Brian Catanzaro grew up in Pacific Beach, and he’s stayed there to raise his own family. He lives in a relatively quiet part of the neighborhood near Kate Sessions Elementary, removed from what he called the “drunken stupor” dominating Garnet Avenue.

He’s noticed changes in his longtime home.

It used to be easy to get on the freeway, now it’s not. It used to be easy to catch a wave, now he shares them with dozens of surfers at a time. He used to take quiet walks in Mission Bay park, now it’s full of exercise classes and other commercial activities.

When political leaders implore support for building more homes in San Diego, he scratches his head.

“If it’s bad for me, why should I roll over and say, ‘No, no, no, I want this, even if it’s bad for me?’” he said. “It’s stupid.”

The common response, from politicians and media alike, is that San Diego is destined to grow, no matter what, and we must prepare for it.

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

One projection guides all of that. The San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, says the region will grow by 1.3 million people by 2050, a 40 percent overall increase from the 2010 Census.

SANDAG’s own blueprint for highways, light rails, bike paths and bus lines through 2050 relies on it. So does the county water board’s 25-year outline of water supplies and demand. The plans cities draw up for their future housing and capital improvement needs, like San Diego’s general plan, do too.

If history is any guide, San Diego’s population will continue to grow. That’s something of a given.

The question is, how much? That’s what SANDAG’s projections seek to answer. They’ve done an especially bad job of it.

The best that can be said for SANDAG’s projections is that they’ve expected the population to grow, and grow we have.

But they’ve been wildly inaccurate at predicting how much growth would occur. Since 1990, they’ve consistently predicted far more growth than we’ve experienced.

Growth Will Happen

Environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez built a career fighting sprawl in undeveloped areas. Last year he challenged fellow anti-sprawl environmentalists to embrace dense housing as an alternative.

“The first presumption is growth,” he said. “Will growth occur? I think it will. Whether you believe SANDAG’s projections …  growth will occur, especially along our coastline, and the question is, what obligation do you have … to accommodate some portion of that growth?”

Gonzalez’s basic claim — like it or not, San Diego will grow — has been unfailingly true. And while SANDAG’s projections underestimated that growth in the 1980s and overestimated it in the 1990s, they have nonetheless accurately predicted continued population increases.

sandag population projections

Over the last 40 years, SANDAG’s projections were within 1 percent, on average, of San Diego’s actual population.

Through the 1980s, SANDAG’s projections undershot actual growth by almost 3 percent on average. The projections it has released since 1990 routinely missed the other way. SANDAG overestimated the eventual population by nearly 6 percent in the last 25 years.

At the very least, leaders making decisions informed by these estimates aren’t being led in the wrong direction, said Peter Brownell, research director for local think tank Center for Policy Initiatives.

“The lines are all going in the same direction, right?” he said. “So it’s high by 6 percent: the reality is, it’s not telling us, ‘Oh, we don’t need to add housing, or schools, because we don’t have to expect growth.’”

Where SANDAG’s forecasts strongly diverged from the actual population, it points to major political or economic events — the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, which shifted military spending out of Southern California, or the housing bust and great recession of the 2000s.

“We don’t ever claim to forecast recessions or booms or busts or one-off events,” said Clint Daniels, manager of regional projections for SANDAG. “Over the long term the trend is pretty constant.”

Growth will happen. But knowing that is the easy part.

A Big Forecasting Error

If you compare our actual population to what SANDAG said it would be, the agency looks good.

But there’s another way to measure the forecast’s accuracy. Look at how much growth it said would occur, versus what growth actually occurred. We wouldn’t expect San Diego’s population to fall to 500,000 people in the next 10 years. Nor would we expect it to climb to 10 million people in the same time. The range of reasonable guesses for SANDAG’s projections is actually pretty small. That it can land within 10 percent of the population isn’t surprising.

What policy-makers care about is how many new people they need to accommodate, said Richard Carson, professor of resource economics at UCSD.

“If you’re thinking of building new schools,” Carson said, “you don’t care about the existing population, because they’re already in schools. What you care about is the people who need new schools, about the size of change, because that’s what you need to build new infrastructure for.”

On that count, SANDAG’s projections have been abysmal.

sandag population change error

In 2000, for instance, SANDAG projected the region would add nearly 400,000 new people by 2010. Instead, the population grew by just 280,000 people. The agency overestimated actual growth by 43 percent.

In 1990, SANDAG told local governments the region would add 480,000 people by 2000. The region added 315,000. That’s a 52 percent error.

They’ve missed the other way too, though it’s been a while.

