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Politics Report: What Kind of Vision? Bold!

A big day at SANDAG. Supervisor Jim Desmond isn’t totally bought into climate science consensus. A key councilman has never been into the plan to overhaul Balboa Park’s streets and parking. And a big day coming for the county Board of Supervisors.

Hasan Ikhrata is the new executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Hasan Ikhrata, director of the San Diego Association of Governments, and his staff unveiled their big plan for the future of transportation in the region Friday morning, and it has brought to the surface a political divide that was likely to open up eventually.

Ikhrata says transit will be as fast and convenient as driving from anywhere to anywhere in the county because of a new network of trains – some underground, and some above ground – that travel much faster than existing light-rail system.

“I’m not proposing any light-rail or bus,” Ikhrata told VOSD after the meeting.

Ikhrata acknowledged that passing and funding a plan reflecting his vision would not be easy, but he challenged the board to take it on.

“I believe in your leadership,” he said. “I believe you’re going to rise to the occasion … it’s going to be difficult, but I have faith in you.”

But right away, politicians from North County and East County made it clear they won’t support anything that doesn’t include the freeway expansions promised in TransNet, the sales tax voters extended in 2004. The program has come in wildly short of projections for revenue and doesn’t have the money to complete all the projects it promised.

County Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristen Gaspar put out a memo Friday asking their three colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to formally oppose any SANDAG plan that excludes the 14 unfinished highway projects that were in TransNet. Ikhrata said those projects are now off the table.

Their opposition was echoed to varying extents by comments from Santee Mayor John Minto, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, Vista Councilwoman Amanda Rigby, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, Oceanside Deputy Mayor Jack Feller and El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells.

Desmond said the plan wouldn’t pass with voters in North County or East County because it’ll be seen as a bait-and-switch after TransNet’s promises weren’t kept.

“I like the vision – I’d like to see it happen,” he said. “But we need a parallel path to keep promises made to voters.”

But Ikhrata’s new vision for SANDAG got enthusiastic support, too. Officials from the South Bay and the region’s urban core praised it as an overdue fix to one of the region’s biggest problems and a boon to its climate and economic development goals.

“My first question is, where do I sign up?” said San Diego Council President Georgette Gómez. “This is why we were elected.”

Keep in mind: Ikhrata doesn’t need every vote. After AB 805 reformed the agency, he can get a new transportation plan approved as long as he has the votes from the city of San Diego and two other cities. Based on the comments Friday, he’ll have that.

One takeaway: In the past, SANDAG’s board was rarely the place for disagreement. Its board usually voted in lockstep no matter what complaints constituents or interest groups had.

Elected officials from different parties, and different parts of the region and coming from cities of differing sizes and socioeconomic breakdowns, it turns out, also have different priorities.

Now, SANDAG has become a place where that uncontroversial fact is on display.

How Ikhrata Wants to Amend TransNet: TransNet included a number of promises to voters if they approved a half-cent sales tax. It also included a means for two-thirds of SANDAG’s board to amend the measure if the need arose.

Ikhrata is looking to do just that.

After the meeting, Ikhrata told me he would be putting a motion to amend TransNet in front of the board within the next few months.

That amendment would not only wipe out the 15 TransNet projects that the agency hasn’t started construction on yet, which Ikhrata had already told the board back in February was coming.

SANDAG doesn’t have enough money to finish those projects, but it does have some money.

Ikhrata’s proposed TransNet amendment, he said, will include allocating $300 million – enough to cover the costs of the South Bay Rapid, Mid-City Rapid, SuperLoop Rapid bus projects and the Centerline bus stations on I-15 with room to spare.

But he doesn’t want to spend that on any specific, existing projects. Rather, he wants to start doing the environmental and planning work necessary to get the projects included in his new vision ready to go. Then, MTS through the ballot measure it’s pursuing, or SANDAG through a future ballot measure, could try to come up with enough funding to actually build those projects to start implementing the new vision.

Desmond Not Buying Climate Change Consensus

Jim Desmond
Jim Desmond at the US Grant Hotel on Election Night. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

We had County Supervisor Jim Desmond on the podcast this week. It was good timing. Desmond was one of the many local politicians summoned to SANDAG this week for the big presentation of SANDAG’s “Bold New Transportation Vision” (you know something’s bold if it is in the title).

Desmond is part of an alliance of North County dissenting voices. But we wanted to get at the heart of Desmond’s view on this. So much of this discussion is motivated by climate change. Ikhrata emphasized Friday that he wouldn’t offer a plan that couldn’t meet state emissions reduction mandates, and pledged that he wouldn’t pursue new projects that increase how much people drive.

Advocates for better, more useful transit have a kind of two-pronged argument: A) the region will have to stop prohibiting housing in cities and pushing it out to rural areas of the county and B) people will have to commute between urban areas in new ways. If this doesn’t happen, the greenhouse gas emission goals will be impossible to hit.

The city of San Diego even built those into law.

So we wanted to ask Desmond if he even bought the premise.

