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Supervisors oppose SANDAG’s vision to cut highway projects

A majority of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has come out against SANDAG’s bold new vision for the area’s transportation plan, shifting away from highway improvements in favor of mass transit. On April 30, the supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of a message to SANDAG that “promises made need to be kept,” brought forward by Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar.

SANDAG’s new vision aims to provide transportation choices that are competitive with the car for every trip in the region, increasing connectivity and mobility and helping to meet or exceed the new state greenhouse gas emissions reduction mandates.

Desmond stated that SANDAG’s vision for the regional transportation plan is primarily new public transit projects, removing 14 highway projects that were promised in the 2004 TransNet ballot language. The half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects passed with 67 percent of the vote.

Desmond said he was not opposed to the new vision, but it should be in addition to and not replacing the projects that were promised.

“To break these promises only 11 years into a 40-year plan is a massive bait and switch,” Desmond said. “If all of the dollars that were promised to roads are switched to mass transit, the taxpayers in North and East County will be for the next 29 years -- until 2048 -- paying taxes on projects they will never get.”

Gaspar said she supported balanced transit options throughout the region, meeting the state greenhouse gas reduction mandate and incorporating new technology, but she has concerns that the new vision does not include a price tag and that it is breaking a public trust.

“We have to be more thoughtful, we have to live within our means, we have to create a more balanced transportation plan and we have to keep our promises to the voters,” Gaspar said.

Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher voted in opposition. Fletcher said for him, the vote was a clear choice between whether or not the board believed that climate change is a serious issue and that they should take action to stop it.

“Today the majority of the board made a choice to contribute to increases in greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion. My choice is to fight for a better future and reject the idea of clinging to a failed past,” Fletcher said. “The non-binding resolution will not prevent SANDAG and our community from moving forward with delivering fast, safe, reliable and green transit for San Diego.”

Desmond said TransNet’s biggest projects included enhancements to the existing freeways of SR-78, SR-52 and SR-67. The projects include HOV lanes that promote shared ridership and connections to existing HOV lanes on I-15 and I-5. Desmond said that a functioning road and freeway system is essential to the economy and that the county will need a solid road network for electronic vehicles, ride shares and autonomous vehicles.

“What we want are these projects included in the regional transportation plan. I’m not trying to stop transit, I rode the Coaster down here this morning,” Desmond said. “I’m asking the board to oppose a change in transportation dollars being taken away from roads,” adding that SANDAG needs to pursue new funding for its new vision.

The April 30 hearing had 10 speaker slips in favor and 21 in opposition. Those who spoke in favor of the supervisors’ action included the mayors of Oceanside and Coronado and members of Vista and Carlsbad City Councils.

Dan Sommers, a member of the Ramona Community Planning Group, stated that the promised improvements to SR-67 are critically important as the highway no longer safely or adequately serves the community. With the new vision, the plan to expand SR-67 to four lanes has been delayed again, this time until 2036. “Preventing loss of life should be a priority,” Sommers said.

Those opposed accused the board of supporting the freeway-centric “polluting ways of the past,” making it impossible for the county to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets in its Climate Action Plan, which is currently under appeal.

Cody Petterson, president of the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, called out the supervisors regarding their own broken promises: “this board has never seen a GPA (General Plan amendment) that it wouldn’t cheat on the General Plan with.”

“Do not sabotage a plan that could improve lives,” Petterson said. “If you don’t invest in transit, people won’t use it. Let’s take the giant step and actually create a transit system that is practical that people will use.”

Olga Diaz, a member of Escondido City Council, argued that TransNet was itself an empty promise.

“We need to have visionary leadership, bold leadership and honest leadership. We can’t do what we set out to do in 2004, that promise can’t be met so let’s redirect and do something that does include a vision for our future that gives the connectivity we need in order to take cars off the road,” Diaz said. “People would use transit more if it was more functional and I think that’s what this big new plan is attempting to do. Now is our chance to change.”

Speaking in opposition to the motion on the floor, Supervisor Fletcher said that he believed that what they were being asked to vote on was “absolutely the wrong approach and I think it will set us back potentially decades”.

Fletcher said the TransNet ballot measure included flexibility in regard to changing technology and transportation developments. “The promise to the voters is that over 40 years we might learn something,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher noted that that transit ridership is up in San Diego County this year in what is considered a broken system and brought up the concept of induced demand, giving for example the city of Houston which spent billions of dollars to expand its freeway to 26 lanes. After it opened, congestion increased 30 percent in the morning and 50 percent in the evening.

“How many times do we have to learn the same lesson? The way you reduce congestion is you help give people who want to take another option another option,” Fletcher said.

Like Fletcher, Sophie Wolfram of Climate Action Campaign said she felt that the board’s vote sent a clear message that the majority is not serious about climate action.

Desmond said he believes that improving air quality and reducing emissions is important but the reality is that 90 percent of people will still drive their cars.

“Roads are not a part of the past,” Desmond said. “They are 90 percent a part of the future and we’ve got to make sure we have sufficient roads to handle the capacity that we have in San Diego County as well as the transit.”