REGION — It was over a week after the Fourth of July, but fireworks erupted at a July 12 marathon 4.5-hour San Diego Association of Governments meeting about the future of the San Diego County mass transit system.
The group of county leaders convened to discuss the “5 Big Moves,” SANDAG’s vision to create a new-aged public transportation system in the name of rolling back traffic congestion and tackling climate change. And the meeting ended with some of the concerns addressed about the plan, which North County leaders have raised for months.
More than 80 people testified at the hearing, including former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, a staffer for California Assembly Minority Leader Marie Waldron (R-Escondido), Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, an employee of San Diego Gas & Electric and a slew of climate and union activists. SANDAG is in the midst of its public engagement phase for the transit plan, part of the 2021 Regional Plan rollout process, and is currently hosting webinars and going to various county municipalities to get public feedback on its transit vision.
Abed, a former SANDAG board of directors member who recently declared his candidacy to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 50th Congressional District — a seat currently occupied by the criminally indicted U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) — emphasized that he felt SANDAG had morphed into a less collaborative body since he left the board after losing his 2018 mayoral race to Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara.
“This is not a bold transportation system, this is a transportation disaster,” Abed said. “This is not 5 Big Moves, these are five big setbacks.”
Conservative critics of the 5 Big Moves within North County have honed in on the 2004 ballot measure voted on by San Diego County residents which extended the existing half-cent sales tax to extend funding for TransNet — a money pot for transportation projects — through 2048. Many of the projects SANDAG said it would support under the auspices of the money raised from that sales tax have so far fallen by the wayside, including revamps of key east-to-west North County highways like the 56 and 78 to help improve traffic flows on those thoroughfares.
Echoing Abed in pointing to that 2004 ballot measure, Waldron expressed opposition to the “proposed raid of TransNet funds.”
“The new proposed vision for TransNet lacks efficiencies and wastes resources by directing funds away from overcrowded roads and towards bikes and transit programs,” said a staffer from Waldron’s office speaking on her behalf at the meeting.
Yet, the climate activists in the room representing groups such as the Sierra Club, San Diego Climate Action Campaign, San Diego 350 and biking advocacy organizations, all professed an overarching need to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions coming from the county’s prolific highway traffic.
Maleeka Marsden, an organizer for Climate Action Campaign, was one such voice.
“The planning paradigm of the past doesn’t work for communities and is worsening the climate crisis, making it harder for residents to breathe clean air and failing to alleviate congestion,” Marsden said.
Marsden also called the actions taken by some of the more vocal opponents of the 5 Big Moves tantamount to climate change denial obstructionism.
“The conversation that is happening today is about political showmanship,” she added. “And it’s a missed opportunity to have a real, data-driven conversation about how to achieve serious public policy goals like addressing the climate crisis and improving public health.”
After a full roundtable discussion among board members following public comments, a motion proposed by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and voted on by the board passed. It calls for “realistic and transparent revenue assumptions” under the banner of the 5 Big Moves model. And it seeks a prioritization of improvements to highways such as the 78, 67, 52 and 94/125.
Though it passed, another motion proposed by San Diego County Supervisor and former Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar failed shortly thereafter.
Gaspar, a Republican who represents District 3, pushed for the removal of the concept of congestion pricing from consideration within the 5 Big Moves. She added that any plan with that in it would serve as a “deal breaker” for garnering her support.
San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones concurred with Gaspar’s motion in the minutes before the vote ensued.
“Personally, I look at the price of what the congestion pricing would cost on our roads and I’m actually mortified that anyone would think for one second that it wouldn’t hurt our businesses, our low-income folks, and literally the goods, the services, how much everyone would be paying for this,” Jones said. “And I’m appalled that we would even discuss this.”
But SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata advocated for leaving all options on the table during the early stages of the planning phase.
“By doing this, you’re taking an important tool — a very important tool — out of the toolbox, and you’re putting your stock in such an impossible situation to meet the (state’s greenhouse gas emissions) requirement,” Ikhrata said.
Gaspar’s motion proceeded to fail. The meeting ended not long after that vote took place, with Gaspar quickly exiting the room before any other SANDAG member.
“I am disappointed that congestion pricing remains a part of SANDAG’s planning efforts,” Gaspar said via email after the meeting. “Finance discussions should be limited to taxes paid, not pie in the sky track and tax schemes to recover even more revenue.”
Another SANDAG member who voted in support of Gaspar’s motion was Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, a Democrat.
“In my mind, she was eliminating something that would probably not be supported. That is why I supported her motion,” McNamara. “It is an unrealistic solution and I believe a waste of the staff’s time to consider it.”
Carlsbad Councilwoman and SANDAG board member Cori Schumacher, though, said she believed all options should receive analysis during at this stage of the process.
“Given the sizable funding gap the previous SANDAG board left us with and state greenhouse gas reduction mandates, prioritizing corridors without comparative financial and GHG analysis in front of us is not my idea of good policy making,” Schumacher told The Coast News after the meeting. “We need to be smart and deliberative about our next moves, rather than rushing decisions without the data in front of us.”
Photo Caption: Former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed speaks at July 12 SANDAG meeting. Photo by Steve Horn
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at email@example.com.