out.


S3: Let's imagine a world in which 50% of the United States population lived in California , but we still had 50 states. So , you know , about half of the country is living in California , but we only have 1/50 of the representation in this in the Senate as all of the other states. So to somebody in California , that would seem very unfair. And likewise , on the SANDAG board , the point that Shauni Rivera was making is that San Diego has 350 times as many people , as many residents as Del Mar , so they should have a greater share in the decision making process at SANDAG. And it's also worth noting , just to drive the point down a little bit further. Del Mar has about 4000 people. That is 0.12% of the county's population. It's not even 1% of the county's population. And the weighted vote guarantees that even though it's a fraction of a percent of the population , Del Mar still gets one vote. So really , it's getting about eight times its population size in voting power , even under the weighted vote. Under the tally vote , a resident in Del Mar has about 350 times the voting power of a San Diego resident. So that's really the argument is it's about proportional representation. And just to drill that , to bring this back to the real world , what policies have been passed with the weighted vote ? It's been largely prioritizing public transit , deemphasizing the need for expanding freeways , which we know puts more cars on the road and increases greenhouse gas emissions. And also asking those smaller cities , those wealthier cities like Coronado and Del Mar , to shoulder a greater responsibility with building affordable housing.

S1: And Andrew , let's get into that a little bit more. So SANDAG there responsible for planning and building transportation infrastructure , but also implementing the state school to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There's a net zero goal by 2045.

S3: There's a new rail line that would go from the border all the way up through the south bay , through the city of San Diego , to Kearny Mesa , which is a major job center. They envision creating mobility hubs. So , you know , get off the train and you can hop very quickly onto a shared bike or scooter or maybe into a self-driving shuttle that will take you directly to where you're trying to go. They also have just some more conventional transit improvements , like increasing the frequencies of buses , making them go faster by giving them their own dedicated lane and , you know , changing the signal priorities so that they always hit the green lights. There are some expansions to the freeways also , although they wouldn't involve necessarily pouring more concrete. So taking a look at the footprint of the freeway and maybe restriping the lanes to squeeze a little bit more capacity out of what we've already built. And then on the policy side of things , the plan calls for free public transit by 2035. And of course , the most controversial aspect of this plan that same year , 2035 , is when drivers would have to start paying a fee for every mile that they drive on the road.

S1: And we're going to get into that a little bit later and some of the controversy around that.

S4: And a lot of these projects were promised under the original Transnet ordinance. And they feel like SANDAG is backtracked on those promises. Says. And so they're pretty frustrated. They want more auto centric building less focus on transit. Although I will point out that in order to get any of these new transit projects off the ground , SANDAG has to have a tax increase , which would require a vote of the of the county. So there is a little bit of a backstop here. It's not like they can push all this through on a weighted vote at this obscure government agency and then it just happens magically. Right. Residents still have to vote on this and you still have to get at least a majority of San Diegans to agree to this in order to fund these projects , like connecting transit to the airport or moving the tracks off the Delmar Bluffs.

S1: You're listening to KPBS roundtable. And this week we're talking about SANDAG. Our guest this week , our Prius reader from NBC seven , Joshua Emerson Smith from the San Diego Union-Tribune. And KPBS is Andrew Bowen. You know , Joshua , you were just sort of talking about some of these transportation projects and this $160 billion transit proposal.

S4: I mean , it's an ideological split on the board between the very progressive leaning leadership now at the county and the city of San Diego that wants to double down on public transit. And the conservative board members that feel like that's a waste of money. And they repeatedly talk about how no one rides public transit. And it is true that ridership of public transit is down pretty significantly. And they have a fundamental disagreement about what the vision of San Diego should be for the next few decades. The Democrats envision a much denser San Diego with lots of urban infill. Landrieu was talking about the affordable housing that SANDAG is trying to get these cities to build. And that's a key part of this , right ? The public transit vision relies heavily on these dense , walkable neighborhoods , and there's a big ideological split there.

S1: And so ultimately , some of this seems like it comes down to climate change. I mean , we have this backstop of reaching net zero.

