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How Kevin Faulconer Touched Off a Historic Debate About San Diego’s Transportation Future

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata has laid out a controversial vision for a transit system that is convenient but expensive. Conservatives are laying out another very different vision. How it resolves itself will determine what the region looks like and how people move from place to place within it.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, left, and SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata / Photo by Megan Wood

One of the great peculiarities of the situation at the San Diego Association of Governments is that the agency’s chairman, Steve Vaus, the mayor of Poway, is not on board with the vision the agency itself is selling to the region.

SANDAG’s executive director, Hasan Ikhrata, is not just at odds with Vaus, but with many other board members too.

And that isn’t just something we have never seen at SANDAG. That’s unusual at any organization.

It’s come about because Ikhrata and his staff have provoked a major debate. It may be the biggest debate about the future of the San Diego region we have witnessed in many decades. How it resolves itself will determine what the region looks like and how people move from place to place within it. It will touch on every aspect of our quality of life, from housing access to climate change.

And we’re getting this because of the person who actually has the most power on the SANDAG board. That’s not Vaus, but San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Remember how Ikhrata got this job?

Ikhrata’s predecessor, Gary Gallegos, was unable to keep a house of cards from tumbling. Gallegos, for years, misled the public about how much money the agency would bring in for transportation projects.

His desperate effort to pass a new tax in 2016 – one that would have been barely able to make good on old commitments, not to mention the new ones Gallegos was making – failed.

Vaus, the mayor of Poway, saw what was happening as clearly as anyone. Vaus was on the board of SANDAG and helped lead the push for an inquiry into the findings we first brought to light. Facing all this heat, Gallegos resigned.

Democrats took advantage of the scandal to reform SANDAG’s governance system through state legislation. Before the new law, each city in the region had a strong voice on SANDAG’s board of directors.

With the change, the city of San Diego gained power on the board as weighty as its comparable population. Essentially, the city’s representatives on SANDAG could ally with any two other cities’ representatives and have their way.

When the time came to select a new executive director for the agency, the board picked Gallegos’ No. 2, Kim Kawada.

Faulconer, though, wasn’t having it. In a remarkable move, Faulconer called for the weighted vote and stopped the board from hiring Kawada. That forced the board to re-open the search, which eventually settled on Ikhrata.

And that’s how Ikhrata, the agency leader, and Vaus, the agency chairman, can coexist at odds. Because Vaus isn’t really in charge. Faulconer is. Ikhrata can be out of step with a majority of his board as long as he has Faulconer and a couple of the other cities’ support.

Everyone just seems to have forgotten to change board leadership to reflect that new reality.

Now, Ikhrata has radically redefined the job. SANDAG’s board used to be bizarrely unified. Ikhrata has simply explained that the consensus was built on a lie – actually two lies: that the agency would have enough money to deliver enough projects to keep people happy, and that those projects would satisfy state environmental mandates.

It was a harsh new reality: San Diegans would keep paying a half-cent sales tax for decades but it was not bringing in what they thought it would and the agency had already borrowed against it significantly.

Also, and in some ways more importantly, the agency was out of step it with legal mandates from the state that it dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ikhrata blamed this on a different form of deception: SANDAG relied on models that demonstrated emissions reductions that he said the agency had no interest in actually meeting.

Thus, he concluded, the only way to make the climate change and greenhouse gas emissions goals would be to change the entire transportation system.

He laid out a vague but ambitious plan. He intends, for example, to abandon further construction of the light-rail trolley that has been the basis of transit in San Diego for decades.

It’s too slow and it doesn’t make stops where people live and work, Ikhrata argues. Previous San Diego leaders, looking for the cheapest options, picked routes for the trolley that offered the least resistance but have turned out to be inconvenient for riders.

His contempt for the sad state of transit options, however, has not drawn near the reaction as his contempt for highway expansion projects.

Ikhrata imagines what he calls complete corridors. Were Ikhrata God, he would probably kill the Sprinter light-rail line in North County and replace it with a faster train that better services neighborhoods where people live. He’d add lanes to the 78, but would ask drivers to pay depending on demand.

Picture that same formula up and down the county.

The rail lines he imagines, many involving tunneling so they can actually go to the places people live and work, would be unlike anything we’ve seen here. Obviously we could pare it back, but the bill for his vision would be $100 billion or more.

Republicans in North County and East County have erupted. Some acknowledge the financing challenge that will require tough choices on promised highway expansions while others have seized what’s happening as a winning campaign issue for them: He’s stealing money meant for highways and giving it to trains, their version of it goes. The fee idea, called congestion pricing, provoked Vaus, a songwriter, to rhyme: “Turn our freeways into fee-ways?? No way!”

Republicans like him, though, have recognized an opportunity. In North County, Kristin Gaspar, the county supervisor facing a tough re-election campaign, says she recognizes the funding challenge but jammed through a resolution at the county opposing any vision that doesn’t support freeway expansions.

Carl DeMaio, ever the master of umbrage framing, has boiled the issue down to city of San Diego politicians trying to raid funds meant for highways and funneling them to “transit and bike projects instead.” When poll respondents hear that in a question, he reports, they overwhelmingly reject it.

(Side note: The poll also asked respondents what they thought of him running for mayor again.)

But the actual mayor, a Republican, stands in a different place. Ikhrata can keep going as long as Faulconer and the city of San Diego stand with him.

And whether Faulconer directly intended to or not, his legacy may very well be giving us a chance to have this epic debate.

Because Ikhrata is right that the consensus of the past was built on lies. He’s right the transit we have built is ineffective. And he’s right that if we are to truly move people around in a way that complies with ambitious climate goals, it really would require a complete reimagining of the entire system.

There is one vision of San Diego that is of more dense living in core urban areas. It would mean we stop development in backcountry areas (there’s very little land left anyway) and as we add jobs to the region, and as we add babies, we add homes where all these people can live. Rather than add a lane or two to congested freeways, we make it possible to live in San Diego without a car. And we pave the way for automated vehicles and other technologies to connect.

The other vision is that we abandon transit altogether. This is the one that mocks transit advocates for driving places. It’s dumb, it’s inconvenient, it’s too expensive. As Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey put it recently: “Taxpayers are paying more for a service that fewer people are choosing while their own commute times are increasing. The disproportionate funding of public transit is highway robbery.”

Better to stop it and invest in preparing our roads for automated vehicles but not fundamentally changing our cities and growth patterns. In fact, Bailey himself is leading a charge to stop new home-building in his own city. People will have to live somewhere so this position is, by default, a movement to push them further out to the east. And that doesn’t have to be a climate problem if they get there with electric cars.

These are two vastly different visions. For too long, San Diego was denied the chance to let them truly compete. Instead, we pretended that everyone agreed, on the basis of two complementary lies.

We are marching toward opportunities, probably in the form of tax increases, where we can make these decisions. And it was Faulconer, never much known for forcing us into big decisions, who pushed us there.

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