In 1980, SANDAG told local governments to prep for an increase of 460,000 new residents by 1990. The region actually added 630,000 people, 27 percent more than SANDAG said.

“One can be completely agnostic about whether the population going up or down is good, but to the extent that our infrastructure budgets are driven by this projected change, along with all the other development policies for cities and the county, that’s a pretty big forecasting error,” Carson said.

Daniels acknowledged this is a legitimate way to measure the success of SANDAG’s projections — and that it makes them look much worse.

But, he still prefers measuring against the total population, because governments aren’t just trying to provide infrastructure for new residents.

“Say no one else moves here and no one else is born,” he said. “Do we all stop paying taxes and stop providing services? Even if the population is stagnant, there’s still demand for new services.”

Damon Crockett contributed data analysis for this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story miscalculated the degree to which SANDAG overestimated population growth in 1980, 1990 and 2000.

    This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Land Use, Must Reads

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    While California's population continues to grow, there's been a dramatic shift in the migration patterns between states. Prior to 1991, we had a regular net influx of new residents from other states.  That reversed starting in 1992 -- about the time SANDAG begin systematically overestimating our rate of population growth. 

    It's called the net domesticmigration (migration between states). Since 1992 we've lost a NET 3.7 million people to other states. I say again -- NET.

    From 2003 through 2012, California lost a NET 1.43 million people. Net departures slowed in 2008 only because people couldn’t sell their homes. But more people still leave each year -- in 2011 and again in 2012, we lost about 100,000 net people to domestic out-migration. In 2013, 49,000. Again, note that these are NET losses.

    Our state's population continues to grow from two factors:
    International migration
    Longer life expectancy

    Robert Leif
    Robert Leif subscribermember

    From 2005 to 2012, both the total Hispanic and Mexican extraction birth rates dropped

    Year    All Origins Total Hispanic  Mexican

    2012 12.6                     17.1             16.3

    2005   14.0                    22.9              24.5  

    from Table 5. Births and birth rates, by Hispanic origin of mother and by race for mothers of non-Hispanic origin: National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 64, No. 1, January 15, 2015.

    As, one can see the ladies have learned about birth control. Unfortunately, the City's and SANDAG's experts in  prediction evidently have not learned about the ladies. This is one of the reasons that the defunct Barrio Logan and new Southeastern San Diego Community Plans  contain over estimations of population growth.

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    Inflating projections is what government agencies do to get more funding.  This is not a new concept.   When funding gets tight, or services have been underfunded,  there is even more of a  tendency to do it to help get caught up or get enough funding.  

    Being able to plan for growth, and getting infrastructure started early,  is a big cost saving versus having to play catch up as things always cost more when we are desperate to get it done.  Let's agree that we are going to grow, and continue to budget and build for it.  

    The remaining question is density or sprawl...

    bgetzel subscriber

    What Adrew failed to address was the impact of the incorrect projections. Did we build roads, schools, water facilities, etc. that we didn't need? No, if anything, our infrastructure is inadequate to serve the population, even though it is less of a population than we expected. So, if we overestimate by 20%+, but only have resources to build 50% or less than our needs, we are more than OK. The key, again, is that SANDAG predicted significant growth, which is what happened!

    bgetzel subscriber

    Are the commuting times reasonable? Are class sizes reasonable? Can we continue without water restrictions? The existing infrastructure is being stressed for the size of our population. The population of India is increasing to and that does not mean its infrastructure is adequate!

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @bgetzel When the freeways are filled with people willing to make that commute on a regular basis, if that isn't objective proof that commuting times are reasonable, then what is?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @bgetzel Premise 1: If we didn't have adequate infrastructure to serve the population, our population would not increase. Premise 2: Our population is increasing. Conclusion: we have adequate infrastructure to serve the population.

    GCarpent subscriber

    I was amazed attending one of the Workshops to hear during the Q&A period that questions to SANDAG, who works for us, were dismissed as follows

    "This sounds more like a comment rather than a Question." 

    If a question doesn't fit into their plan just dismiss it?

    Frankly all I observed at this workshop was a lot of fast talking hype.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    SANDAG is our Federally- and State-mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).  Regional MPOs are required to exist in order to receive Federal and/or State Funding.

    To make any large changes or put forward tax increases like the half-cent TransNet, 2/3   [67%]   of both the weighted and unweighted SANDAG board members have to agree.

    The City of San Diego has a 40% Weighted vote on the SANDAG Board, through Mayor Faulconer and City Council Member Todd Gloria.  Therefore the City of San Diego has automatic VETO powers on SANDAG to push forward any projects they want, including language on upcoming ballots. 

    It would be great if Mayor Faulconer and Council Member Gloria took charge and set SANDAG priorities and budget, instead of allowing staff to make all political decisions. 

    lorisaldana subscriber

    SANDAG's "irrational exuberance" fuels many problems related to long term planning for infrastructure, and also makes realtors and land speculators drool with anticiption of even more overpriced housing for them to sell.

    Likewise, in a similar fashion, the city's Metropolitan Wastewater District has historically claimed that massive amounts of wastewater would be discharged out to sea via outfalls as the population increased. They used these predictions to justify the construction of the massive ocean outfall at the border which will never operate at maximum capacity (thank god) since people in this region, in both the US & Mexico, are realizing it makes little sense to pump, import, treat and use water once, then dump it out to sea.

    In fact despite population increases over the last 20 years the amount of water discharged through the outfalls has remained constant or even decreased. Residents are smarter about their water use and are using less and conserving morning.

    And- especially in an era of climate change, drought and heightened water politics- this "dump it to sea" method makes less and less sense, fiscally and environmentally..

    So... driving CO2 producing highway projects by overestimating projections of growth. Creating jobs for engineering, construction etc. industries by over stating future needs....Amazing... who could have come up with such a plan..

    Or, as some of my medical friends reminds me:

    "Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell." Ultimately, it kills the host.

    Muriel subscriber

    Sounds like complete and total Socialism with a capital "S"... you people should be living in Amsterdam

    Founder subscriber

    @Muriel I guess you would rather spend all of SANDAG's money on ever more roadways that will only lead to ever more congestion.  

    Getting people to use small ePersonal mobility "eVehicles" hopefully on "roadways with solar roofs wold not only create income that could be used for future maintenance but also reduce the number of traditional Big Vehicles that are using ICE engines, which are polluting the air we all breathe.

    Jack Shu
    Jack Shu subscriber

    Another good job by Andy and VOSD.  If people are unhappy with SANDAG, they should let their elected officials know.  For example, council member Todd Gloria, who is touted as a friend of the environment and local communities is chair of SANDAG's Transportation Committee.  He is the one largely responsible for the failed plan four years ago as well as the one being shown to the public now called San Diego Backward (or is it Forward).  SANDAG is made up of out elected officials.  They are the ones who need to change SANDAG or we need to change who we elect.

    Founder subscriber

    @Jack Shu

    To bad that most of our elected Officials don't care as much about US as they do about their own Donations.

    If that were not the case SANDAG would be doing what is best for all of US, not just BIG Contractors.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    I agree, nice job VOSD.  It's good to see that the information everyone seems to take as gospel is being looked at carefully and challenged.

    George Courser
    George Courser subscriber

    Erroneous projections are not SANDAG's only failures. Other notables include their botched climate action plan. now Ca supreme court fodder. Or those endless stalled traffic lanes on any "freeway" system you drive  

      In reality, SANDAG has not proven good for anything, with the exception of the building industry.
      Puppets, stooges and water carriers are too mild for SANDAG adjectives.  
      SANDAG is a notorious wastrel of taxpayer cash...with no evidence of it's existence except stalled freeways and trolleys to NOWHERE 80% of the population would travel.
      Yet even no-brainer destinations don't exist:

      Try taking a "trolley" to Lindbergh Field, our international airport.
      Try taking a "trolley" to our internationally celebrated Balboa Park Centennial.  
      Try taking a "trolley" to our internationally famous San Diego Zoo. 
      SANDAG is looking to score $204 Billion for their operating budgets, but they are working solely for developers. And that huge tax reward of course. Actual taxpayers don't exist in their scandalous matrix. Anyone attending the SANDAG dog and pony shows touring the County would laugh aloud at the pretext of a claims for public transportation. But small wonder, the board of SANDAG is composed of the elected politicians from 18 cities and the County.

    I've attended 4 of the current Forward San Diego  "workshops.

    Here's my take, basically from the latest meet at Caltrans.  SANDAG is desperate, in deep disarray and cannot respond to actual questions. They are both incapable and determined to avoid responses. SANDAG's PR scheme is to outright refuse to hear comments. If blurted, they claim your voice to be an "opinion". Staff go so far as holding the microphone for you. Their presentations have diminished with each "workshop" skipping slides and skimming over obvious blunders. Anyone not familiar with Soviet-Era repression of speech will find this a perfect history lesson.

    SANDAG management is on a mission, but their mission is so flawed that staff finds it embarrassing. And staff there will be - in herds... At the Caltrans hearing they outnumbered the 40 or so public participants. Staff is pandering for leniency, publicly asking Jack Shu of CNFF for mercy...then became incapable of even intelligible responses. They simply cannot address truth.  Staffs' "solution" is rushing through any attempt at public participation and herding you into a barrage of posters swarming with specialist staffers. Not that they are rude, or malevolent...only blinded by the mission in an eerily corporate manner. If I wanted mindless samples I'd go to Costco. Here we wanted answers.  