In short, no? Here was that exchange:

Scott Lewis: Do you think that climate change is man-made?

Jim Desmond: I think the climate has been changing since the beginning of time. The climate comes and the climate goes. The Great Lakes, the great plains, the Yosemite Valley — all formed by glaciers. They’ve been gone a long, long time. So you find seashells on mountain tops. You see where it used to be, you know, the land masses were Pangea and then the land masses all change and move around. So I say we may be a part of the climate change, but I think the only reason we’re here, and we’re still here today is because we as a species learn to adapt to different climates and climate changes. Now maybe we’re, maybe we’re exacerbating it towards the end of the warming trend. I don’t know that. But I will admit, I will admit to this: My mother taught me to clean up my messes. So if we’re making a mess of the air, we need to clean it up. If we’re making a mess of the roads, we need to clean it up. The air that we breathe. We don’t want to have poisonous noxious fumes in there. So I’m okay with for greenhouse gases and cleaning up. Who’s to blame for climate change? Climate change is going to happen with us or without us

Scott Lewis: Do you think it’s an existential threat? Like if, if there were seashells on the mountains here, we would be underwater. Do you think that’s an existential threat to us?

Desmond: I think we need to learn how to adapt to the changing sea levels. To really think that we’re going to stop sea level rise? The seas have, over time, risen and fallen on their own. I mean the volcanoes are going off.

Tuesday Could Be Very Interesting at County Supes Meeting

The County Board of Supervisors will consider the request to rebuff SANDAG’s Bold New Transportation Vision from Desmond and his colleague, Supervisor Kristin Gaspar on Tuesday. But that’s not all. The B board will also consider weighing in on a very thorny issue making its way through the Capitol: police use of deadly force.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s bill, AB 392, which would change the standards for when police can legally deploy deadly force, is alive and well. It just got a boost when a rival bill supported by law enforcement was tied to its fate.

Those are some rough waters for the board to wade into.

The county! It’s interesting!

The Great SB 50 Debate

Perhaps no legislation in Sacramento could have as much effect on the character of some cities than SB 50, the bill that would allow builders to construct four- or five-story multifamily housing units within a half mile of major transit stops throughout the state. It crossed it’s first hurdle in the state Senate this week but only after its proponent, Sen. Scott Wiener, made a deal with a powerful committee chairman, Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents Marin County and areas around it.

McGuire got Wiener to exempt counties with small populations. The bill also exempts the coastal zone areas in cities with fewer than 50,000 people.

This was all a bit confusing. But an artist named Arthur Twu illustrated a flow chart for how to understand it that we liked. Click below to enlarge it.

Illustration courtesy of Alfred Twu

Exempting small cities from the legislation’s biggest impacts was a peculiar decision. It would mean that Solana Beach could avoid much of the requirements to allow housing but La Jolla and other areas within the city of San Diego could not.

This seems a bit … arbitrary.

Ward’s Balboa Park Block Was Foreseeable

City Councilman Chris Ward shocked some observers when he de facto vetoed the Plaza de Panama project in Balboa Park, telling Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs and others he wouldn’t back their modified plan to implement the project.

But we should not have been surprised. Looking back at Ward’s public statements on the proposal, it seems he has wanted to ditch the plan for a while. And the proponents’ decision to break implementation of the plan into phases gave Ward the opening to do just that.

Ward has no official power to kill the plan. But as the councilman who represents the park, his support for the phased approach would have been crucial for other, newer Council members.

To the archives: When he was campaigning for the District 3 post back in 2015, Ward told us he had “doubts that I would’ve been supportive” of the Plaza de Panama project and had “a lot of really deep concerns” with the plan to clear cars from the park’s center and build a bypass bridge and parking garage to maintain vehicle access.

When Mayor Kevin Faulconer committed to give the project another try in June 2016, Ward did not show up for the press conference announcing that move despite his inclusion on a list of local leaders expected to attend.

Fast forward to November 2016. The City Council that did not yet include Ward approved a financing plan for the Plaza de Panama project.

Then the project faced another round of legal challenges that led to more delay. The city took steps to move forward again last year – and Ward got his first shot to weigh in as a city councilman.

At an October 2018 City Council committee hearing, Ward raised a series of questions about the plausibility of cost estimates for the project and the agreement with philanthropists who had pledged to raise at least $30 million to fund the project.

“I do feel as though my role at this point is to be a very strong watchdog to make sure that the agreements are adhered to, and to make sure that there are no holes in these agreements that are going to leave somebody holding the bag probably six to eight years from now,” Ward said at the time.

A few months later, three construction bids for the project came in more than $20 million over the city’s earlier project estimates.

Ward’s office released a statement at that time that indirectly suggested he wasn’t thrilled with how the Plaza de Panama project played out, wanting a more “holistic approach” for prioritizing the park’s many needs.

Ward brought up several process concerns with the new implementation plan but really it seems he didn’t like the whole vision and never has.

Lisa Halverstadt contributed to this Politics Report. If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, please send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

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