Pandemic Changes To Our Roads And Trolleys
San Diego News Now / March 18, 2021
The pandemic has had a profound impact on how San Diegans get around. Now city planners are figuring out what lessons can be applied to the future of transportation in the county. Meanwhile, local reaction to the shootings in Atlanta. Plus, efforts to restore Red Hill Bay at the Salton Sea were supposed to begin in 2015 -- but the project never got off the ground and now local officials are in a tussle with air quality regulators.
Good Morning, I’m Annica Colbert….it’s Thursday, March 18th.
How the pandemic has changed how we get around San Diego.
More on that next, but first... let’s do the headlines….
San Diego county is now in the state’s red covid-19 tier, which means restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses have resumed indoor activities. Dining and movie theaters reopened on Wednesday at 25% capacity, gyms at 10% capacity.
While most San Diego county school districts are adopting a hybrid schedule -- with some remote learning combined with in-person -- The Cajon valley union school district is doing it differently - it plans to return to a pre-pandemic schedule of full-time in-person school on April 12th. Students will return to campus five days a week from 8 a-m to 3 pm daily. Bradley Hutchinson is a teacher at Flying Hills school of the arts.
“we have a safe environment based on cdc guidelines, so everyone’s voice is kind of heard there and taken into account to make sure that everyone feels safe and has their needs met.”
Distance learning will also be an option for some students.
The car crash in downtown San Diego on Monday that killed three homeless people is prompting advocates to push the city to get people off the streets.. They want San Diego to place more homeless people in hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawyer and activist Geneviéve (JEN-uh-vee-ev) Jones-Wright says FEMA has already offered to reimburse cities for 100% of those hotel costs.
“Mayor Gloria, be certain to procure additional hotel rooms, and please stop the criminalization of our unhoused and unsheltered community members.”
From KPBS, you’re listening to San Diego News Now.
Stay with me for more of the local news you need.
An enduring image from the early days of the pandemic were San Diego’s open freeways and empty trolleys. Traffic and transit ridership are recovering, but it remains to be seen if it will ever go back to what it was before the pandemic.
As part of our series Pandemic Life: One Year On, KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen explains COVID-19 has had lasting impact on transportation.
AP: So this is our living room slash dining room slash kitchen.
AB: Like millions of Americans, Andrew Picard has been working from home for the past year.
AP: Most mornings I start my day on the sofa with coffee, a blanket and my cat and watching the news.
AB: Picard works for the nonprofit San Diego Workforce Partnership. He misses seeing his colleagues in person, but likes the flexibility remote working offers. He gets to spend more time with his cat, Winston. He's saved a boatload on gas and car insurance. And he's saved time: Pre-pandemic, his 10-mile commute would take up to an hour one way. Now...
AP: Yeah, my commute is all of 20 feet. It takes me, you know, two minutes to get from my bedroom to the living room or wherever I'll be parked for the day.
AB: Even as more people get vaccinated and return to some version of their pre-pandemic work lives, Picard says his job will likely stay remote at least part of the week.
AP: The topic that I'm hearing a lot is a hybrid work environment. People are really keen to have flexibility. And I think what the pandemic has proven is in many industries you can be as productive, or more productive, in a remote environment.
AB: It's a very different story for Roddy Jerome.
RJ: I'll see you tomorrow, okay? And we'll follow up with the social worker. (closes door)
AB: Jerome provides in-home support services for the elderly and disabled — work that can't be done remotely. His commute from work in Santee to back home in City Heights starts on a bike, followed by the trolley, then a bus. It takes an hour and a half, or more, each way. Jerome likes moving around, he doesn't want to work from home. He just wishes his commute were faster.
RJ: A more direct service, a more direct way of getting here, you know, instead of having to transfer or to go from bus to trolley. That would make it a lot easier.
AB: The stark difference between Picard and Jerome's pandemic commutes represents a greater truth: The benefits of remote working have gone mostly to jobs that are higher paid and more likely to be held by white people. The jobs where remotely working was never an option tend to pay lower wages and are more likely to be held by people of color.
HI: And that disparity made us think harder about social equity, social justice, about getting rid of the sins of the past when it comes to transportation.
AB: Hasan Ikhrata is the executive director of SANDAG, the county's transportation planning agency. We meet at the site of a future light rail station due to open late this year.
HI: This is just a teaser of what's going to come for this region.
AB: The "sins of the past," Ikhrata says, include bulldozing communities of color to build freeways. SANDAG is currently updating its long term transportation plan with a mandate to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Ikhrata says the pandemic has made clear the new plan should put the needs of disadvantaged communities first.
HI: So what does that mean? It means if you put a group of projects, and one project is building an interchange for freeway and the other one is building a bikeway, even though the interchange for the freeway might have money and might seem logical, if the social index said you should do bikeway, we’ll do the bikeway. That’s going to upset some people. But that is how you get rid of the sins of the past.
AB: But is SANDAG accounting for the pandemic’s potential to fundamentally change our daily commutes? Bus and trolley trips are down by about 60% since February 2020. And though car traffic has ticked back up, rush hours still aren’t nearly what they used to be. Ikhrata says it would be foolish to base a generation of transportation planning on a one-time event, no matter how dramatic it might be in the short-term.
HI: The pandemic will be over. We cannot as a society move forward like this. Kids cannot continue to be at home. Therefore it's short sighted to say, "Scrap everything, let's start over again." Because we don't know what the other side of the pandemic look like, but we can anticipate that it's going to be back to normal."
AB: SANDAG predicts remote working will curb greenhouse gas emissions somewhat. Just not enough, given the scale of the climate crisis. When Roddy Jerome looks beyond the pandemic, he still sees better public transit as key to his livelihood and a healthier planet.
RJ: If we're trying to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, you know, which is important to our climate action plan, they have to make it better. You have to make people want to get out of their cars. And if they can't do that, it won't happen.
AB: Andrew Bowen, KPBS news.
And that was KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen.
In addition to transportation, KPBS is looking at how small businesses have fared as well. Today we speak with Tommy Walker, who talks about his wrenching decision to close the Paradise Hills coffee shop Project Reo Collective…..
Project Real Collective started in 2017
the idea came up of creating a space that neighbors could get together and and hang out in and get to know each other
we went into 2020 with the same goals, you know, how can we do a better job as far as the community goes?
then that's when, you know, the whole social distancing hit.
So with with the unknown. And, you know, everybody just just had to kind of take a step back and look at, you know, their their inner circles and make decisions that was best for for them and their families. ... So the team decided to to close the doors of Project Real Collective around the end of March, beginning of April.
That was a tough one. That was that was really tough, you know, because we we really tried different, you know, different ways, like how can we make this work?
The neighborhood was definitely I don't I don't want to use the term upset, but they they definitely wanted to do whatever it took to keep the place open.
my wife and I are you know, we've been entrepreneurs.
So there is going to be another community coffee space that in the Paradise Hills neighborhood..
So the new coffee shop is called the Mental Bar. And going through that process is has been quite the journey.
we're in an underserved community and it's not like the buildings in our community are are up to code and and have all the upgrades that, you know, you see in other communities and other neighborhoods. So dealing with the financial issues to, you know, get the building up to code and to have a safe location that that the community can really enjoy.
living in a neighborhood, working in the neighborhood and making a neighborhood establishment and controlling the narrative of our neighborhood, revitalization starts from within. And if we can control the revitalize or even really control will be a part of it.
That story was produced by KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser and video journalist Nic McVicker. Stay tuned for more stories from business owners this week.
Coming up.... Local reaction to the Atlanta shootings, and why Red Hill Bay at the Salton Sea hasn’t been restored despite a project being arranged for it. We’ll have those stories and more local news next, just after this break.
The shooting that claimed the lives of 8 people, including 6 Asian women, in Atlanta has ignited widespread concern over a surge in Asian American hate crimes.
KPBS’ Tania Thorne has local reactions...
“Grief. Its immense grief. Like so many of us we have so much to grieve in this time of pandemic. We have much to grieve in term of rise in attacks against Asian Pacific Islander people, but the killings yesterday just brought more overwhelming grief.”
Kirin Macapugay is on the board of the San Diego Asian Pacific Islander Coalition. She says last night's shooting in Atlanta is the “most severe painful example” of incidents against the Asian community throughout the country.
“Unfortunately racism against Asian Americans and Pacfic Islanders is not new. However we are seeing a rise in it because of the rhetoric that we have heard from decision makers and leaders calling it the chinese flu and attributing blame to Asian communities. “
Macapugay says the Stop AAPI Hate organization reported 42 incidents of racist attacks in San Diego County between March and December of last year.
One attack happened in San Marcos….against three women in the same family.
They were just taking a family stroll when people who were driving by actually stopped their car got out of the car started screaming at them, blaming them for coronavirus, blaming them for everything happening with the pandemic and they even attempted to attack her 17 year old daughter.”
Although the suspect in Atlanta claims the attack was not racially driven, Lauren Garces with the San Diego Asian Business Association says the damage to Asian business has been done.
“We have a lot of elders in our community who run these businesses ,
we want to make sure they feel safe in the businesses that they run so yes they've definitely have had to adapt in different ways.
But also on a human level seeing all these headlines it's essentially trauma and how are they going to cope with that and how are they going to feel going into their workplace.”
Garces says it's unfortunate that this incident is what's bringing the conversation of hate crimes against marginalized communities to the forefront, but she says she’s also seeing more people coming forward to denounce it and stand against all forms of hate. TT KPBS News.
Anyone who has experienced or witnessed an act of hate towards the Asian American and Pacific Inslander communities is encouraged to report the incident on the Stop A-A-P-I Hate website.
