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Transit Without Teeth

Despite its clout with transportation dollars, the San Diego Association of Governments is relatively toothless when it comes to growth.


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CAROLYN CHASE HITS THE BRAKES, coming to a dead stop on the I-805 freeway. The heavy traffic is at a standstill. Fellow drivers glance at their watches, scowl and punch buttons on their cell phones. Chase looks west toward the burgeoning Golden Triangle, where construction cranes stand in silhouette against the azure sky that lures ever more people to San Diego. And she laughs.

Recalling the moment, she explains her ironic reaction: “I was thinking about the 30,000 homes being added to the area in coming years. Where’s the infrastructure?

“When you start to think about it,” she says, “you realize there’s no effective plan. The plan doesn’t function worth a damn.”

Chase’s moment of humor is short-lived as she returns to her serious role as a member of the San Diego Planning Commission, an outgrowth of her work for the Sierra Club. She’s an outspoken critic of the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, the regional traffic authority and the agency responsible for implementing growth management in the county through its Regional Transportation Plan and Regional Comprehensive Plan—the “plan” Chase derides.

“The numbers in SANDAG projections are a self-indictment—the board [of directors] is in denial, in my opinion,” she says.

According to SANDAG’s current transportation plan, adopted in 2003, even if anticipated road construction and public transit projects are completed over the next two decades, drive times for some commutes are expected to get worse, not better. And of those drive times projected to decrease, the improvements, in most cases, are marginal. That’s because the city of San Diego, with a current population of roughly 1.3 million, expects 284,000 additional residents by 2020, and the county’s population of roughly 3 million is expected to swell to nearly 4 million by 2030. Is it any wonder SANDAG is formally known by state officials as—all joking aside—a “congestion management agency”?

This is why Chase and others organized to defeat Proposition A last November, calling it a flawed proposal. The TransNet initiative, placed on the ballot by SANDAG and narrowly approved by voters, extended for an additional 40 years a half-cent sales tax that would have expired in 2008. The tax extension will provide some $14 billion for local “traffic reduction” projects throughout
the county over 20 years, and it will be supplemented with funds from the state and federal governments. The money will go toward projects that include managed lanes, high-occupancy vehicle lanes and reversible lanes within existing freeways, as well as a bus rapid transit system.

“Why reward failure?” Chase asks. “What has SANDAG accomplished that it deserves another $14 billion of taxpayer money?” She and others wanted the proposition rewritten and put before the voters in 2006.

SANDAG executive director Gary Gallegos points to more than a dozen major projects the agency has completed throughout the county in recent years that have eased the region’s traffic woes. These include building, extending or widening State Routes 52, 54, 56, 76, 78 and 125, as well as extensions of the San Diego trolley system and the Coaster commuter rail system, street widening and traffic signals at busy intersections.

“We have spent nearly $2.4 billion improving freeways, expanding the trolleys, expanding bus services,” Gallegos says. “Over the past 15 years, SANDAG has added 227 lane miles to the highway system and financed hundreds of local road projects.”

But Chase contends the proof is in the pudding: Traffic has not been reduced, congestion is worse than ever, and—based on SANDAG population projections—it will only get worse unless a truly regional approach to planning and land-use decisions is instituted.

Enter the Regional Comprehensive Plan (RCP), adopted last July by the 20-member SANDAG board of directors. The RCP calls for smart growth —compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development—along the lines of the city of San Diego’s “City of Villages” initiative (see the “Visions of Villages” sidebar on page 99). The smart-growth model combines higher-density housing, commercial development, employment centers, schools and civic uses in urban areas better suited to public transit.

In the words of SANDAG, “The RCP better integrates our local land-use and transportation decisions, and focuses attention on where and how we want to grow, providing a vital alternative to where we could end up if we continue with business as usual.” Business as usual being spiraling housing costs as demand outstrips supply, which leads to increased urban sprawl and
the attendant traffic congestion that now stretches from the county’s northern borders with Orange and Riverside counties to south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The RCP connects all the dots with all the things that are being done, whether it’s transportation,
energy, land use, education, open space or water,” Gallegos says.
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