S3: So , you know , I think the net zero goal by 2045 is essentially what's necessary for us to stay in line with the Paris Climate Accords. This is an effort to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And that would , the hope is prevent the worst impacts of climate change. So , you know , the extreme weather that we're already seeing , the climate crisis is really upon us. And achieving net zero emissions is really what it's going to take for us to create a better future for our children. I don't think that we've heard a really clear vision from these dissenters at SANDAG about how they would prefer SANDAG to meet these state mandates. And they are mandates that the state of California has delegated this responsibility of figuring out how to reach net zero to SANDAG to a certain extent. But SANDAG itself doesn't have the power to just say no to the states in the absence of of an alternative vision from this this cohort. I think we have to conclude that they simply don't support the climate goals. I don't know how many of them would admit to that. Many people say they support climate action , but when it comes down to the details , they'll say say no. Most of the time. But , you know , in times when I've heard these types of board members really forced to answer the question of how are we going to , you know , meet our climate goals , they'll often say electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles and other technologies that we we haven't really seen , you know , come to full fruition yet. But I'd like to drill down the point net zero emissions by 2045. This goal was adopted after SANDAG adopted its regional transportation plan. So if we're looking at that regional transportation plan as too ambitious with getting people out of cars , the next transportation plan is going to have to be even more ambitious. We're going to have to double down on public transit , double down on all of the efforts to get people out of cars , because that is the reality that meeting these goals in these international agreements is going to call for.

S4: I would say the big thing that you hear from these board members is electrify the suburbs. We're all going to drive electric cars , so we don't need to invest in public transit. And the state vehemently disagrees with that. So index targets are not just to reduce pollution from cars , it's actually to reduce vehicle miles traveled. And all of our projections for delivering a stable electricity grid and going all green rely on reducing the amount of driving that folks do every day. I mean , this is baked into San Diego gas and electric projections for how they're going to manage the grid in San Diego. It's also baked into the projections for the California Energy Commission. I mean , they're all saying we have to drive less in order to get everyone around in electric vehicles. So , I mean , it's going to be a pretty tall order like , you know , we're talking about here. Getting to net zero is pretty ambitious. Everyone's going to need to kick in a little bit , I think. And.

S1: And. Joshua , All this does not happen without money. And a lot of the feasibility of SANDAG transportation plan hinges on multiple sales tax increases. But those do require voter approval. And the first of these , it was supposed to be on the most recent ballot , but it ended up not even qualifying.

S4: So we have a little something of a little bit of a shortfall here. We don't have a lot of cash to play with now. We finished the mid-coast trolley and so there should be more money coming in on an annual basis , but we have a lot of other things to pay for the old timers , the border crossing , the new one down there trying to figure out how to get the tracks up the mar bluffs , like I said. So there's a lot of stuff to pay for if we want to start building subways from the border to Kearny Mesa , there's going to need to be some serious new funding.

S1: And voters would ultimately need to approve any tax measure proposal.

S2: But it's also important to know that this wouldn't be implemented until after 2030. But I think a lot of people tried to scare San Diegans into thinking this is something that's going to happen tomorrow. And I think that really did scare a lot of people because as we have just been talking about , not a lot of people actually are riding on public transit right now. So I think that in combination with the Citizens initiative to get a sales tax , basically to fund the $165 billion regional transportation plan , because that failed and we actually needed three of those sales tax increases to pass in 2022 , 2024 and 2026. So not having the first one go anywhere , I mean , that was pretty bad news for SANDAG. That didn't even make it to the ballot. It didn't even get in front of voters. And then to also have this mileage issue essentially taken off the table. I mean , it's really unclear at this point as to how they're going to be able to fund all of these ambitious ideas that we've been talking about. When I've interviewed Hassan Kuroda several times , the CEO of SANDAG , he says , you know , listen , we can get federal money , we can get state money from things like the infrastructure bill. And , you know , that'll only go so far. It's not going to find all of the things that they've written into this transportation plan. So they're really going to have to go back to the drawing board. I did ask Chair Vargas after she was elected , you know , do you have any ideas ? And they keep saying things like , you know , public private partnerships. We have to just be resourceful. But it's really unclear what exactly they mean , because I think I think right now they're in serious trouble with trying to get the money that they need for this stuff.

S1: So as of now , this mileage fee , it's not included in San Diego's proposal , but we know that their plan will need state approval in California. It sounds like they want to move toward this per mile fee by the end of the decade.

