SANDAG Moving Closer to ‘Coming to Jesus’ Moment on Killed Projects

Government

SANDAG Moving Closer to ‘Coming to Jesus’ Moment on Killed Projects

An outside audit urges SANDAG to identify which projects previously promised to voters will no longer be part of its long-term vision.

A view of the East Orange Avenue freeway exit in Chula Vista / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

By the end of this year, San Diego should have a fresh plan for the future of its transit lines, highways and roads. A big part of outlining that new vision involves once and for all canceling its old vision.

The San Diego Association of Governments is drawing up its new, 40-year framework to get people around the region – while, for the first time, obeying state climate-change edicts.

The agency now accepts that its overstated expectations for how much money it would have to build things, and its underestimation of how much those things would cost, have conspired to create a massive shortfall in the agency’s long-term budget. The agency doesn’t have enough money to build everything it has promised taxpayers.

An outside auditor says those two facts make it the perfect time for SANDAG to identify which projects, specifically, are not going to make it into the region’s new transportation system. That is, the agency should say which projects were on the ballot to entice voters to increase their taxes, but no longer fit in the agency’s long-term vision.

“Honesty about projects … is an important part of our coming to Jesus with the region,” said Bill Sandke, a Coronado councilman who sits on the agency’s transportation committee, at a recent committee meeting.

Voters in 2004 approved TransNet, a half-cent sales tax through 2050 that, combined with state and federal money, was meant to build 37 freeway and 11 transit projects to ease congestion. That infrastructure program is in deep financial trouble, because of erroneous revenue forecasts and rose-colored cost projections, both of which only came to light after a scandal erupted when the agency tried to raise taxes again for a new program in 2016, leading to the departure of SANDAG’s senior leadership and state legislation that reformed the agency.

The agency, and its auditors, now say they anticipate a $9.8 billion shortfall, leaving many of the projects that have not yet broken ground in a precarious position. That will especially hurt freeway projects promised as part of TransNet like improvements to I-5 in the South Bay, I-805 and I-8.

As is, though, SANDAG doesn’t have an especially clear way of communicating how it’s handling that shortfall, auditors said. When projects are delayed, diminished or eliminated, that information isn’t always conveyed clearly to the public or the agency’s board, making it hard to hold the agency accountable as money from TransNet is collected and spent.

The agency’s funding shortfall is no longer a surprise, but recent procedural changes made it more visible, auditors found.

“With that, in the future SANDAG really needs to develop a formal process where any of these identified issues are discussed, and options are outlined to show any impacts this may have on what is left to do in TransNet,” said Lien Luu, a director at Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting, the firm that conducted the audit, in a presentation to a SANDAG committee. “SANDAG needs to clearly communicate how these decisions are made, especially when options to reduce, change scope, delay or even eliminate projects are being evaluated.”

SANDAG’s in a good spot to make those decisions clear, since it’s scheduled in the fall to approve its new, long-term transportation vision. That’s the vaunted “5 Big Moves” plan, subject of high-profile hype and criticism. The agency has said it will no longer expand freeways, will build hundreds of miles of new, fast rail lines through the region and will address congestion with managed lanes and tolls similar to the system on I-15 today.

As SANDAG finalizes that vision, the auditors said, staff needs to tell an oversight committee and the elected officials on the board what’s going to happen with projects from the old tax measure.

“What we mean by that is, with all the changes in the new vision for the region, SANDAG needs to be clear whether these TransNet projects will be considered in the 2021 (long-term plan), or whether they’ll be canceled because they may no longer be the best option for addressing the region’s current needs,” Luu said.

The agency hasn’t done a great job describing those changes in the past, because its online tracking system covers whether a project is completed, in progress or slated for the future, without spelling out delays, significant changes or whether it’s no longer a priority.

But that problem could get trickier, because the agency no longer plans to lay out its vision by listing new projects.

With TransNet, the agency came up with a list of projects and asked voters to give them money to build them.

Now, the agency says it makes more sense to commit to big-picture outcomes – making it cheap and easy to get around the county without exacerbating climate change – while embracing that technology and lifestyle decisions will change over time, changing the projects necessary to deliver that vision, too.

But that attempt to improve its regional planning approach could cut against efforts to hold the agency accountable.

“I recognize that there’s a desire for a sort of side-by-side comparison – what does the ordinance say, versus what’s proposed?” said Coleen Clementson, SANDAG’s director of regional planning. “And is that the same or different? Is it addressing the same issue in a different way? Is that a promise kept, or not? Those are the things that will be our job as planners to articulate for our board of directors, because these are the questions they’re going to have.”

Clementson couldn’t say which projects from TransNet would not be included in the 2021 regional plan.

But even since the agency unveiled its new plan in early 2019, to a more defined version that came out late last year, SANDAG has changed the names not only of specific projects, but even how it describes areas it’s trying to improve. The agency once said it would improve trolley service along the Blue Line in the South Bay, and to construct a new Purple Line along the I-805 corridor. Those two areas were first renamed, then combined, and are now collectively referred to as “South Bay to Sorrento.”

That all makes it hard to compare how public transportation spending plans have changed from TransNet to the new plan, the auditors said. The audit instructed staff to make it easier for the public to understand how things were shifting.

“(This) is exactly the different between how we did our work 20-plus years ago, (when we) identified projects, as opposed to a systems approach,” Clementson said. “The system approach just makes sense. … It looks at I-5 South, it looks at the Blue Line, it looks at I-805 South. It looks at the Purple Line. It looks at SR-125. From the border up, that whole area, and really thinking about how all of the transportation facilities there, what role they play, and how they can be optimized.”

The new approach makes a commitment to ensuring transportation to and from an area functions well, as opposed to promising to build certain projects.

Clementson said being a good steward of taxpayer dollars means selecting the best ways to improve their lives – and in this case, make transportation faster and easier – not adhering to a concrete list of projects concocted decades ago.

“I would sure hope to heck that when I go forward to the board of directors, I could say, ‘TransNet asked for this, we think we can make that even better by actually doing this,’” she said.

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