Support from local cities helps regional transportation plan prevail

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

The San Diego Association of Governments Board of Directors approved a wide-ranging $160 billion regional transportation plan Dec. 10, without committing to the controversial road-usage charge.

Some of North County’s representatives on the board helped the plan pass on an 11 to 9 vote, with two coastal mayors citing the need to move the train tracks off the eroding bluff in Del Mar.

“We have an antiquated single-track railway on an impossible terrain of crumbling bluff that is getting narrower each year above the Pacific Ocean,” Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland said. “Del Mar must vote ‘yes’ to protect the bluff.”

Building an inland tunnel by 2035 is one of many projects throughout the region and other components included in the plan. Some of the highlights include a central mobility hub north of downtown San Diego, expanded public transit and a transition to free public transportation.

Board members who opposed the plan said they thought the heavy investment in public transit was too speculative and ignored the needs of motorists, who currently make up the vast majority of commuters in San Diego. Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall said there should be more of a focus on autonomous vehicles.

“Why aren’t we studying that in greater detail?” he said.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata said the agency is “absolutely factoring in future technology,” including an anticipated proliferation of autonomous vehicles in the years ahead.

“Anybody who thinks this plan is not forward-thinking needs to think again,” Ikhrata said.

Much of the public debate in the weeks leading up to the vote centered around a road-usage charge, which would charge motorists based on mileage, to provide funding for the plan. San Diego County residents would have to approve that tax during a to-be-determined election date. Many of the more than 100 people who spoke during public comment said the proposed charge was why they opposed the plan.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who serves as the SANDAG board chair, released a joint statement days before the vote in opposition to the road-usage charge. But both voted “yes” on the regional transportation plan, which preceded another vote by the board on finding alternative funding sources.

“This really centers climate in our transportation planning for the first time ever in this region, and we need to reduce our emissions and we know the transportation sector is the biggest source of those,” Blakespear said.

County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, whose district includes Carmel Valley and north coastal cities from Del Mar to Encinitas, and Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner also voted for the plan.

“I voted for removing the train tracks from the bluff, more frequent transit, improved air quality, reduced greenhouse gases from our transportation sector and a rail connection to the airport,” Heebner said in an email.

She added that the road-usage charge “was wildly unpopular and unlikely to see the light of day.”

“I support finding a more equitable replacement for those dollars to implement the projects and programs in the 2021 Plan,” she said.

Before the regional transportation plan vote, Oceanside City Councilman Christopher Rodriguez introduced an alternate motion to delay the decision by 90 days. It failed 12 to 7.

The SANDAG board also voted 13 to 0 to develop alternatives to the road-usage charge. Several board members who voted against the regional transportation plan dropped out of the meeting by the time the follow-up vote took place.