S3: They sent it to the state , and the state said , sure , great sound and they approved it. What happened after that was SANDAG sent a revised version without the road user charge this this mileage fee. And the state is taking a look at that. And there's a very real likelihood that the state will simply say , no , this is not good enough. We we think that your first plan was just fine and we're not going to approve this revised plan. Now , if that if that's the outcome , then SANDAG is basically stuck with the plan that they already adopted until they develop their new plan , but which is due by 2025. But again , that plan has to be even more ambitious about reducing vehicle travel. And there's you know , when we're talking about freeways versus public transit , I mean , there's really an abundance of data from decades of research of observing what happens when we when we widen freeways or otherwise increase their capacity. And the truth is that it puts more cars on the road , any sort of freeway , as long as it's free , as long as we're not charging people to use it at the at the point of service , it's always going to fill up during peak hours and where congestion is just an unsafe , fundamentally unsolvable problem in urban areas , as long as there is economic activity happening. So , you know , if we don't have this per mile fee , I mean , on the one hand there's the question of how we're going to maintain our infrastructure because gas tax revenues are falling. They have been falling as vehicles get more. More fuel efficient as eventually we make our way towards 100% electric vehicle sales in the state. You know , how are we going to pay for our infrastructure ? But there's also the question of , you know , how are we going to create some sort of disincentive for people to drive their cars and then simultaneously improve the alternative so that those become the most attractive option ? Yeah.

S2: And I just want to jump in right there. Andrew makes a great point that , of course , this has gone back to Sacramento and Hassan across to also said that to me as well , that , you know , the more and more people do move towards electric vehicles , that gets rid of the money that we were getting from gas taxes. So , you know , even if people think , okay , we table this issue about the mileage , the road usage fee , it's going to come up again in the next seven years. I mean , there's no way that it won't. So one of the other things he also pointed out , by the way , is that these same discussions and debates that were happening here in San Diego , they happened already in Los Angeles , and , you know , they were able to figure out a way to get things done. So it's possible here. And one of the issues that he really thinks is sort of getting people not to understand the full vision is he just thinks it's a communication and messaging problem and that , you know , the people behind the citizens initiative to , you know , have the sales tax to get that money didn't necessarily do a good job of informing the public just how urgent this issue is. And as Andrew has pointed out several times , these are state mandates that have to be met. Right. So I think part of this is a messaging and a little bit of a communication problem. So I'm interested to see the next go around , you know , how they try to tackle that a little bit differently.

S1: And it seems like some of this disincentive is what's rubbing some people in some of these politicians the wrong way.

S4: The way that Santa SANDAG works is they need a local funding source to get federal and state matching dollars. So it's not like we can just go out and grab all this money that's available. The government wants to see some kind of dedication on the region to funding these projects.

S1: And as we wrap up , a question for everybody here , the final question , where do we go from here ? I mean , could a lot of this be decided in 2023 ? Is it going to be a lot of talk , you think , but no political action. And Andrew , we can start with you here.

S3: Well , as I mentioned , the next regional transportation plan is due in 2025 , and the public outreach on that project is just getting started. I think also we'll have to look at the results of the 2024 elections and who ends up on the SANDAG board. And and you know , how all of these issues play out at the ballot box.

S1: And Joshua , the prior year.

S2: So that doesn't give us a lot of time to play with. And so and I also would say that , you know , this issue isn't just about transportation , it's also about housing. And we're seeing a lot of initiatives at the city level to try to build more affordable housing near the transit stops that we have already. And so I think these two things go hand in hand. And so , yeah , I mean , it'll be interesting to see how it all plays out moving forward.

S1: And Joshua , you have the final word.

S4: I think there's two things I have my eye on. One is , does the executive director of SANDAG resign across a stick around. He said that he is reaching his limit with the opposition on the board from the Republicans and may just leave San Diego. If that happens , there could be a significant shake up at SANDAG. If it doesn't happen and he sticks around , I think it's pretty clear what their vision is. They want to double down on public transit. Really , the big question for me is what does the ballot measure look like ? These projects are often spelled out in these voter approved initiatives , so we'll know exactly what's to be funded regardless of what's in $160 billion plan. It won't get built unless it's in the ballot initiative. So that's really where the next big fight is going to be , I think , in 2024.

S1: And we could go on for another hour , another half hour on this , but we're going to have to end it there. For this week's edition of KPBS roundtable. And I want to thank all of our guests , Prius reader Joshua Emerson Smith and KPBS is Andrew Bowen. Be sure to stream our show any time as a podcast roundtable is produced by Andrew Bracken. And Rebecca Chacon is our technical director. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for being here with us. And have a great weekend.

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A conceptual rendering shows a re-imagined San Ysidro Transit Center as part of SANDAG's vision for the 2021 regional transportation plan.
San Diego Association of Governments
A conceptual rendering shows a re-imagined San Ysidro Transit Center as part of SANDAG's vision for the 2021 regional transportation plan.
Political tensions rise at SANDAG during a recent leadership vote. What will that mean for San Diego's climate goals?

Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion about the latest political tensions at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), and what it could mean for San Diego's transit goals.

Guests include NBC 7 political reporter Priya Sridhar, San Diego Union-Tribune's Joshua Emerson Smith and KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen.