SANDAG’s New Chief Welcomes Heat, Calls Consensus of the Past a Lie - Voice of San Diego

Government UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

SANDAG’s New Chief Welcomes Heat, Calls Consensus of the Past a Lie

By design or accident, Hasan Ikhrata is remaking the role of SANDAG director, from behind-the-scenes consensus-builder to bold iconoclast. But the elected leaders who support his plan have not had his back as he faces pushback from North County and East County politicians.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata at a live Voice of San Diego Podcast recording at Whistle Stop Bar. / Photo by Megan Wood

This isn’t how Hasan Ikhrata drew it up.

Last month, the director of the San Diego Association of Governments outlined his vision for revolutionizing transportation in the region.

It called for hundreds of miles of new, fast and frequent rail projects to make transit a meaningful competitor to driving, while freeing up congested freeways with new managed lanes and a dynamic pricing scheme that charges drivers to use those lanes when demand is highest. It was essential, he said, to meet the state climate laws.

At the same time, he told the board it was time to alter TransNet – the scandal-plagued, tax-funded infrastructure program – because it does not have enough money to build everything voters were told the half-cent sales tax extension could fund.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, along with Democratic leaders in the South Bay and the region’s densest urban areas, jumped on board, saying it was overdue and the only reasonable path for the region.

Leaders from North County and East County came out against it right away, demanding that SANDAG commit to building the highway projects included in TransNet.

Since then, the situation has only deteriorated.

The County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the plan. A conservative talk show host pledged to recall anyone who supported it. SANDAG’s board chair even said a central component of SANDAG’s plan was a non-starter.

And last week, Ikhrata got into separate heated confrontations with two board members.

He and San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones had what she described as a “hostile argument” at a San Diego North Economic Development Council meeting. At Friday’s board meeting, Ikhrata squared off with County Supervisor Kristen Gaspar, who took issue with his claim that opponents had been misrepresenting the facts.

“His job is to build consensus,” Jones said in an interview with Voice of San Diego. “His job is not to attack board members. I am uncomfortable about how personal this feels. It feels like a personal attack. I think this is going to hurt our county long-term.”

Ikhrata does not agree. It’s true that in the past, SANDAG’s board was never a place for disputes. Ikhrata’s predecessor, Gary Gallegos, built consensus behind closed doors.

What SANDAG needs now, he said, is someone willing to outline the dramatic changes needed for San Diego to make good on the state’s climate laws.

And the unanimity that used to define SANDAG’s board, he said, wasn’t legitimate.

“There were really no choices in front of them,” he said. “I think there are amazing people here at SANDAG, but they were led to believe that, let’s just count votes beforehand and we’ll get to the board and it’s all cooked. I don’t believe in that. I don’t count votes. I would not be doing my job. My job is to bring ideas, their job is to be leaders.”

But Ikhrata now finds himself on something of an island.

Suddenly, Faulconer and other transit supporters like San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas are nowhere to be found. The only voices have been Ikhrata, and the leaders from the rural and suburban parts of the county opposing him.

By design or accident, he’s remaking the role of SANDAG director, from behind-the-scenes consensus builder to bold iconoclast, to the same degree that he’s proposed reimagining the transit system.

The False Consensus

Ikhrata came to SANDAG after Voice of San Diego revealed the agency had misled voters with revenue projections it knew were inflated and cost estimates it knew were too low, a scandal that led to Gallegos’ ouster. Together the decisions obscured the financial problems facing the tax program while SANDAG went to voters with a second ballot measure that could have been used to pay off the old one.

At the same time, a SANDAG was enduring a years-long legal battle with environmental groups that sued over SANDAG’s regional plan, alleging its environmental report failed to satisfy state climate laws. After losing in the lower courts, SANDAG took the case to the state Supreme Court, where it won a partial victory.

In both cases, Ikhrata said SANDAG avoided difficult conversations by obscuring the truth. The quiet, centrist consensus, he said, was predicated on a lie.

The TransNet scandal, he said, showed “something being cooking somewhere that didn’t have the benefit of public policy debate. What we’re having right now is great. I wish the supervisors go on the air another two months and talk about this, cause that’s healthy. What’s missing is the facts.”

Likewise, he has repeatedly told those critical of his ideas that there is a force animating the discussion: state emission reduction mandates. In February, the board unanimously approved his request to delay adopting a new regional plan when he told them that anything close to the agency’s existing plan couldn’t pass muster with new state requirements.

But in an interview, Ikhrata went further.

He said all the region’s previous plans – including the one in place today – didn’t really do anything to reduce emissions, he said. They used modeling to demonstrate compliance, but really perpetuated the car-based status quo.

“The previous plans were pretty much one in the same,” he said. “I can tell you right now, our plan doesn’t go anywhere near meeting the mandates. Truly. And what I’m trying to do is truly meet these mandates. It’s not just to say we met them, but they mean something. Greenhouse gas emissions mean something. The county, by saying, ‘We’re going to tell SANDAG to keep expanding (freeways),’ they’re telling , ‘Don’t meet the mandates. Don’t meet the law of the land, because it’s not important, and greenhouse gas emissions are not important.’”

None of these views should come as a surprise to Ikhrata’s board members, because he said that he told them as much when he interviewed for the job.

“They have never really meant to meet that law,” Ikhrata said. “I will say that with a straight face. In my interview with the board, a question came up about the plan, and I said, ‘It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.’ And that probably was misunderstood. A plan is only worth something first and foremost if the plan meets the requirements. These are no joke. By the way, if we don’t meet these mandates, we can build nothing. Even if we had the money, we can build nothing.”

Now, Ikhrata is pursuing two fixes to what he sees as inherited problems. It turns out, there’s a sharp divide over how to deal with those problems.

Ikhrata’s Two Fixes

When Ikhrata announced his new vision, he really announced two things at once.

One is his proposal to amend TransNet to acknowledge its financial shortcomings.

The other is his new, long-term vision for county transportation, which would need to follow the state’s requirement of a 19 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2035. That vote won’t happen until 2021.

On both topics, Ikhrata offered more details of what he’s proposing in an interview with Voice of San Diego.

Ikhrata has repeatedly said, for instance, that TransNet is “out of money.” He’s simultaneously proposed spending $300 million of its remaining funds – $50 million from local sales taxes, $250 million from state and federal dollars – on planning new transit projects, while forgoing the 14 freeway expansion projects that were part of the original measure.

But it’s not quite right to say it’s “out of money.” Completing everything left in TransNet– projects in progress, those that haven’t broken ground and plus paying off existing debt – will cost roughly $30 billion, according to the most recent SANDAG forecast. The agency expects to have only about $20 billion to pay for it all.

That also means that Ikhrata’s critics – who have simply said that he must “keep the promises made to voters” are avoiding the difficult question, too. Without another tax, SANDAG can’t keep its promises.

The question is: What to do with the dwindling funds?

“Honestly, right now, we have enough money to complete what we’ve started,” Ikhrata said. “I would not with a straight face tell anybody that we have anything to break ground on between now and 2040.”

That means whatever money comes in is spoken for by existing projects, like adding express freeway lanes on the I-5 in North County and the I-805 in the South Bay, while making border improvements, double-tracking the Coaster and finishing the Mid-Coast trolley extension.

But it means moving on from projects like adding express lanes on I-15, SR 78, SR 52, SR 54 and SR 125 and I-5 in South County, plans to widen I-8, SR 56, SR 67, a Coronado Tunnel and building a new bus route between San Ysidro and Sorrento Mesa.

Technically, though, Ikhrata said he won’t really be canceling those projects. He said he’d ask the board to reprioritize the order in which they would receive funding if new revenue happens to materialize, which he doesn’t expect to happen.

“In a few months, the board will have to reprioritize the projects,” he said. “They don’t necessarily have to take projects out, they have to say, ‘This is No. 1, this is No. 2, this is No. 3.’ From that, it could mean that some project is built.”

There’s room in that statement for agreement from even Ikhrata’s most vocal critics. On a recent Voice of San Diego podcast, for instance, Gaspar outlined what she expected from the underfunded TransNet.

