San Diego planners unveil a $177 billion plan to expand transit, toll highways

San Diego Metropolitan Transit System trolley cars
San Diego Metropolitan Transit System trolley cars pull into the 12th and Imperial station in Downtown San Diego on Aug. 6.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The ambitious regional transportation expansion was praised by many elected officials, and criticized by a vocal minority


High-speed rail from Oceanside to the international border. Transit hubs with autonomous shuttles. Highway express lanes for buses, carpooling and drivers willing to pay.

San Diego’s top transportation planners unveiled on Friday, Aug. 14, a $177 billion plan to radically transform travel throughout the region by 2050.

Elected leaders listened for more than an hour as experts with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) laid out the ambitious proposal — ultimately aimed at reducing climate-warming pollution by getting large numbers of people to trade in their car commutes for transit trips.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata has said his vision is crucial if the San Diego region wants to meet state-mandated targets for slashing greenhouse gases and avoid the gridlock traffic that plagues much of Southern California.

“This vision is for people who love San Diego County,” Ikhrata told his board of 21 elected officials at Friday’s public meeting. “This vision is for generations who we do not know yet but will look back and be proud.”

SANDAG’s envisioned transit network for 2050

Many officials responded enthusiastically to the so-called Regional Transportation Plan, which state and federal law requires SANDAG to update roughly every four years.

“The reason I’m excited about this is because this is transformative,” San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez said at the meeting. “It’s creating real connectivity in our network, which is missing.”

However, a few conservative board members expressed concerns that the agency’s vision wouldn’t include longstanding plans to widen freeways, including state routes 78, 67 and 52.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, whose District 5 includes much of North County, expressed skepticism about pumping so much money into transit. He said he would support the vision but only if it included adding carpool lanes to highways, specifically state Route 78.

“You’re not going to move that many people out of their cars with transit opportunities in North County,” he said. “You can do that in San Diego City proper, but in North County that’s not going to happen.”

SANDAG officials said they are currently working on plans to reduce congestion on those target routes, with detailed blueprints set for release in the spring. Ideas have included turning freeway shoulders in new carpool lanes that also serve toll customers and buses.

The proposal — which would replace SANDAG’s roughly $128 billion plan from 2015 — would require a sizable injection of public funding. Ikhrata has said he would like to go to voters for a full-cent increase of the regional sales tax as early as 2022, but he is also eyeing 2024.

SANDAG leaders acknowledged the challenges of floating the plan during a pandemic, when many people are working from home, if at all, and freeway traffic is down by nearly 20 percent.

However, officials said their plan would remain relevant long after the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus has subsided.

SANDAG’s Ikhrata spent nearly two years crusading for a massive transit expansion. Now COVID-19 has complicated his plans.

Aug. 8, 2020

The backbone of the agency’s plan would be a new commuter-rail system from Oceanside to the San Diego-Tijuana border, hitting speeds of up to 120 MPH. The trains would run underground in dense, urban neighborhoods, such as North Park.

SANDAG officials said the plan will also improve the highway system, but that simply adding highway capacity will only encourage more people to drive and increase tailpipe emissions.

Our roadways are unorganized and inefficient,” said Ray Major, the agency’s chief economist and data analyst. “We have multiple users, semi-tractor-trailers, trash truck, buses, cars making short trips, cars making long trips, all competing for the same lanes, but this problem can’t be solved by simply adding lanes.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of SANDAG’s plan includes the creation of so-called managed lanes on nearly all major highways. These lanes would service buses, carpools and paying customers.

Ikhrata has said he regrets sidestepping hard conversations about pricing new highway lanes while serving as the head of the Southern California Association of Government in Los Angeles for 10 years until joining SANDAG in December 2018.

Toll roads where prices increase with congestion will be crucial for getting people out of their cars and onto new transit lines, he said. In Los Angles, absent so-called congestion pricing, multibillion-dollar rail expansions have been met with falling ridership.

Specifically, Ikhrata said he aims to increase transit ridership from less than 2 percent of all travel in the region today to about 10 percent over the next 30 years.

The agency’s vision would also include expanding the region’s light-rail network. Trolley tracks would extend from downtown to around Balboa Park, and Sprinter rail service would be doubled tracked between Oceanside and Escondido to improve speeds and frequency.

In total, SANDAG’s vision would expand rail service from about 54 miles of track today to more than 400 miles by midcentury.

The heart of the transit network would be a roughly $4 billion “Grand Central Station” in the Midway District, which would connect to the San Diego International Airport. The facility — which would serve everything from Amtrak to trolleys to the new high-speed commuter rail system — would be the largest of more than 30 new transit stations, dubbed mobility hubs. The second largest would be in San Ysidro.

San Diego City Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, whose District 8 includes the border region, said she strongly supports the vision.

“The San Ysidro Intermodal Transit Center has long been a dream for the community,” she said. “I think under this plan it’s become a reality.

“Otay Mesa will also see exponential growth and become an employment hub in the future, so the planned mobility hub and commuter rail will be very important to connect it to the rest of the region,” she added.

Many of the mobility hubs would include commercial and residential developments located, where possible, at the core of walkable neighborhoods. They would feature on-demand shuttles to take passengers from stations to beach communities, job centers and other nearby destinations.

At the same time, the plan would expand the region’s Rapid bus network, which operates with limited stops, often traveling in dedicated lanes. New Rapid lines are planned along state routes 78, 56, 52 and 125.

Agency officials said they analyzed commuter patterns to ensure that new transportation projects benefit disadvantaged commutes. Before the pandemic hit, about 70 percent of transit riders in San Diego were low-income residents without regular access to a car.

Ikhrata has said that for the system to work, transit needs to be as fast and convenient as driving. Getting to work by bus or trolley currently takes about 50 minutes on average, about double the time it takes to drive.

SANDAG staff said they will bring the board a more detailed version of the transportation plan by the end of the year. The agency is slated to release an environmental-impact report by spring, with final board adoption expected by the end of 2021.

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