North and East county officials signal rail support in exchange for freeway projects

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond has been leading the charge to prevent local politicians from diverting funds authorized in a voter-approved tax hike, known as Transnet, to rail and other transit projects. He recently spoke from the podium during a recent rally held by a group called Reform California, formed by radio talk show host Carl DeMaio, which advocates for new road construction.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

After much discord, elected leaders appeared on Friday, July 12, to have reached an agreement over modernizing the San Diego region’s auto-centric transportation system.

North and East County officials and residents have for months blasted a proposal under development by top transportation and planning experts that would put long-promised highway expansions on hold in favor of studying an extensive high-speed commuter rail system.

Officials thrashed out a compromise on Friday, July 12, after a four-hour meeting of the San Diego Association of Governments that drew more than 80 public speakers, from angry residents to environmental groups to organized labor.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer brokered the deal, fending off attacks from the more liberal members of SANDAG’s 21-member board of elected officials.

“We must focus on all modes of transportation for a complete network,” he said. “It means roads and transit.”

SANDAG’s still-evolving transportation vision largely centers on building what are known as complete corridors — which includes laying down rail lines and bike lanes next to heavily congested freeways, among other improvements.

The agency’s top brass also has called for shelving a number of highway projects to free up funding and limit greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. While the projects were part of a voter-approved half-cent sales tax known as Transnet, the agency is facing a nearly $16 billion revenue shortfall through 2048 and is far from meeting state-mandated targets to limit driving.

Faulconer’s proposal called for prioritizing highway and transit improvements on a number of the corridors in question, including state routes 78, 52, 67 and 56, as well as upgrading an interchange where state routes 94 and 125 meet.

His motion also directed staff to meet all state and federal laws associated with reducing greenhouse gases, while providing accurate revenue projections to the board.

This pleased county supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond, who have been leading the charge to save the highway projects.

“This is a balanced approach of roads and transit that complies with the law,” said Gaspar, who at a previous meeting pressured the board into docketing Friday’s discussion of the transportation plan. “That’s what I’m looking for in the end.”

At the same time, the proposal rankled a number of officials, many who feel the region has for decades neglected public transit in favor of roads.

“I’m not OK with that because there’s more to the region than 78, 52, 67, 94-slash-125,” said San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez. “It should be the entire region, period.”

Faulconer has overseen a massive shift this year on the SANDAG board toward prioritizing transit, largely due to a state bill that gave politicians representing larger cities the ability to push through decisions using a weighted vote.

SANDAG’s transportation plan, which is expected to be out for review this winter, would likely have been approved by the board regardless of the compromise.

However, the agency’s vision will be enormously expensive, and making it a reality is expected to require a two-thirds vote of the public to raise taxes. Many fear that opposition from East and North County politicians could sink the effort.

Desmond reminded Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear of the situation when she suggested amending the proposal to exclude prioritizing the specific road projects. Her motion ultimately failed.

“There’s no money to do any of these right now. None,” he said. “We’re going to need to get the (North and East) county on board if you want to do any of these projects.”

Supporters of highway improvements repeatedly argued that voters in more suburban areas would feel betrayed if the projects outlined in the Transnet tax were not realized.

“You made a commitment to the taxpayers of the region and the citizens of this region,” said Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, during the lengthy public comment period. “If you break that trust there is no future vision. It is that simple.”

At the same, transit advocates argued that the need to address global warming outweighed any other concerns.

“The climate crisis threatens our environment and human health,” said Sara Kent, a representative for the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. “The only way to connect San Diegans to jobs … and achieve the state laws to reduce (vehicle miles traveled) and (greenhouse gases) is through building a robust transit network.”

In the end, Faulconer’s proposal was approved, with Blakespear, Carlsbad City Councilwoman Cori Schumacher and Del Mar Deputy Mayor Ellie Haviland voting in opposition.

Under SANDAG’s somewhat complicated voting system, neither Gaspar nor Gomez were eligible to vote because San Diego city and county were represented by Faulconer and Desmond, respectively.

Following approval of the proposal, Gaspar made an unsuccessful motion to block the use of tolling on highways and roads outside of carpool lanes.

SANDAG officials have talked about the potential need for so-called congestion pricing to discourage driving and meet state climate mandates. Such a tolling system is currently in use in the carpool lane on Interstate 15, where solo drivers can use the lane by paying a fee that fluctuates with traffic conditions.

SANDAG leader Hasan Ikhrata during the meeting strongly opposed limiting the use of congestion pricing.

“Just be ready if you don’t meet the requirements, you know where it’s coming from,” he said. “By doing this, you’re taking an important tool, a very important tool out of the toolbox.”

The motion was narrowly defeated during a tally vote, with nine members in support. Had it succeeded, opponents could have called for a weighted vote that would have likely overturned it.

— Joshua Emerson Smith is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune