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Fact Check: SANDAG's Transit Progress, or Lack Thereof

Todd Gloria and other officials have explained their support for SANDAG’s transportation plan by touting the fact that “75 percent of transportation funding in the next five years will go to transit, up from 50 percent in the last five years.”

StretchStatement: “Seventy-five percent of transportation funding in the next five years will go to transit, up from 50 percent in the last five years,” said Councilman Todd Gloria, in a statement touting his support of the San Diego Association of Government’s 30-year transportation plan.

Determination: A Stretch

Analysis: For politicians supporting the region’s new 30-year transportation plan, there was a common explanation: The plan spends most of its money on transit, not highways. And as a region we’re gradually moving away from highway building as our primary transportation solution.

It was particularly voiced in response to concerns from environmental and other transit groups who allege the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, hadn’t done enough in its blueprint to build out a transit system across the county that would make commuting without a car a viable option, and decrease the county’s carbon footprint.

“So from the last (regional plan), where half of the dollars went to public transit, under this proposal three quarters of the dollars go to public transit and active transportation,” said San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria, who is on SANDAG’s board, at the hearing last month when the plan was unanimously approved.

Gloria has been a vocal proponent of making the region more transit-focused. He proposed a citywide plan that would do just that, and he joked that he was hesitant to point out just how transit-friendly the SANDAG plan is, because some of the board’s more suburban members wish it was tilted the other way.

He provided the explanation even more succinctly in a follow-up statement touting the plan, and his vote for it.

“Seventy-five percent of transportation funding in the next five years will go to transit, up from 50 percentin the last five years,” he wrote.

He wasn’t alone.

In a Voice of San Diego op-ed, Santee City Councilman Jack Dale and County Supervisor Ron Roberts, both SANDAG board members, said something similar.

“Seventy-five percent of the major transportation funds in SANDAG’s plans over the next five years are programmed to be invested in transit and active transportation, including the Mid-Coast trolley extension, the South Bay Rapid project, and the continued double-tracking of our coastal rail corridor,” they wrote.

There’s a reason they’re focusing on the first five years. While the 30-year plan is an important document, SANDAG only commits to funding projects in five-year increments. And since the agency adopts a new long-term plan every four years, all the projects listed near the end are basically written in pencil.

Gloria stressed this at the meeting.

“(Roberts) has educated me many times that there’s nothing certain about 2035 or 2050, but in the first five years, 75 percent is going to the priorities I see in the community, and I feel pretty good about that,” he said.

There’s a big chunk of truth in the claim, but it also leaves out a lot of important context.

In the last five years, SANDAG’s major investments went 50-50 to transit and highways. In the next five years, that transit investment will move to 75 percent.

Here’s how funding broke down in the most recent five-year period under the previous plan, adopted in 2011, according to a monitoring report.

2011_pie_chart

But this only includes major highway and transit projects that are going to be completed in the next five years, and only the money that’s going to be spent on them in the next five years. And it excludes operations costs, too.

Using this specific definition, that leaves eight total projects – four transit, and four highway projects.

project_list

 

Of the total money spent in the next five years on these eight projects, indeed, three-quarters of it goes to transit. But even if you compare by total project costs, as opposed to the portion of each project that’ll be spent in the next five years, transit would get 60 percent of the money, not 75 percent.

There’s also one major highway project that isn’t included in this comparison.

A new highway called SR 11 will connect SR 905 to the Otay Mesa East border crossing. It’s a massive project, at nearly $900 million, and it’s also likely to be very popular: It’s intended to ease cross-border travel.

But it is a highway project. It isn’t included in the above comparison, though, because it’s a toll road, and the toll itself is expected to pay for the project. Since it isn’t being paid for out of a pot of money that could otherwise be spent on transit, SANDAG said it shouldn’t be part of the comparison.

It’s reasonable to set the project aside. But it’s still a $900 million highway that’ll be built in the next five years that’s being excluded from a debate about how many highways we’re building in the next five years.

If you add that project into the mix, and compare the total cost of all of these projects, the region will spend $2.5 billion on transit, and $2.4 billion on highways. It’s basically a 50-50 split.

But there’s an even more basic consideration in assessing Gloria and the other SANDAG board members’ argument.

The primary point they were making was that SANDAG’s new plan is progressing toward a transit-focused approach.

But there hasn’t been any change or progress from now to 2020 from the last plan. The plan the board just approved doesn’t include a single transit project in the next five years that wasn’t already planned for in the previous plan. All four of the projects on the list were in SANDAG’s plan from 2011, and they were all supposed to be finished before 2020.

In fact, the 2011 plan envisioned one more transit-friendly project for the five-year period Gloria’s talking about: a streetcar line connecting downtown, Balboa Park and Hillcrest by 2020. The new plan kicks that project out to 2035.

Likewise, the new plan doesn’t kill any previously planned highway projects.

Without adding any new transit plans, it’s hard for SANDAG to make the case that it’s adopted a new transit-oriented vision.

More accurate is to say SANDAG is patiently executing the same vision it drew up four years ago. It’s just four years later.

We call a statement “A Stretch” if it takes an element of truth but leaves out critical context that will significantly alter the impression.

That’s the case here.

Clarification: The total cost of the SR 11 highway connecting the 905 to the Otay Mesa East port of entry includes the cost of buildings and facilities for the border crossing. Roughly half of the cost is for the highway portion of the project.

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