SANDAG unveils spending blueprint for traffic-prone commuter corridors, vexing backers of freeway expansion

Afternoon rush hour traffic, viewed from the Nordahl Road bridge, on Highway 78 on Friday, September 6, 2019 in San Marcos.
(Sean M. Haffey)

San Diego’s top transportation experts released a long-awaited spending blueprint on Friday, Sept. 6, for kick-starting an overhaul to many of the region’s most gridlock-prone commuter corridors.

The San Diego Association of Governments outlined a long list of proposed projects totaling nearly $600 million over the next five years — including mapping out a high-speed rail line between Oceanside, Escondido and Carlsbad, as well as designing express lanes along state Route 78.

The plan also included money to help stabilize the Del Mar Bluffs, as well as to purchase new Coaster trains to increase frequency.

The funding plan — if approved by SANDAG’s board of 21 elected officials from around the county — would be a significant down payment on the agency’s ambitious vision to beef up public transit in order to meet state targets for curbing climate-warming emissions from cars and trucks.

However, many members of the agency’s board have criticized the proposal put forth by the agency’s executive director, Hasan Ikhrata, especially because it could mean putting long-planned highway projects on hold, perhaps indefinitely.

Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, chair of the SANDAG board, proposed, during an agency board meeting on Friday, Sept. 6, to amend the spending plan by nixing the new Coaster trains in favor of expediting expansions of state routes 78, 52 and 67.

He and others supportive of road improvements argued at the meeting that SANDAG’s most recent funding proposal didn’t make good on a vaguely worded compromise deal brokered in July by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer that called for focusing on improvements along those highway corridors.

“If we’re truly going to prioritize those roads because of our vote on July 12 … then let’s get her done,” Vaus said during the public hearing.

Faulconer left the meeting early before the public discussion on the topic was in full swing.

His spokeswoman Christina Chadwick released this statement after the meeting: “We’re confident that with additional input from the public and regional leadership, a fair agreement is within reach.”

Supervisor Jim Desmond blasted the agency for going back on its promise to voters under a 2004 tax increase that outlined the highway projects.

He said not expanding SR-78 and other freeways would undermine the agency’s credibility with voters, especially if it tries to seek another tax hike to pay for new rail lines.

“If we don’t keep our word with the voters, we are going to get crushed next time this type of thing goes out on any ballot,” he said.

Several members of the board supportive of SANDAG’s new direction defended the spending plan, saying that nixing the new Coaster cars would undermine efforts to rein in local greenhouse gases in line with state targets.

“I urge my colleges in the strongest possible terms to support funding for the new trains and reject any plan that does not do that,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, adding: “There’s no chance that expanding the roadways and taking away the transit is going to meet the goals.”

The region has so far spent about $767 million on double tracking the Coaster line to prevent bottlenecks. The SANDAG proposal released Thursday, Sept. 5, calls for increasing Coaster frequencies from 22 to 42 trips during weekdays, with trains arriving every 30 minutes during peak periods and every 60 minutes during non-peak stretches.

The North County Transit District estimates it can implement the increased service within the next three years if funding is approved by SANDAG.

NCTD Executive Director Matthew Tucker urged the board on Friday, Sept. 6, not to pull funding for the new train cars.

“We are more than shovel ready,” he said. “We just need to push the button so that we can procure the equipment.”

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar — a top critic of SANDAG’s efforts to shift away from auto-centric planning — somewhat surprisingly spoke up in favor of funding the train projects, citing the millions of dollars already spent on the rail system

“Funding for the Coaster corridor train sets should remain in the plan,” Gaspar said at the meeting, adding: “We shouldn’t leave that important investment half funded. How many half-funded projects are we going to produce around this place?”

The board is scheduled to vote on approval of the funding blueprint on Sept. 27.

Because the spending plan would technically amend the 2004 voter-backed tax measure, Transnet, it’s unclear whether approval of the document will require a special two-thirds vote of the board.

Those critical of the current draft, such as Desmond, have pointed to language within the tax measure that stipulates the higher threshold.

Those supportive have said that a bill approved in 2017 that overhauled the SANDAG voting system supersedes the requirement for a two-thirds vote.

Passage of the spending plan is almost certainly dependent on how the votes are tallied — with the two-thirds vote making the plan’s defeat much more likely.

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