Every morning, San Diegans wake up and prepare for their workday. We get into our cars, drop off our children at school and start the ever-lengthening slog to work.

When I moved to San Diego 10 years ago, my commute was about 15-20 minutes from the El Cajon Boulevard on-ramp of Interstate 15 to the Mira Mesa Boulevard exit. Today, the same commute takes 30-40 minutes. Nothing’s changed except for the increase in the sheer number of cars moving up and down that freeway.

Commuters on the 805, the 5, and the 94 freeways will tell you that this doesn’t even begin to describe the problem with traffic that we’re all confronting today. To say nothing of the greenhouse gases being produced by our disproportionate use of single-occupancy automobiles, and the negative impact of those fumes on our communities’ health.

The issue of traffic congestion is not limited to our highways, though. In many communities, surface streets become clogged during rush hour, dealing with vehicle loads that they were never designed to accommodate. In my own community of Mira Mesa, both Miramar Road and Mira Mesa Boulevard resemble parking lots during the morning and evening rush hours. And even worse, understandably frustrated commuters start looking for ways out of the quagmire, causing cars to bleed into the residential neighborhoods that flank the main thoroughfares, bringing speeding vehicles and fumes into close contact with homes. This situation compromises neighborhood safety, resident health and property values.

The reason we’re stuck in traffic is because of the lack of efficacy on the part of the San Diego Association of Governments, over the past decade. SANDAG is one of the most powerful regional bureaucracies in the state. Over a decade ago, it assumed the role of funding and building transit for the county. It has unparalleled authority to tax our region’s residents, and spend local, state and federal taxpayer dollars on transportation. A half-cent sales tax for every dollar spent in the region goes into its coffers.

Yet SANDAG has failed to meet the region’s transportation needs. San Diegans are seeing traffic increase, commutes grow longer and air pollution impact the health of their communities. Traffic delays for each auto commuter in the San Diego region have worsened during the last decade, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Travel times to work have remained stagnant, even as more people are working from home. And the San Diego region continues to get an “F” grade for ozone and particle pollution from the American Lung Association.

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

Despite SANDAG’s sales tax expenditures, the agency has failed to make any impact on transit ridership. The table below shows that when we examine the commutes for workers, the share of those who drive alone has increased and the share of those who walk or use public transportation has decreased in the last two decades.


This is because for most San Diegans, it’s hard to get to work using transit. The Brookings Institution found that less than a third of San Diegans can get to their jobs within 90 minutes when using transit. Ridership can only increase if there is a system-wide investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers downgraded San Diego’s public transportation grade from a C in 2005 to D+ in 2012. The group estimated that there is a $190 billion shortfall in transit investments in the San Diego region.

As the region grows and adds more people and jobs, it’s not able to catch up in public transportation growth. The result is more congestion on the freeways since it is the only choice for most commuters to get to work in a reasonable amount of time. SANDAG is now proposing to augment the funding of this failing system with an additional half-cent sales tax increase on all San Diegans.

Some may argue that the best way to alleviate traffic and congestion is to build more highways. But even the state’s own transportation agency admits that building more roads only increases traffic since it causes more people to drive, plus drive longer distances. This harms economic growth and business attraction. A clear example is the stifling of high-tech campus growth in Sorrento Valley that SANDAG’s sales tax extension a decade ago failed to address.

Our neighbor to the north, Los Angeles, has already tried building crisscrossing freeways – choking communities – and is now backpedaling and laying down light rail as fast as it can. Anyone who has ever driven on a Los Angeles County freeway or even along any number of Los Angeles County surface streets knows exactly why. As the region’s population grows, more people are forced onto increasingly congested freeways and roads. Those freeways and roads can only be widened so much before we simply run out of space.

By comparison, a well-designed transit system is scalable and can grow with ridership. In Los Angeles, voters acknowledged this in 2008 when they voted in Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that provided funding to build light-rail throughout the city. In addition to significant funding of freeways, Measure R has been key to Metro’s rail expansion, and many rail lines have already been completed. And as a bonus, it is projected to provide tens of thousands of good-paying jobs for local residents through a project labor agreement.

