Truce over San Diego’s vision for high-speed rail on the rocks

SR 52 around Mast Boulevard in Santee is one of the “Congestive Corridors” that SANDAG has identified. Westbound traffic on Tuesday morning, August 13th, was slow but steady as they headed towards San Diego.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A deal to secure support for building a massive high-speed rail system across San Diego County appears to be on the verge of collapse.

The multibillion-dollar vision for expanding mass transit has raised the ire of North and East County officials as it will almost certainly require a substantial tax increase and could involve nixing long-planned highway expansions.

Elected leaders serving on the board of the region’s top transportation agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, reached an agreement this summer to support the plan — as long as the agency also moved forward with building several new freeway lanes, most notably on state routes 78 and 52.

However, the politicians most skeptical of the transit expansion now say they have seen a new $600 million spending proposal from the agency, and it’s not what they were promised.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata plans to present his 21-member board of mayors, council members and county supervisors from across the region with the funding blueprint at a public meeting scheduled for Friday, Sept. 6. The document has not yet been released to the public.

“It is very disappointing that the new spending plan proposed by Hasan Ikhrata disregards the direction of the SANDAG board,” Supervisor Jim Desmond recently told the Union-Tribune after reviewing a draft of the document.

“The majority of dollars again are given to new transit projects over board-directed, prioritized road projects promised to the voters,” he added.

Ikhrata likely has enough support on the board to approve the spending proposal even if Desmond and his allies, such as El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and Santee Mayor John Minto, vote against it.

However, these politicians could make it very hard for SANDAG to pass a county-wide sales-tax measure, which could be before voters as soon as 2022. The transportation agency failed to secure the needed two-thirds voter approval for a significantly less ambitious tax hike in 2016.

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who also sits on the SANDAG board, said she refuses to support a new transportation levy under any circumstances.

“The voters have supported several tax increases and have virtually nothing to show for them,” she said. “SANDAG has proven that they cannot be trusted to deliver on the promises made to voters. How could I in good conscience ask them for more?”

Ikhrata downplayed the politics of the situation on Thursday, Aug. 22, following a public forum in City Heights to promote his vision of high-speed rail. He also countered Desmond’s interpretation of the spending plan, saying that the proposal would fund projects along the identified corridors, including state routes 78, 52, 67 and 56.

“I don’t count votes,” he said. “I would love to see the board unanimously approve this, and they should. This is putting a down payment on a system that we need.”

SANDAG’s new data-driven approach

The agency’s approach to transportation changed dramatically when Ikhrata, formerly the head of Southern California Association of Governments, was brought on in December.

SANDAG had long been on the losing end of lawsuits by environmental groups, such as the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, who painted the agency as beholden to housing developers.

However, after San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and others on the board pushed for Ikhrata to take over, the agency did a 180-degree turn.

In fact, Ikhrata recently went so far as to fire three of SANDAG’s top staff members who had been closely aligned with the agency’s former executive director, Gary Gallegos.

Now SANDAG has a near-singular focus — build out a transit system that moves people as fast and conveniently as driving in order to comply with California’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emission from cars and trucks.

To that end, the agency has launched a major project to analyze the region’s largest job centers and the precise routes that San Diegans are taking to get to work.

Planners are hoping that crunching the data will allow them to place rail lines in ways that strategically peel drivers off the most congested highway corridors.

“Hasan is super focused on empirical data-driven solutions,” said Ray Major, chief economist and director of data analytics and modeling for SANDAG. “That, I don’t think, was a mandate in the last plan.”

Placement of the train stations are just as important.

SANDAG is currently planning a major Grand Central project near San Diego International Airport. But planners also envision a new network of smaller train stations bustling with shops and street life. The locations will serve as hubs of activity where commuters can link up with ridesharing services and other forms of on-demand transportation to connect to their final destinations.

“What’s really going to make this plan different than the other ones is overlaying the technology solutions that are now coming to fruition,” Major said. “The scooters may not be around 30 years from now, but people will share a vehicle.”

If the SANDAG planners had their way, the highway expansions would not be on the table at all. From their perspective, building more freeways will only make meeting the state targets for reducing vehicles trips more difficult.

At the same time, many transportation experts agree that any traffic benefit from building new freeway lanes will be short-lived at best.

“In general, it’s not a sound approach to add highway lanes at this point, particularly to areas that are far from job centers,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. “Those lanes quickly fill right back up with traffic and encourage more low-density sprawl and associated air pollution and lost open space.”

A vision for the future

SANDAG’s top planning experts are optimistic about the future of transportation — but they warn that if the groundwork isn’t laid today, the likely alternative is ever-tightening gridlock traffic.

If everything goes as planned, commuting by mid-century would look something like this:

Around 7 a.m. Jane orders a self-driving vehicle to take her kids to school from their home in El Cajon. She’s got a big deadline looming at work, so about half an hour later she decides to call herself a car, despite rush-hour surge pricing.

By 8 a.m. she’s on the high-speed rail from the train station in Santee headed to Sorrento Valley. When she gets to her destination, she rides an e-scooter the last mile to her office, getting to her desk before 9 a.m.

Unlike most of the younger generation, Jane at 55 is old enough to have learned how to drive. However, her transportation plan, even during the busiest months, costs significantly less than owning a car, plus she spends almost no time sitting in traffic.

Getting to this reality will take decades and billions of dollars. Many of those who would have to foot the bill today may never use it.

Ikhrata is open about this fact, telling an audience at a recent public forum: “Let us develop a system for the future generation. Let’s not be selfish.”

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