Three members of the Board of Supervisors have revolted against a proposal by the newly minted SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata to switch most of the ½ cent TransNet sales tax that was sold to the voters in 2004 as a way to fund highway improvements.
Last week the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose Ikhrata’s plan. Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher, whose districts do not include East County or North County roads, voted to divert funds toward mass transit. Kristin Gaspar, Dianne Jacob and Jim Desmond voted no.
Gaspar represents the district that includes Escondido. Desmond’s district includes Valley Center, Pauma Valley and Palomar Mountain.
Third District Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Fifth District Supervisor Jim Desmond, have taken their objections on the road in an effort to whip up the voters to put pressure on their elected representatives to oppose the proposal. They appeared in a joint press conference Monday morning in Solana Beach against the backdrop of the San Elijo Lagoon restoration, the double-tracking of the rail and the expansion of I-5 in Encinitas, whose symbolism, they say, is that “balanced transportation planning can be achieved.”
SANDAG is the regional entity in charge of planning for the region’s transportation needs. In recent years it has tended to tilt more in favor of mass transit than toward solutions that would speed along automobiles. Elected officials from different cities, as well as supervisors, serve on the board. Because San Diego along with Chula Vista generally pursue concurrent strategies, usually they get their way on regional issues. Those cities are big proponents of expanding mass transit.
In 2004 voters of the County voted to tax themselves for 40 years. The ½ cent TransNet sales tax took effect in 2008. It replaced an earlier TransNet tax that was expiring.
In a joint statement Gaspar and Desmond declared, “The new plan is a betrayal of the public’s trust. In 2004 San Diegans voted to approve a half-cent sales tax for these critical roads and highways and SANDAG now wants to divert those funds. This is a bait and switch to the voters.”
“San Diegans” have lost faith in SANDAG,” Supervisor Gaspar said. “They can’t be trusted to follow through with their promises to voters.”
North County has experienced exceptional growth and the addition of high tech, life sciences, and other businesses that drive its innovation economy. “Unfortunately,” says the joint statement, “the investments in our infrastructure have not kept up with that growth and today, commuters are suffering hours of unnecessary time in their cars, burning more carbon while they crawl to and from work and to school to pick up their kids.”
“Even with SANDAG’s new vision, 90 percent of people are still going to be in cars,” Supervisor Desmond said. “We’re only 11 years into a 40-year tax and it is being suggested that we not do those projects but that the taxpayers continue to pay that tax for the next 29 years.”
In an interview with The Times-Advocate on Tuesday, Desmond said the ordinance can legally be changed by a two-thirds vote of the SANDAG. Whether those who want to change the ordinance have the votes on the SANDAG board is the question. “It’s close. It’s very close,” whether the proponents of rail have the votes to amend the ordinance he said. “Potentially we have the votes to block it, but we never know.”
He added, “It COULD be changed, however, I don’t think they should do it. We are eleven years into a forty year tax. They are going to shift it entirely to a transit project. The road projects left to be funded are Highways 78, 67, and the 52. They want to take the money from those projects and put it towards mass transit projects.”
Desmond continued, “We’ve already spent 2/3 of the dollars on mass transit and ridership is down. If they take these monies away, there is 29 years that people are going to be paying on and never have the projects. Not only take the roads away but keep paying for it for 29 years.”
The Fifth District supervisor noted that in North County Ikhrata’s proposal would replace the HOV lanes that had been promised, “to make doubletracks of the Sprinter and run in a loop through Carlsbad.”
Desmond continued, “We still need roads in NC, they are taking the roads from the peripheral roads to pay for their mass transit projects in the central core. We are upset about that. We think the promises were made to the voters. There are fifteen projects that haven’t been started and fourteen of them are road projects.”
Desmond insists that changing the ordinance, while legal, would be a classic, “bait and switch. Technically the tax measure says you can change it with two-thirds vote. That is not the crime, the crime is take it all away from roads, when we are dependent on roads.”
