San Diegans drive too much — and regional efforts are failing to get them out of their cars and on to buses, trolleys and other cleaner forms of commuting.
That’s according to Hasan Ikhrata, the new high-profile executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, who was hired away from a similar planning and transportation agency in Los Angeles.
Ikhrata recently informed the agency’s 21-member board of city and county officials that SANDAG had no viable blueprint to meet state-mandated rules to limit greenhouse gases from cars and truck trips.
Ikhrata said that when he started in December he didn’t anticipate how little work had been completed on shifting the transportation system from a traditional auto-centric approach.
“I was surprised at the laidback thinking about all of this,” he recently told the Union-Tribune. “It follows (the idea) ‘San Diego’s not really for big stuff. We’ll take our time.’ But sometimes when you have the laws of the land to meet, you don’t have that luxury.”
Meeting the challenge won’t be without risks, Ikhrata explained at a Feb. 8 board meeting.
Specifically, the California Air Resources Board has called on transportation agencies, such as SANDAG to cut per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions from driving by 19 percent below a 2005 benchmark by 2035.
To meet that goal, transit would have to account for between 5 and 10 percent of total vehicle trips, up from just 1.5 percent today, Ikhrata said.
“We’re not going to be able to get there with what we have on the table right now,” he said.
Drafting a successful vision will require several more years of work and a delay to a mandatory update of SANDAG’s multi-billion-dollar regional transportation spending plan, he said. Without some kind of government waiver, he said, the agency would not be eligible for millions in state and federal funding and potentially be open to lawsuits.
“It’s not good news,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said at the meeting, adding: “This is a very important plan for us. We don’t want to just kind of squeak in. We want to be leaders because our natural environment is part of who we are in the entire region.”
Once SANDAG updates its regional plan, ideally by 2022, the agency will also need a massive boost in funding to build the envisioned projects, from highway and bus improvements to rail expansions and a recently proposed San Diego Grand Central to connect transit riders to the San Diego International Airport.
That will almost undoubtedly require a two-thirds vote of the electorate to augment the agency’s current local funding stream, a half-cent sales tax known as Transnet. By comparison, Los Angeles County has four such taxes, totaling 2 cents.
The idea that SANDAG was nowhere near on track to meet its long-term obligations to the state for cutting climate pollution didn’t come as a shock to some on the board.
San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez said she had been concerned about a report issued by staff in October, before Ikhrata took over, which outlined several alternatives funding plans, including some that didn’t meet the state’s goal for capping driving emissions.
“Thank you for the critical statement that the draft proposals that we currently have weren’t going to meet those targets,” she said at the meeting. “I was really concerned about the fact that we have options that didn’t get us there.”
Last fall, SANDAG officials had suggested the region might be able to hit the state’s 2035 target if it beefed up the bus network while cities enacted policies to discourage driving.
Even then, elected officials were clamoring for freeway expansions in their own jurisdictions, while suggesting that electric cars could preclude the need for a dramatic increase in transit use.
County Supervisor Jim Desmond said that SANDAG should meet the state goals, while also calling for highway improvements to be part of the overall approach.
“You had mentioned transit as part of the solution and the airport connection, and I just wanted to make sure you know that roads can also lead to reducing greenhouse gases,” he said at the meeting.
Ikhrata reassured Desmond that road and highway improvements would be part of the regional plan update.
The SANDAG leader has acknowledged that without an expansion of certain clogged auto arteries, a needed tax increase would likely not secure enough votes at the ballot box.
That theory could get a test as soon as 2020, when the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System plans to put its own levy before voters. While that proposal could include street improvement in connection with trolley and bus upgrades, the measure would primarily benefit transit riders.
Historically, much of the region, especially North County residents far from trolley services, have been skeptical of large investments in rail projects.
It took elected officials in the region nearly three decades to close the deal on the current $2.1-billion Mid-Coast Trolley extension, connecting the Blue Line from downtown to University City. The $506 million Green Line from downtown to Santee opened in 2005 after a similar time commitment.
While transit ridership has fallen, as it has in many places, in recent years with a rebounding economy, San Diego’s trolley system is one of the most successful light rail systems in the country.
It has surprisingly low overhead and fairly robust ridership numbers, moving about 120,000 people a day over 54 miles of track. Only a handful of cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, have similar systems with higher usage.
San Diego region way off track to meet state mandates for limiting climate pollution from driving, by Joshua Emerson Smith, The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 16, 2019.