Last week a coalition of cities led by Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara and Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, but with a strong assist from Supervisors Kristin Gaspar of the 3rd District and Jim Desmond of the 5th District persuaded the SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) board to reprioritize some monies for the roads.
Before Friday’s vote the staff had proposed a set of priorities that moved a large share of funding from TransNet that had been approved by the voters for road improvements for Hwy 78 and Hwy 67 to mass transit. This had fomented something of a revolt among cities that were affected by the vote.
At Friday’s vote the board voted to include $600 million on a spending plan to could add new lanes to Hwy 67 and 78 and prioritize improvements for Hwy 52.
After the vote Gaspar commented, “The vote represented a huge win for our coalition. By allocating the necessary funds to the 67, the 78 and the 52, we have taken a big step in the right direction. I am cautiously optimistic, but we must remain vigilant to ensure our priority projects are completed.”
Desmond commented, “This to me is a peace offering. This will help stop the fighting and allow us to move forward.” He told The Times-Advocate: “We got some road dollars. These are design and environmental dollars. You got to do this step first. It includes $77 million for the Hwy 78 corridor, and both connectors at the I-15 and I-5.”
The result was a compromise crafted by Vaus and McNamara and called the “Vaus and McNamara” alternative.
The vote recognizes that 97% of the population still uses automobiles as their primary mode of transportation, while 3% uses mass transit. It also overruled SANDAG’s Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata and his staff’s recommendation by a narrow margin.
Gaspar told the SANDAG board during the discussion: “Human life is a priority. The 78 needs to be constructed as planned. That’s it. Period.”
McNamara characterized the compromise as a bipartisan, regional solution. “While the group photo shows me with all the Republicans, and I have been accused of siding with them, the truth is the affected cities just happen to have Republican leadership. Having worked with them now, I would offer that our goals and our discussions about how to reach those goals are not partisan based, but rather the common good for the region.”
The mayor added, “What actually happened at the meeting was that we reprioritized the monies for roads. We did not take any money that was allocated for Public Transportation in the pot. So the splits between roads and public transit from the original plan haven’t changed.”
There are about 14 road projects that were still incomplete from the TransNet list dating back to 2004. There isn’t enough money for all of them, so the board picked what would be the best ones from an environmental and public safety point of view. That number was three projects.
As McNamara described it, “The big ones that get the most attention are the 67 from East County which could not be ignored from a safety and evacuation point of view.”
The other was for EIRs (environmental impact reports) for the 78 in order to be shovel ready when money becomes available. “The pushback is that we are building more lanes which doesn’t work as a transportation mitigation strategy,” said McNamara. “No one is arguing that we should have more lanes as the permanent solution. But you have to look at the whole picture.”
All of the officials who were part of the coalition support SANDAG’s Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata’s “5 Big Moves,” “but candidly we don’t know what that really is and neither does SANDAG since they haven’t put any detail to it yet,” said the mayor. “We don’t know what it will cost other than a LOT of money. We also don’t know how long it will take to build. But if Los Angeles is any type of example, we know it will be at least 30 years.”
Other unknowns: 1) whether the infrastructure will work when completed, 2) whether the public will use public transportation, or 3) whether the voters will fund it. “So the current public transportation strategy is – hope and a leap of faith for what is now a concept for all of us. You should note that from the original amendment that Mayor Vaus and I proposed, we put the two new train sets (60 mil) for NCTD back in. There is this assumption that if we increase the frequency of the Coaster more people will ride it. Well, maybe,” said McNamara.
But one factor just about everybody agrees on is that 1 million new people are expected to move into San Diego County and that they will have cars. “We know that the 78 and 15 from Temecula is a parking lot during rush hour and it is getting worse. As more people move here it won’t get better. If you are concerned about greenhouse gases then I would be concerned about this ever expanding parking lot. The only interim solution which most of us think is a necessary evil not a permanent strategy, is to keep the cars moving and so that is what we voted for,” he said.
Public transportation is already 80% subsidized and it addresses about 3.5% of the commuter traffic. The goal of the 5 Big Moves is to increase that percentage to removing 10% of the traffic off the road. The SANDAG model suggests that a 10% reduction in commuter traffic will keep the cars moving.
During Friday’s meeting Ikhrata brought up as an objection that the change might have legal ramifications. McNamara called him on this. “I found that to be a bit disingenuous. This amendment was known to him well before the meeting. If he really thought that this had negative legal ramifications than he as the ExDir should have prepared a legal brief for the meeting not suddenly spring it on us. I called him on it because he was simply trying to persuade the debate.”
An often unmentioned factor in these discussions is that many voters feel that the move by SANDAG to transfer funds from road improvements to mass transit is a “bait and switch.”
“So if we want a real Public Transportation system which we absolutely need,” said McNamara, “we need to be able to have a good answer to those voters. Or the Five Big Moves will be dead in the water before it even gets started. I think this compromise does that and in the long run will help us get the Public Transit Tax monies approved by the voters. Remember, this is a heavy lift and if you remember that Prop 6 actually passed in this county, we need to be smart not rigid about getting to the goal.”