To be clear, I am not opposed to freeways. I drive them every day, and I agree that they need improvements. But our freeway system is not scalable and as such, we must be willing to allocate our resources in a manner that looks to a more flexible and sustainable transit future. San Diego aspires to be a global leader in innovation and creativity. Our public transportation system must reflect these aspirations and get us downtown, to the airport, to university campuses, to beaches and to employment centers. Walkable and bikable neighborhoods could connect to transit stations in urban areas and feed mass transit ridership. And as more commuters chose to use transit, our freeway drivers would find their commutes less frustrating,

It’s time for San Diego to learn lessons from other cities and realize that in order to maintain our quality of life as we grow, we need to think differently about our transportation system. SANDAG’s proposed tax increase lacks creativity and precludes us from exploring other possibilities for the next 40 years.

Carol Kim is the director of community engagement for the San Diego County Building Trades Council Family Housing Corporation. Kim’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Opinion, SANDAG, Transit

    Written by Opinion

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    Founder subscriber

    From the UT (that only accepts FaceBook user comments)"An independent oversight committee would monitor the program to ensure the funds were invested responsibly"

    Dream on, whoever is selected for that Committee will be clones of the SANDAG Board.

    If those that have spoken out against SANDAG's "ever more highway lanes, that do nothing to reduce congestion by the time they are built" then it might be something to consider.

    I think an alternative plan woul be to spend any increases in funding providing "personal mobility eVehicles and the lanes to use them", as this would get people out of their cars.

    Laura Schumacher
    Laura Schumacher subscriber

    ZachW is correct that San Diego has 2 votes on the SANDAG board. However, each jurisdiction also receives a weighted vote based on population. For a motion to pass, it must receive the support of a majority of the voting members AND a majority of the weighted votes.

    It's not accurate to say SANDAG has had no impact on transit ridership. The ASCE report downgrading San Diego's transit, actually lists four positives - INCREASED transit ridership since 2005, increased role in 2050 RTP, federal funding for maintenance and TransNet Program funding. The negatives - which caused the downgrading - are reduced and uncertain federal/state funding and 50% single tracked and bridges at service life in the commuter rail corridor.  San Diego's rating would likely go UP if San Diego adopted the SANDAG measure because it would mean more certain funding and more double tracking.  Why wouldn't we want to do that?

    Yes, it's hard to get to work for many San Diegans using transit. But the reason has more to do with land-use than transit infrastructure. Transit doesn't work in low-density communities. If our Cities and County (who have land-use authority) continue to allow sprawl, then those people will have to rely on cars and will offset the expanded transit ridership in the urban core.

    ZachW subscriber

    Laura, thank you for explaining more details on how SANDAG works. San Diego has roughly 1/3 the population of the county (and hence 1/3 of the tax payers in the county). When the weighted votes are considered, does the city come out with around 1/3 of the voting power on the board? There are 21 members on the board and today they are voting on this measure. Are you saying Faulconer and Gloria's votes count more than the votes of the others because they represent larger populations? Thanks for helping me to understand more about this powerful yet secretive, clandestine agency.

    Laura Schumacher
    Laura Schumacher subscriber


    Yes. San Diego reps vote count more in the weighted vote. If San Diego has 40% of the population, then San Diego gets 40 weighted votes.This gives San Diego considerable weight. However, San Diego only has 2 votes for the individual vote. San Diego could win the weighted vote but lose the individual vote. It’s like having the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives combined. The goal is to foster regional planning – rather than each city going off on their own.

    SANDAG has to create a measure that can pass both the individual and weighted votes of their own board PLUS get 2/3rds of voters to support it in an election. A real challenge – and it’s being attacked from both sides. One side says not enough highway spending (11%) and another side says not enough transit spending (42%). We need King Solomon!