    The basic underlying LIE is that SANDAG has nothing to do whatsoever with Land Use, only implementing transportation-related land use decisions. That LIE is easily blown up when the SANDAG board is only composed of the exact ELECTED Land Use decision makers staff claims no relation to. They play public participants for idiots. And we are; if we accept anything from SANDAG at face value. 

    Harry Jensen of the Morena Corridor refused to play those games, lighting up the audience to the point of mini staff meetings attempting to shut him off. There was not one positive publicly aired comment.  It was a pathetic failure, continuously on the verge of collapse for its lack of reality or common sense. This is a staged fraud, challenged only by San Diego County's Planning and Development's "Thrive" workshops.  The panel of experts assembled by SANDAG refused to support or protect SANDAG blunders, such as failing to have a trolley to the airport, or even a dedicated I-5 off ramp to Lindbergh.The panel members soon became the sounding board for reality...Management and staff did everything to get them off topic once they sensed truth emerging.  

    Soon staff was pitching how green they were with bike lanes, charging stations and other ancillary trivia distractions while ignoring actual mass transportation removing traffic from an overwhelmed I-5. But they definitely want that $204 billion budget.    

    I urge all to attend. But please bring your own answers.  You won't get any from SANDAG that make any sense. 

    George Courser


    Roy Benstead
    Roy Benstead subscribermember

    @George Courser I like your comment about "Green Bike Lanes".  CALTRANS has boasted about the one on the North side of SR52 between Mast Blvd and Santo road. However, they created that by acquiring several feet of the pavement of Westbound SR52, thus making the already crowded highway more crowded. Every time I drive that route, my wife and I try to spot a bicycle on it. Up to now, we have been unsuccessful.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ― Yogi Berra

    My question would be, who is doing better?

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    I think it might be more like, "I love going places on the San Diego trolley, except that it doesn't take you anywhere."

    Founder subscriber

    $ANDAG says it all...

    Roy Benstead
    Roy Benstead subscribermember

    SANDAG are hopeless with their traffic projections too. Take SR52 as an example. They built a section of it from SR125 to SR67 right through Santee. However, Westbound at SR125, it resulted in six lanes of traffic merging into two lanes, because the section of SR52 from SR125 to I-15 is not yet finished and is not capable of handling the flow. This is because of four bridges that need to be widened. Oh yes! the concrete pavement is in position already, several miles of it, but is useless because of those bridges.

    So, when do SANDAG plan to complete that glaring oversight? They are scheduled to start in the year 2040. 


    In the meantime, frustrated drivers do all they can to get around the big bottleneck. Some exit the freeway at Fanita and use Santee city streets to try and get a few cars ahead so they can get to work on time.

    We in this area are paying extra sales tax to get this and other freeways up to date, but here, we must wait


    Its time to retire all of them. The sooner the better.

    Brian Peterson
    Brian Peterson subscriber

    I'm glad VOSD (or anyone) is finally addressing this.  City officials and others treat SANDAG's projections as gospel.  As I recall, back in 2005 SANDAG projected the region's population would grow by 1.3 million by 2030.  Now they say it's 2050.

    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    These overstated projection errors are not limited to population.  Because of the SANDAG bias favoring light rail, over and over their projections for new rail lines has been significantly higher than actual ridership. After the successful TJ Trolley was built at very low cost, SANDAG fell in love with commuter rail.

    A fun project for VOSD would be to go back an look at the projections, and then look at ridership -- line by line.  The general rule of thumb is that for each new line, you'll likely find the projection vs. ridership is even more overly-optimistic than the last spur approved.  Don't forget to include the Sprinter!  I expect a similar outcome for the vaunted $1.8 billion MidCoast rail line from Old Town to UTC.

    The sad part is that the SANDAG staff is well paid and pensioned for systematically being wrong.  And indeed, it appears that accuracy is not the goal -- JUSTIFICATION drives such projections.  They ARE doing their job.  And doing a job on us.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @Richard Rider Richard, I was really hoping to hear your thoughts on this conundrum. Hopefully you're still reading this thread.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @Richard Rider  You single out transit here - but if SANDAG's growth projections are overstated, wouldn't that be an argument for less spending on BOTH transit and highways? Lower growth means lower travel demand for all modes of transportation. 

    So assuming SANDAG's growth projections will continue to be overstated, then the logical move here would be to downsize our ENTIRE regional transportation plan - highways included. Right?

    Founder subscriber

    @tarfu7 @Richard Rider

    YES, I agree, we need to downsized both SANDAG and its plans for road building and shift toward "REBUILDING" roads and enabling commuters to purchase "personal Mobility" eVehicles (mentioned earlier) which will further reduce congestion on our roads and help clean up our air!

    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    @tarfu7 @Richard Rider The problem is that the highway capacity is always lagging.  We can SEE the usage, minute by minute.  It's far easier to predict future demand, as well as see where current problems exist.  Yet, we seem to have had a conscious policy of rush hour gridlock over the years -- perhaps to encourage people to use mass transit.

    But rail is built totally on suppositions, with no hard data available to analyze demand.  Since SANDAG ALWAYS overestimates rail ridership on proposed lines (usually by a LOT) while underestimating road demand, it's logical to conclude that the staff is driven by an inherent bias favoring rail mass transit.

    I might add that I DO favor improving mass transit -- by putting more funding into the BUS system, which gets people where they want to go. More routes, more express buses, etc. -- but the money for that improvement instead goes towards FAR more expensive and less efficient rail.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @Richard Rider @tarfu7 Richard, thanks for the response. I won't take issue with your claims about transit. 

    But do you agree with the growing body of research showing that you can't build your way out of highway congestion? Demand for auto travel is not constant; more road capacity induces more demand. Recent experiences around the nation have shown that multi-billion-dollar highway expansions generally only relieve congestion for 2-3 years at best, before the traffic jams come right back. 

    So in your mind, when does this cycle end? You're a fiscal conservative - do you really think it's worthwhile to invest billions in highway expansions, if they will only relieve traffic congestion for a couple years? And once the congestion returns, will you be calling for yet another multi-billion-dollar expansion? How wide do our highways need to be before you say we've spent enough? 

    (If your answer to the last question is, "Until there's no more rush hour congestion" - then you're essentially writing a blank check, which of course is not very fiscally conservative.)

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Slowly but surely, a more realistic discussion about growth and development is beginning to take place, thanks in part to Voice of San Diego and its reporters who are not afraid to dig into things and don't worry about upsetting the BIA and it's political shills.

    Perhaps after reading this analysis, other media reporters and editors won't start off every discussion on growth by asserting that "According to SANDAG, the region's population will grow by over a million in the next XXX years".

    Founder subscriber

    SANDAG should be disbanded, since it is in reality nothing more than a group of Cheerleaders for ever more local Building Projects which really only benefit the Building Industry and those that receive donations from them (which are the Board-members of SANDAG).

    Imagine if Jack Shu could appoint four others to a new Board of SMART-SD to replace the entire SANDAG Board.  This new Board could then spend BIG Money on all forms of small electric powered "personal mobility" eVehicles that would not only dramatically reduce our GHG but at the same time remove huge numbers of vehicles from our existing roads as ever more commuters switched from their cars to "personal mobility" eVehicles.  This would have the effect of reducing traffic on existing roads since less big vehicles would be using them.

    Once commuters realized that no major highway improvements would be taking place, they would adjust their transportation/lifestyle in much the same way that everyone has adjusted to watering less.  In five years San Diego would be transformed into the best place to commute in the USA, and parking would be a joy since tiny "personal mobility" eVehicles would be able to park much the same way that bicycles are parked today, since many would be able to fit in each parking slot, which would multiply the number of parking spaces by many time over.

    The switch would be exciting to say the least and have many positive "spinoffs" as commuters began to install solar roof and storage batteries in order to recharge their own personal mobility" eVehicles instead of having to pay ever more money to Big Oil and/or Big Utility.  The money saved could also make acquiring personal mobility" eVehicles far easier since rebates could be given to everyone instead of spending the money on new road construction, which cost many millions per mile.  Additionally, our existing roads could be repaired so that using the personal mobility" eVehicles would be safer for all.

    Now is time for SoCal taxpayers to demand far better from those planning for our future, to insure that we (not just our elected Officials and BIG Contractors), actually benefit from all future improvements in San Diego.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    "How fast will population grow" is a silly question for SANDAG to ask when they are the ones who cause it to grow by building infrastructure, if you believe in induced demand.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Founder And they also conflate population growth with economic growth.

    Founder subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann

    If WATER limits our growth, then perhaps we can spend a Billion Dollars on Water improvements instead of more housing units and a new Chargers Stadium which would really make it much better for all those already living in San Diego to enjoy our quality of life instead of what our elected Leaders want, which is more, more and more BIG donations, in return for supporting ever more GROWTH, which will surely reduce our Quality of Life with more traffic congestion, less parking and more crime.