California lawmakers want to create a process to strip badges from police officers who abuse their authority.
Democratic state senator Steven Bradford says California is one of only four states that does not currently have a way to decertify police.
"if last year’s nationwide summer protests and calls for police reform have shown us anything, it is that californians want more than just superficial change. we don’t want to just talk about it, we don’t want to nibble around the edges."
Bradford's bill would give the state commission that oversees police training the power to decertify officers who are found guilty of certain crimes or misconduct.
The Gardena democrat sponsored a similar measure last year that did not make it through the final days of the legislative session.
Efforts to improve the environment around the Salton Sea were widely expected to begin at Red Hill Bay in 2015. But that ground breaking project remains undone, and that’s pulled air quality regulators into a fight with local officials at the Imperial Irrigation District KPBS Environment reporter Erik Anderson has details.
The roughly 400 acres of Red Hill Bay on the eastern edge of the Salton Sea used to be underwater. A state funded project would return water to the flat playa trapping dangerous dust under water and providing habitat in a bid to protect air quality. But the lakebed remains bone dry.
“Five years later after many of these red ribbon cuttings and unveilings happened there’s been little action on the ground at red hill bay.”
Imperial Irrigation District director J-B Hamby says the two-year project never got finished and the dispute has landed in front of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District.
“It’s a pretty standard ticket that the air pollution control district gives pretty often.”
Air Quality regulator Katie Burnworth says the exposed lakebed has been a source of particle pollution for years. Local clean air officials hope a citation will push the Imperial Irrigation District to finish the project.
“We had to go this strong enforcement route because nothing’s been done at the Salton Sea. We continued to try to be a partner and essentially we became the enabler.”
The region has well documented issues with air quality and asthma. Imperial County fails to meet federal clean air standards for particulate pollution. When the wind kicks up, the dry lakebed becomes a man made source of small potentially toxic particles know as P-M 10.
“ The scariest thing about the playa is we really don’t know what’s in it. The things that we do know about the playa is that it is PM 10. But the scary part is the unknown.”
Everyone worries there’s toxic industrial pollution that washed into the lake and mixed in with those sediments. The Imperial Irrigation District is responsible for the land because they own it. IID’s J-B Hamby says the hearing could’ve been avoided.
“we need to get together, get on the same page and finish the project not continue to fight about this. But when the air district inserted itself in and demanded to continue the hearing and take this adversarial rather than cooperative route it blew up all progress we were making.”
The IID worries about potentially rich underground resources. CalEnergy has a contract to explore geothermal energy and mine lithium at Red Hill Bay. The district worries a restoration project would complicate access to the area.
“They’re saying, oh no we don’t want to do these projects now.
Luis Olmedo is a community advocate who’s fighting for clean air in a region.
“Now we want to see what kind of industry we can bring into these exposed areas. Times out. Times up. There is no time for that.”
Olmedo says the federal government is ready to step in and take over the project, but they need some security about the land’s future. The U-S Fish and Wildlife Service has the funding to finish the restoration project, but federal officials won’t invest the cash until they can secure a long-term lease from the IID. Olmedo says the public agency is resisting.
But the federal government and state government have stepped up. They said, we’ll fund this. We’ll pay for this. We’ll maintain it. We’ll do operations and maintenance in perpetuity.
Olmedo says, for once, it is local officials, the Imperial Irrigation District, holding up progress on a Salton Sea project. He says the Imperial Valley cannot afford to wait. Olmedo says the entire valley suffers as long as the lakebed is exposed to strong desert winds.
“There’s only time to mitigate that exposed area right now. And look If you want to dry it up later and replace it with another best available measure that an industry wants to bring in, That’s fine. Do it then.
The Imperial Irrigation District’s J-B Hamby says it is not that simple.
“There are complications with the lithium and geothermal releases. With mineral rights. With CalEnergy. With Fish and Wildlife and certain leases they have or don’t have. And the elevation, The Alamo, Water Quality and a whole host of other things.”
But, air quality regulator Katie Burnsworth says if there isn’t progress soon there could be significant fines coming.
“And obviously this abatement order is used as a tool to keep everyone on task and on a timeline. Because what’s missing at the Salton Sea is a referee and a timer.
Fines could lead to litigation and that could hold up progress even longer. Burnsworth says regulators would rather see the kind of progress the state is making on a nearby four thousand acre project to cover the exposed lakebed on the southern edge of the Salton Sea.
Erik Anderson KPBS News
And that was KPBS Environment reporter Erik Anderson.
That’s it for the podcast today. Be sure to catch KPBS Midday Edition At Noon on KPBS radio, or check out the Midday podcast. You can also watch KPBS Evening Edition at 5 O’clock on KPBS Television, and as always you can find more San Diego news online at KPBS dot org. I’m Annica Colbert. Thanks for listening and have a great day.