6/2/19: Behind the Controversy over SANDAG’s Transportation Plan

June 2, 2019

Recently some cities and elected officials have voiced opposition to a bold new transportation vision at our county-wide transportation agency, SANDAG. 

Encinitans’ transportation choices, as well as those of all county residents, are affected by SANDAG’s actions. As the vice-chair of this agency with a $1.2 billion annual budget, I’d like to share with you what’s going on and my perspective on it.

First, some context

SANDAG prepares a plan every four years that looks ahead 50 years and asks, “How do we want our transportation network to look in the next half century?”

It’s essential that this future vision reflects what we, as citizens, want.  If a project is not on the plan, then it doesn’t get built. 

Plus, the plan has to meet state requirements. These days that means we have to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases resulting from everyday travel around the county. This state regulation requires every county to do its part to combat climate change.

And the state means business – it requires a 19% reduction in carbon emissions from every person within the next 15 years, based on the emissions generated in the county in 2005.

On top of that, the county can’t take credit for the emission reductions predicted by advances in technology – cleaner cars, for example. The plan needs to reduce the VMT, or “vehicle miles traveled.”  So hypothetically, if SANDAG proposed widening highways and then predicted that every single person would drive an electric car, the plan still wouldn’t receive certification. And without certification, we can’t build any transportation improvements. 

At SANDAG, our executive director has told the board that the old transportation plan simply doesn’t cut it. Here’s a good article from Voice of San Diego on this, “San Diego can’t hit state climate goals without major transportation changes.” So sticking with a status quo plan focused primarily on highway widening isn’t an option for our region.

The SANDAG staff is putting together a new “Regional Plan” that will comply with state law and is based around what’s called the “Five Big Moves.” These are “Complete Corridors, Transit Leap, Mobility Hubs, Flexible Fleets and Next Operating System (OS).”  So far, we don’t know what this plan will look like because it only exists as a concept. Click on the graphic below to enlarge the themes that will form the vision for the plan. 

However, already we see an opposition campaign to the new idea. One of the main opponents is our current 3rd District Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, along with several others, including a local conservative talk radio host. Several city councils have recently come out in opposition. They accuse SANDAG of breaking its promises to the voters by reconsidering the projects in the regional plan. They are calling it a “bait and switch” to look beyond the proposal to widen highways and consider a broader range of available transportation options. 

My perspective

To me, this accusation is premature, because the plan doesn’t have any meat on its bones – at this point, there’s nothing solid to be opposed to. I believe that when we see an ultimate plan it will incorporate both transit and road improvements.

Importantly, I think we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to live in current reality, not the San Diego County of 15 or 30 years ago. 

In the here and now, a warming planet is threatening to devastate our natural resources and way of life. From sea level rise to catastrophic wildfires, these consequences will affect all of us.

And aside from the state requirements that require us to address climate change, there are many, like me and those I hear from almost daily, who want to see more transit and active transportation options. Travel on a train or on a bike can be enjoyable, especially compared to sitting in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway.

Right now large numbers of our residents simply don’t have meaningful travel options outside of the car. We all agree that many trips will always take place in the car (and we need good roads for those trips!). But every person who moves out of the car and onto other mode of transport is one less person clogging your commute. This is road congestion relief.

Another stark reality that we need to face is that there aren’t enough funds from the voter-approved TransNet sales tax to fund all the road projects listed in the 2004 ballot measure. 

When passed 15 years ago, TransNet was expected to generate about $14 billion over 40 years in 2002 dollars. Because of changing driving habits and lower sales tax revenue, TransNet is now only predicted to generate about half that amount, about $8 billion. With about 50% less revenue and ever-higher construction costs, there isn’t nearly enough money to expand and repair all the roads. The roads listed in TransNet are I-5, I-8, I-15, SR52, SR54, SR56, SR 67, SR76, SR78, SR94, SR125, I-805.

So what’s the solution? We must prioritize and reassess, an option that TransNet explicitly allows. 

Freeway widening, by itself, has been shown in cities around the world to be inadequate. Studies demonstrate that a few years after a freeway is widened, congestion returns to previous levels. It’s called induced demand – if you build it, they will come. Here’s a great article from CityLab, “When traffic-clogged highways are expanded, new drivers quickly materialize to fill them. What gives? Here’s how induced demand works.”

So we really can’t widen our way out of freeway congestion. But we can make driving more efficient, and provide convenient and attractive alternatives to driving.   

Our government agencies mustn’t wear blinders and plow ahead, the reality of a changing climate and a lack of funding be damned. We deserve leaders who are courageous and clear-eyed in partnering with the public to create a plan that envisions a viable and flourishing future, with inspiring and achievable transportation options. 

Also with our changing technologies, including automated and connected vehicles, we’re on the brink of exciting new ways to create congestion relief – the explicit goal of TransNet – that will improve people’s commutes.

What’s next?

The next step is to take a deep breath and let SANDAG do its work on a new regional plan. We’re grateful to Assemblymember Lorena Gonzales for carrying a bill for SANDAG that will give us the additional time we need. In the fall, we expect to see the draft of a new regional plan from the SANDAG staff that the SANDAG board of elected representatives will review. 

If you’d like to explore this topic further, here’s a live TV interview I recently did with KUSI News about it, and a very informative SANDAG brochure is here.

Encinitas tidbits:
$100 million in new improvements!

We recently cut the ribbon on the ecologically innovative Living Shorelines dune project in Cardiff. The Encinitas Advocate story is here. It’s one of an unprecedented $100 million in projects that have recently opened to the public in Encinitas, many of them funded by SANDAG. You can read more in my Coast News column

Gas leaf-blower ban considered

Did you know that a gas-powered leaf blower produces 500 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a light-duty truck built in 2000? As part of our climate action plan commitment, we’re crafting a regulation that all leaf blowers used in the city need to be electric or battery powered, instead of gas-burning.

Another major benefit of electric blowers is that they produce only half of the noise that comes from gas blowers. At the City of Encinitas, we’ve already completely transitioned to electric blowers. The next time you see (or hear) a blower in the Encinitas Community Park or other city facility, notice the quieter motor. It’s striking!

We’re scheduled to discuss the idea at our June 19 City Council meeting.  

Meet Supervisor candidate Olga Diaz!

Please come meet and support Olga Diaz for Supervisor this Saturday at an Encinitas reception. Olga has been an Escondido City Councilmember for 10 years and she’s running for supervisor to replace Kristin Gaspar as the county representative for Encinitas. I support her and encourage you to come meet her and form your own opinion. The county Board of Supervisors has an annual budget of $6.3 billion and reserves of more than $2 billion. The Board of Supervisors is tremendously important when it comes to climate stabilization, reducing chronic homelessness, protecting a safety net for seniors and expanding mental health services.  

The afternoon reception is at 4:30 p.m. this Saturday, June 8, at an Encinitas home. You can RSVP here, and you’ll be sent the address of the event. There is no donation required to attend, but there is an important end-of-month fundraising deadline, which will immensely help determine her position in the race. If you are inclined to support a great candidate, now’s the time to do it!

I’m looking forward to seeing you there.

In ongoing service,

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