    ZachW subscriber

    Great opinion piece, I agree 100%. The only thing I would add is a critique of the structure of SANDAG. It's comprised of officials from cities throughout the county - El Cajon, Santee, Escondido, etc. Of the 21 people with voting power, only two represent the City of San Diego. This is a problem because transit needs in the city differ than they do in more rural, outlying areas. What motivation does the Mayor of El

    Cajon or Escondido have in voting for transit infrastructure in the City of SD? They have their own constituents and agendas which tend more to roads than transit due to sparser population density. It seems absurd that San Diego, being the regions largest city with the most contributing tax revenue and over 1/3 of the county's population only has a 2/21 representation on this powerful planning board. There is simply too many competing interests in the varied representations. The city is large enough to have our own urban planning agency that could work as an equal with SANDAG to come up with and approve our own viable plans for the city, then coordinate with SANDAG for county-wide planning matters

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    I too would like to see more transit and fewer highways. But I think the widespread vilification of SANDAG misses a major point – that most of SANDAG’s revenues are restricted to certain purposes. No doubt this is a problem. But it’s less the fault of SANDAG, and more the result of larger policy decisions made at the state & federal levels.

    The SANDAG board can’t simply vote to reallocate most of their highway funding to transit projects. (The closest thing they can do is build transit-serving Express Lanes, which they are doing.) I suppose they also could forego the highway money entirely if they really wanted, and build nothing.

    As the author noted, the only real *discretionary* money SANDAG has is from the local sales tax TransNet, which is already fully allocated through 2040. Yes, technically SANDAG could reallocate some of the TransNet revenue from roads to transit – but that would re-neg on the voters' 2/3 majority approval of the measure. Which would obviously greatly imperil the odds of passing the NEW sales tax measure this fall. (And of course, most of our future transit funding depends on its approval.)

    The author suggested modifying the proposed new sales tax measure to include nearly all transit projects. It's a noble idea, but also a very risky one: Polling data consistently shows that a transit-only sales tax will not garner anywhere close to the required 2/3 majority of voters across the county. For better or worse, the highway projects are in there because they're politically popular and will get votes.

    The bottom line is SANDAG has very little revenue for additional transit, except very small amounts from the state (RTIP etc.) and some federal grants (which they have to fight tooth and nail for). But it’s not nearly enough to fund the major capital programs that critics want. The math just doesn't work.

    No doubt we need to change policy at the federal and state levels to provide SANDAG with more flexibility in allocating funds. But what exactly should SANDAG itself do? I have yet to hear a VIABLE solution that actually acknowledges the very real spending restrictions that SANDAG must deal with.

    ZachW subscriber

    I don't buy the revenue excuse. It's about priorities, and the way SANDAG is structured (see above).

    Marcus Bush
    Marcus Bush subscriber

    @tarfu7 The talking points about "discretionary funds" and the "re-neg" of voter-approval are only used by SANDAG Staff and Board Members to make arguments against delay or removal of freeway projects, but never in favor of spending more money for bike/ped/rapid bus/trolley projects. The voters also approved the Mid-Coast Trolley in 1987 (https://www.sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/legacy/city-clerk/pdf/pamphlet871103.pdf, page 2)and construction hasn't even began (nearly 30 years later). I never hear any SANDAG Staff or Board members refer to that promise. Seems like freeway promises are stronger than transit promises.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    Saying "I don't buy the revenue excuse" is not a viable alternative solution. Until we come up with a better response, SANDAG is going to keep using that same excuse.

    ZachW subscriber

    The viable alternate solution is to re-structure SANDAG, which is weighted towards rural and suburban communities. The City of San Diego has disproportionally small representation on the board. We should have two agencies, one for the city and one for the other areas of the county; they can collaborate on the county-wide implications of infrastructure plans, but the City of San Diego should be able to make calls on our own infrastructure, not the mayors of Santee, Vista, Poway, Escondido and Oceanside. Their transit needs are far different than ours yet they collectively have a larger vote on SANDAGS board than the city of San Diego does.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @ZachW  "We should have two agencies, one for the city and one for the other areas of the county"

    The agency "for the city" already exists. It's called the City of San Diego.

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @ZachW "The City of San Diego should be able to make calls on our own infrastructure"

    There is nothing stopping the City of SD from doing so. Every city has its own budget, and is free to put up its own ballot measures to pay for whatever it wants. In fact, just next month City of SD will hold an election on an infrastructure measure called "Rebuild San Diego."

    The problem is that the City of SD doesn't have billions of dollars to invest in transit projects. The City NEEDS money from the rest of the region to close the gap. But as long as you're relying on regional money, you also need regional approval. You can't have it both ways.

    zee cee
    zee cee

    Major trolley stations missing: airport, Ocean beach, Pacific Beach and La jolla.