One of Ikhrata’s goals is to up the ridership of big transit from 4% to 10%. Desmond scoffs at that: “If their goal is ten percent, that still leaves ninety percent using the roads. To spend
all that on the ten percent is crazy, while the rest of us are paying higher gas taxes and higher DMV fees, all with the promise of improved highways.” Desmond insists that he’s not against mass transit. “It works fine in the center core but you need a balanced plan that serves all the people and not just the ten percent.”
Ikhrata presented this plan in April. “He presented the plan and it was all transit,” says Desmond. “What he plans on doing is coming to the (SANDAG) board and ask for $300 million of Transnet money and put it toward initiate the EIRs. He’s not going after it all in one piece.”
Answering Ikrata’s claim that mass transit fights climate change, Desmond counters, “We can fight climate change with HOV lanes. Valley Center has no transit and you are not going to get it. You were promised improvements to roads and Interstate 15 did get fixed. The same thing was supposed to happen on Interstate 5 and now they are saying no.
“There is no money for the roads” says director Ikhrata.
The Times-Advocate spoke to SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata, who declared, “There is no money for the roads,” due to cost overruns, and says the money from the remaining 30 years of sales tax revenue has already been committed to paying the bonds for the projects that are already underway.
Ikhrata says there is nothing unusual about amending the ordinance. “They did it two or three years ago,” he said. “People say that violates the trust. There is no ambiguity about the ordinance. It says, ‘This is a list of the projects that can be funded.’ If it does change the board with a 2/3 majority could change it. They misconstrue the ordinance. There are no promises broken.”
The executive director addresses the criticism that he wants to spend money on mass transit that only 4% uses by saying he wants to make mass transit more pleasant and convenient—which will increase usage.
Currently non-work ridership on regional transit is 1.5% and 3.5% for those riding to work. The reason, he says is, “Transit is not fast and convenient. The way to bring it up is to make transit as comfortable and not as comfortable as the car.” Taking 10% off the highway will reduce traffic enough to reduce congestion, he says.
“If ten percent of us use transit, that will reduce road congestion. We are providing another option. Having a system with one option is not economical. In a market economy people will choose. Not having an option is a big mistake.”
Ikhrata worked in Los Angeles for 25 years. “In Los Angeles they thought they would build their way out of congestion. Seattle did the same. Houston built a 26 lane highway, the largest in the world and it became one of the most congested.”
Transportation analysists call this phenomenon “induced demand.” What it means is that if you make roads more convenient to use, drivers will use them more. A classic example is that a driver might stay off the roads during peak driving time if they are congested but use them if more roads are added. A consumer might not drive across town to take advantage of a sale if it’s not convenient to do so.
Ikhrata says the way to increase drivability on Hwy 52 is not by added lanes, but by managed lanes. “One managed lane doesn’t work, but two managed lanes will work,” he said. Improved technology will make roads more manageable over time as well. And not just the most obvious technology, the self-driving car. “The next car you drive whether you want to or not will probably be able to communicate with other cars. Cars that communicate with each other will enable cars to travel closer together,” he said.
The other way to cut congestion is with “state of the art high speed transit in that corridor—what we call a ‘completed corridor” will do the job. The idea is for every corridor to have a transit option and adds capacity and deploy technology.”
Addressing the accusation that SANDAG is “stealing” TransNet money, Ikhrata says, “There is no money to steal. That is misrepresenting the facts. SANDAG did not divert any money, but put the plan aside. Even if we don’t have that plan, the 14 projects won’t be funded. He added, “I don’t think those 14 projects are right for the region.”
We gave Desmond an opportunity to respond to one of Ikhrata’s points, which is “there is no money for roads.”
“If there was no money to divert then why is he asking for it? In the VOSD [Voice of San Diego] article he says he wants to ask the board in two months to divert $300 million from TransNet. That’s a lot of money.”
Desmond and Gaspar have provided an email address where persons can email them with concerns about this process: Visit StopTransNetRaid.com.