“Do I think that all 14 highway projects that have been ignored, that were voted on as part of that TransNet tax, specifically spelled out to the voters, should be included in this new plan? I’m realistic,” she said. “That’s not going to happen, but there are projects that we have been promising to our community for a lot longer than the TransNet tax, for decades, that had been kicked down the road.”

And Jones, the San Marcos mayor, said if those are Ikhrata’s intentions, they haven’t been clear as he’s instead accused board members of misrepresenting the facts.

But even if money wasn’t an issue, Ikhrata clearly does not value the remaining projects from TransNet.

And that’s where he’s run into an area that could be hard to find compromise. The leaders who have most vocally rejected Ikhrata’s request have keyed in on the I-78 project as one that can’t be abandoned. He doesn’t share that view.

“You know, when you talk about the 78, building a managed lane in each direction, what supposedly was promised, is not the right strategy,” he said. “And if it’s not, we should face it up and the board should be leaders and say we’re going to change the priorities.”

The New Vision

Ikhrata doesn’t want to fully abandon freeways. But his idea for fixing them might be just as controversial.

He repeatedly cites examples from Los Angeles and Houston that have shown that once freeways are expanded, congestion simply fills up the new added lanes and travel times don’t improve.

That’s where his vision for a regional plan comes in. The outline presented to board members called for “complete corridors” across the county, including in the areas where residents may have been expecting freeway projects through TransNet.

He and Gaspar actually have the same idea of a local model that fits the concept.

SANDAG is currently building a bundle of projects that it together refers to as the North Coast Corridor. It includes new express lanes on I-5 from La Jolla to Oceanside, with improved freeway connections along the way, plus double-tracking the Coaster’s rail line and completing habitat preservation projects in the vicinity.

“That’s the type of creativity and balance that I hope to see in the future,” Gaspar said. “You can’t just say you have a balanced plan by investing in only one thing.”

Yet Ikhrata said he feels the same way – with a twist.

“That’s the model for what we’re going to do, and we’re going to make it much better,” Ikhrata said. “As we put components of the system on the ground, we’re going to dynamically price the other lanes so that it works together as a system.”

Each “complete corridor” would bolster existing freeways with new managed lanes, with congestion controlled by so-called dynamic pricing. That is, charging fees that fluctuate throughout the day, based on peak travel periods, to help manage congestion and fund ongoing maintenance and improvements.

“We’re not going to add any general lanes to any freeway – that’s the wrong strategy,” Ikhrata said. “But we’re going to make the existing system work for us much better because of pricing, and in some cases selectively adding managed lanes – more than one lane in each direction – but we aren’t going to add mixed-flow lanes anywhere, and we shouldn’t, even if we had the money.”

Steve Vaus, Poway’s mayor and the chair of SANDAG, responded to a Union-Tribune article on congestion pricing by rejecting the idea out of hand.

“Turn our freeways into fee-ways??? No way!” he wrote.

In some corridors, like  SR 78, Ikhrata said creating a complete corridor might mean adding a managed lane and converting an existing general lane into another managed lane. Building a single managed lane in each direction, like the current  SR 78 plan calls for, would only make things worse, he said.

And in the future, if new technologies develop, he imagines transitioning the managed lane network into something for connected or autonomous vehicles.

But attention on Ikhrata’s vision has focused on his massive proposed investment to transit for good reason. Every major corridor would also be outfitted with new rail service running at a frequency and speed – and running through the most populated areas that it seeks to serve – that would require it be built underground or on elevated tracks.

In all, he’s tentatively calling for roughly 450 miles of new, double-tracked rail lines throughout the county – all of them capable of running trains that could travel over 100 miles per hour.

For context, the trolley system today covers roughly 53 miles of mostly double-tracked rail, and the light-rail system has a top speed of 55 miles per hour on average.

Jones said she needs to hear a lot more about that proposal before signing off.

“Just saying, ‘We’ll build rail going 100 mph from north county to downtown San Diego’ – where’s the analysis that we need that and can take people to their jobs?” she said. “It doesn’t make sense and there’s zero analysis. He’s trying to force us to make decisions based on an idea, and we don’t have the analysis.”

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