SANDAG leaders reach compromise on high-speed rail vision that includes some highway funding

SANDAG’s list of proposed projects includes a North County rail line and express lanes along state Route 78, shown here.
SANDAG’s list of proposed projects includes a North County rail line and express lanes along state Route 78, shown here.
(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune

Elected leaders struck a major deal on Friday, Sept. 27, over the San Diego region’s transportation future — pledging support for several long-promised highway projects and an ambitious new high-speed-rail system.

The board of the San Diego Association of Governments approved a nearly $600-million spending blueprint aimed at adding new lanes to state Routes 67 and 78, as well as prioritizing improvements along state Route 52. The deal also gives SANDAG staff significant resources to start designing a new rail system intended to lure commuters off congested highways and reduce climate pollution.

The compromise was intended to build support on SANDAG’s board, composed of top elected officials from around the region, for passing a future tax increase to pay for the proposed transportation projects.

Underlining the urgency for new funding, the agency’s current sale tax, Transnet, is projected to bring in roughly $10 billion less by mid-century than originally anticipated due to rising construction costs and a host of other factors.

Friday’s vote amended the Transnet spending plan to allow the agency to spend what little money it currently has on designing projects outside of the tax’s original scope.

However, actually building those projects, from new rail lines to freeway widening, would almost certainly require a new tax increase. Officials have said such a proposal could be presented to the public as soon as 2022 and would require a daunting two-thirds voter approval.

While the compromise plan was narrowly approved — 11 to 7 with one abstention — those in favor included the elected officials most skeptical of SANDAG’s new high-speed rail vision, such as county supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar.

“This to me is a peace offering,” Desmond said at the public hearing, adding: “This is for SANDAG to move forward. I really believe that.”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, one of the leading voices in support of SANDAG’s new transit-focused direction, echoed that sentiment.

“I’m really looking two and four years down the road when it’s going to come time to actually fund the projects that are on all of these lists, which will require billions of dollars in new revenue,” he said. “In order for us to get that new revenue, I think, it’s going to be important for us to try to work together.”

Frustration has been building for months over SANDAG’s new plan largely because agency officials had suggested putting highway projects on ice to free up funding to design the rail system. Some members of the public at the meeting spoke out against reallocating funds for roads previously outlined in the voter-approved Transnet sales tax.

“How does anyone in this room rationally expect that taxpayers in this county are going to vote to approval additional tax increases when the last 40-year tax increase, passed in 2004, has not been honored in any respect,” said Escondido resident Brian Melonaltos.

Still, others who attended the meeting voiced strong support for SANDAG’s new direction.

“Our priorities have changed since the last public vote,” said city of San Diego resident Cynthia Wootton. “When you eliminate traffic on the road it benefits every single person in the whole region. It clears up congestion and accidents.”

The funding plan amended an initial proposal put forth by SANDAG’s leadership that would have given agency planners more discretion over whether to build the highway expansions or focus solely on new transit lines.

Board members in opposition to the compromise expressed concerns that widening the freeways would undermine efforts to meet the state’s mandated targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. Specifically, the region has been tasked with cutting per-capita emissions from driving by 19 percent below a 2005 benchmark by 2035.

“It’s really important to remember that this document has not been vetted by our professional staff to make sure it’s compliant with state law,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata warned that if the agency didn’t meet its state target it could open itself up to lawsuits.

“I think this will put the agency in legal jeopardy,” he said, adding: “I will guarantee you that if we build these projects … this will increase vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gases.”

Ikhrata told the board in February, shortly after being hired, that the agency was way off track from meeting its climate goals. He was shocked at how little had been done to shifting the region’s transportation system from a traditional auto-centric approach.

He has since made significant progress towards securing support for a $4-billion San Diego Grand Central Station to connect transit riders to San Diego International Airport. The transportation hub is planned for the 70-acre Naval Base Point Loma in the Midway District and has the support of the federal government.

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