StretchStatement: “The new proposal from SANDAG … 14 percent goes to freeways and 40 percent goes to public transportation. … Public transportation is good for San Diego. It’s not good for a suburban environment in North County. North County is – what – a third of the county, 1.2 million, and we need to get our fair share of taxpayers’ money,” said Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, at a District 3 county supervisor debate on April 21 in Rancho Santa Fe.

Determination: A Stretch

The board for the San Diego Association of Governments – a regional planning agency of elected leaders from around the county – is asking voters in November if they want to increase sales taxes for a host of regional transportation, infrastructure and preservation projects. The plan has drawn opposition from all sides, including one dissident group of North County leaders who argue their part of the county won’t get a fair cut.

This includes two North County mayors battling to become the next county supervisor for the northern coastal district, Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar. It also includes County Supervisor Bill Horn and Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, who both voted against putting the measure on the ballot.

SANDAG’s plan would increase sales taxes by a half-cent for transportation and infrastructure needs. The measure would raise $18.2 billion over the next 40 years.

Abed was right about two things: The plan would spend roughly 42 percent on public transit and 14 percent on highways. It would also give 30 percent to individual cities for local infrastructure and spend 11 percent on open space preservation and 3 percent on biking and walking projects.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Abed has been one of the plan’s most outspoken critics. His complaint often comes down to the amount of public-transit spending that will happen in the city of San Diego.

“I believe the final format of this is out of bal­ance,” he said at an April Escondido City Council meeting. “Basically we are subsidizing big time public transportation in San Di­ego.”

Before voting against sending the measure to voters, he reiterated the point once more at the SANDAG meeting two weeks ago.

“I don’t think we have a balanced plan,” he said. “We don’t have enough money for the freeways.”

In an interview, Abed said he is concerned that shifting spending toward public transit in central and southern San Diego could leave North County highways in long-term trouble.

SANDAG’s executive director, Gary Gallegos, said the agency doesn’t look at the county as four separate regions. He doesn’t think claims of geographic inequity hold.

Primarily, that’s because people who live and pay taxes in North County often work elsewhere. They benefit from improvements in other parts of the county.



“We didn’t start out with any allocation of any sub-region,” Gallegos said. “We didn’t start out saying, ‘We need a certain percentage here.’ The approach we took was looking at, how do we build a better system that works for the entire region?”

Abed isn’t just right about the funding breakdown for transit and highways – he’s also right that since most transit projects aren’t in North County, it gets less funding by virtue of being highway-centric.

But his fair share argument – and that of other opponents in North County – lacks important context.

The dollars from the tax measure are being used to fill a funding gap in SANDAG’s $204 billion long-term transportation plan. It’s meant to make up for a lack of funding from federal, state and local sources for specific projects included in the 40-year transportation plan that was approved by SANDAG’s board – including a “yes” vote from Abed.

The tax measure and transportation plan don’t delineate spending by parts of the county. But the projects in the tax measure are not the only improvements North County is slated to receive in the next 40 years, nor is it all of SANDAG’s funding for transportation projects. It is one part of a piecemeal funding approach to implement the long-term plan.

If voters approve the tax, there shouldn’t be a highway funding gap for projects in the plan.

For example, planned improvements for the North County highway SR-78 will cost about $1.2 billion. About $566 million of that is coming from SANDAG’s existing sales tax, TransNet. SANDAG needs another $650 million– which it hopes to get from the new tax.

But this doesn’t mollify Abed.

He doesn’t like that the measure fills funding gaps for already approved highway projects, but pays for completely new transit projects, like the trolley’s Purple Line from San Ysidro to Kearny Mesa.

“We’re creating a new public transit in San Diego,” he said. “But we are only funding for the already approved freeway projects.”

Abed supported the transportation plan, which included new transit projects like the Purple Line, but he says the tax measure crosses the line.

“That was a 50-year plan,” he said. “We approved the plan, but we didn’t say we wanted to raise taxes for the Purple Line now.”

Abed’s big concern is that the tax measure’s breakdown signifies a larger shift away from highway investment to more concentrated public transit investment.

North County projects make up about half of the highway initiatives in the tax measure, with improvements to the 56, 78 and the North County corridor of the I-5. Improvements to the 78 corridor, carpool and express lanes on the I-5 and adding a second track to the Coaster rail line are all North County projects SANDAG is fast-tracking.

And North County does get some transit funding.

The region would benefit from Coaster double-tracking, for instance, one of the largest transit projects in the plan.

But there are only about six specific North County transit projects out of a list of nearly 50 projects. North County Transit District could potentially receive just under $600 million toward projects that are estimated to cost a total of $1.1 billion.

This doesn’t include some initiatives, like those for parking at transit stations, improvements to fare systems and customer services, vehicle replacement and enhanced bus services, or projects surrounding station areas. Those funds could end up benefiting transit services in North County.

SANDAG produced multiple proposals for how to spend the tax money before the most recent version that was voted to be placed on the ballot. That version cut new bus routes for North County – from Carlsbad to Escondido and from Oceanside to UTC – and redirected those funds to upgrade and improve existing Coaster and Sprinter services.

But while it’s true that increased transit funding is more beneficial for dense San Diego than suburban Escondido, transit dollars are still useful for North County.

That’s because Abed’s statement misses a broader point fundamental to regional transportation planning: North County residents don’t live in bubbles.

Many residents of Oceanside, Escondido, Encinitas, San Marcos and the rest of North County’s cities work in central San Diego.

In Abed’s Escondido, for example, 82 percent of employed residents commute out of the city to work, according to SANDAG data.

In Oceanside, 81 percent of residents work elsewhere. In Vista, 85 percent. In Encinitas, 87 percent. In San Marcos, 88 percent. In Poway, 90 percent.

That means improvements in Sorrento Valley, La Jolla, Kearny Mesa or downtown San Diego can also benefit people who work there but live elsewhere. In San Diego, though, 64 percent of residents both live and work in the city.

And North County isn’t exceptional. In Chula Vista, 82 percent of residents commute out. In La Mesa, 92 percent of residents work elsewhere. Countywide, the majority of employed residents – 69 percent – work outside of the city in which they live.

The city of San Diego is the only exception, where only 36 percent leave for work.

That’s the essence of the problem with Abed’s statement, and with others who claim their part of the county isn’t getting its fair share: It’s wrong to assume money spent on transportation and mobility in San Diego only benefits San Diegans.

Abed says he understands Gallegos’ point – that the idea is to think of the county as an entire region, rather than one pieced into separate parts.

In fact, he says he agrees we should look at the entire efficiency of transportation infrastructure regionally and not in silos, and that easing congestion in job centers like Sorrento Valley will help North County commuters.

Regardless, he sticks to his point.

“That will help, but it won’t address the needs of the 56 and the 78,” Abed said.

We say a statement is a stretch if there’s an element of truth to a statement, but it omits critical context that alters the impression it leaves.

That’s the case here. Abed is right: SANDAG’s tax would spend more money in central and southern San Diego than in North County.

But he’s ignoring that most North County residents are commuters who work outside the cities in which they live. Those taxpayers will be regular users of the projects built outside their cities.

    This article relates to: Fact Check, Land Use, Must Reads, Public Transportation, SANDAG, Transit

    Written by Maya Srikrishnan

    Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about K-12 education with a focus on equity. She can be reached at

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    Good analysis here, but why aren't California greenhouse gas reduction laws mentioned?  It's almost as if they don't exist to Abed, who keeps advocating for endless freeway widening, regardless of its contribution to climate change.  And please don't say that "widening freeways reduces emissions because it reduces congestion".  We have plenty of examples (405 widening in LA, Houston's Katy Expressway) where congestion only worsened after multi-billion dollar freeway expansions, due to induced demand.

    Abed and other conservative north county SANDAG board members probably don't believe in climate change, but back in reality we're addressing it with the San Diego Climate Action Plan, the county's Climate Plan (thrown out in state court for being ineffective) and state GHG laws.  Just because many North County residents and electeds ignore climate science doesn't give them the right to widen freeways through everyone else's neighborhood.

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    Maya & SANDAG fact check is equally flawed. The chart only tracks that people commute to a different city than that in which they live. If someone commutes FROM SD to North county they are not counted? Or commutes from Escondido to Vista?  Waaaay too much $ spent on riderless trolleys to nowhere , fix the freeways! 

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Below comments I want to add to U-T's Dan MacSwain's excellent May 15 article about highway advantage.

    Kudos! Finally a concise summary of why road travel dominates, providing the public's preference for on-demand single vehicle direct o destination service. And the overwhelming environmental advantage shown but not emphasized in SDForward; On-road vehicle save daily nearly 3 million gallons of fuel compared to an uncertain less than 100 thousand by mass transit.

    We are on the wrong track, literally by that still persistent faith in the Governor's mid 1970s declaration to curtail road expansion seriously, and that mass transit would absorb travel growth. The first happened, thus the congestion. But instead of mass transit, on-road vehicles have absorbed 95% of travel growth; despite congestion. Ignored was car's doubled mpg, and associated fewer emissions.

    Which leads to two elephants in the room.

    With current mass transit as stated already overbuilt, why in the world shod we spent nearly $40 billion for an extensive overlay still brining the travel share only to 2.5%? It seems to be a brute force step with more stations to relieve access deficiency.Mass transit;s share, 75% of transportation's, in the $18 billion sales tax proposed would help fund ithis.

    Which points to the other elephant; rapidly expanding use of om-call personal travel, (aka "Uber"), providing same vehicle travel curbside to destination; especially for non-drivers committed now to mass transit. A much more flexible faster service. And use less parking land, although probably taking some back to provide more capacity. Some with even more efficient vehicles using narrow automated guideways as well as roads..

    Hopefully we are turning the corner toward new 21st century Public Transportation. It can meet the overwhelming preference for energy and emissions efficient personal travel direct to destination.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Walt Brewer Not just mass transit but our road network is also massively overbuilt, unless you can name one road anywhere in the county that move more than one third of its maximum daily capacity?

    Until then, our highways don't need any more money. They just need to be more efficient.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Walt Brewer 

    Both should be designed to meet peak demand.

    Until you can convince people to work/socialize round-the-clock, there seems no way for better use.

    LA has used flex time to mostly flatten traffic morning to evening.

    Numerically now road carry about 100 million passenger miles daily. Mass transit 1.8 million. so compare 1/3rd roads with all day mass transit.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Walt Brewer "Both should be designed to meet peak demand."

    Why? Do you "build a church for Easter Sunday," as they say? Of course not, nobody does that.

    Do you build a restaurant big enough that there's never a waiting list? Again, of course not, that's a waste of money.

    So why is it okay to build a freeway to meet peak demand when nobody who's good with money does the same for churches or restaurants?

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    Maybe the mayor should get out more and ride some of the transit that's benefiting residents of his city in getting to other parts of the county, such as the Rapid 235 route.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Excellent analysis, Mays. But all hands continue to miss the basic point that dollar value balance is enormously different from performance comparisons of mass transit and highways.

    From SANDAG's total Plan, the $18 billion is a small part as you say, funds for highways are about 10TIMES more effective in passenger-miles than for mass transit. And for emissions, GHG and such etc, a wider margin than that

    Examples for the total Plan; For the Region, daily fuel saved is nearly 3 million gallons by support to highways. For mass transit an uncertain less than 100 thousand.

    For daily passenger-miles produced, mass transit is about 2 million, and highways about 20 million for about the same funding.

    Advantage to the mayors to keep emphasis on highways, and help reduce funds wasted for mass transit, long ago rejected by the  public.

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    Mass transit is not rejected by the public in my community of Barrio Logan and the surrounding barrios. Mass transit is used by plenty of people. More would use if it was more convenient. Build a mass transit system like NY or the Bay Area and it'll be used.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Desde la Logan 

    Yes I was referring to overall travel shift from largely mass transit years ago to about 90% automobiles now. A large share now is for non-drivers at high expense.

    But  a better way is evolving as I indicate. be picked up by a very efficient car and taken to work in the same vehicle.

    At about the same fare, would yo prefer that to mass transit?

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    You're telling me that hundreds of my fellow barrio neighbors will be able to Uber/Lyft to work/school/church/shopping for the same cost as taking mass transit? If you believe that there's a bridge in Barrio Logan that I have for sale.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Desde la Logan 

    You can't sucker me. I knowwho owns the Coronado Bridge!

    Have you read U-T Editorial, April29; "Transportation Planning. Leave the 20th Century Behind." And my Comment to it?

    Affordable "Uber" service takes interest by you and friends to step up to automobile quality transportation. And leaders to start, first with cars and drivers, to phase in the capability.

    As for costs, new mass transit costs are getting higher, and in total approaching Taxis.. Nearly $40 billion to just build and rehab in the SANDAG Plan. If high subsides can be used to keep mass transit fares down, why not shift as needed in some form to Uber "fares" as mass transit phases down. Blue Line remains.

    Later self-driving cars and competition will help.

    Not simple to be sure. But time we stop putting moreintothings that are not providing the service everyone should have.

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    My fellow residents can barely afford mass transit let alone Uber and self driving cars. Your future of transportation leaves out many.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Desde la Logan 

    They could not afford mass transit either but for a subsidy equal or greater than operations & maintenance cost.

    As mass transit phases out, initially at least ,there funds go to create  fares comparable  to mass transit, but using  Uber etc.

    But you and friends have to show they want it.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Desde la Logan 

    Sorry! Should have said----equal to or greater than ONE HALF operations & maintenance------

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Desde la Logan 

    I'll bet your friends can do a little calculating. See for themselves what would the cost for Uber type same vehicle seveuce to destination would be. How much ofthe current mass transit subsidy would be to match mass transit fares.

    SABDAG could give you rider levels for routes used. Don't imclude Blue Line. And probably share of non-drivers.(Nation-wide that share ranges from 30% to 80%. I'd guess 60% to 70% for you.) Also estimate numbers sharing vehicles on Uberr-type trips.

    Get some numbers from Lyft, Uber etc, including trip costs now that can be extrapolated for higher volumes and future more fuel efficient cars. This info and some emissions data will be usefil on requests for better quality service.