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Behind the Lone Vote Against SANDAG's Big Transportation Plan

SANDAG’s board of directors voted 20-1 last week to appeal its long-term transportation plan to the state Supreme Court. Chuck Lowery, deputy mayor of Oceanside, was the one. He explains what he’d like to see from a long-term transportation plan and how the board dynamics contributed to the lopsided vote.

The lone no vote shouldn’t have even been there.

SANDAG’s board of directors voted 20-1 last week to appeal its long-term transportation plan to the state Supreme Court. Chuck Lowery was the one.

Two lower courts have ruled that the plan doesn’t meet state requirements to reduce greenhouse gases. Those who sued over the plan want it to spend more on public transportation and less on freeway widening.

Lowery is the deputy mayor of Oceanside. He’s an alternate to the SANDAG board – meaning he rarely ends up voting.

Since the vote took place in closed session, the board’s deliberations aren’t public. All everyone saw was the lopsided vote total. So I asked Lowery to explain why he voted against the plan, what he’d like to see from a long-term transportation plan and the dynamics on the board that led to such an overwhelming vote.

Can you walk me through your reason for voting against the appeal?

I think everyone else approved because they think our only response to two previously failed cases was to do another one. That we have to go down that road. We’ve lost twice, let’s go for a third. My thinking is, let’s take the money we would spend on yet another legal exercise, and fix the plan to come into compliance with state guidelines.

But was your vote motivated by the content of the plan, or a legal decision based on what’s in the initial decisions? Basically would you prefer that the plan had a larger emphasis on public transportation than freeway widening?

Personally I use all modes of transportation. I use public transportation, I ride a bike, I have a relatively new car, I walk. I’m happy to use all forms of transportation, without making one, auto-centric choice be the only choice. I argue with friends that if we get there and it takes an extra 20 minutes, isn’t that worth it if we use the Sprinter or the Coaster, and it could take us an extra hour if we drive and there’s an accident? I’d prefer we use all avenues available instead of pour $1.6 billion into widening roadways. My thinking on it is, we have a plan that’s great for 35 years, but what about after that? We can’t widen the freeway again. We can’t widen it again—or maybe we can. Maybe we can go all the way to the beach.

So it sounds like your decision was about an objection to the content of the plan itself, not just a legal argument about what’s been in the two court decisions.

Yes. I think that my decision was based upon saying, ‘Let’s stop at two losses instead of going for three, and use that money to reconfigure the (transportation plan) so it’s more in compliance with state requirements.’ It was a little odd to hear at least twice during the discussion that we were the first ones to have a plan in with the new state requirements. That’s fine if the plan is acceptable, but it’s not. How is that saying something? I don’t understand why that’s important. If we’re the first ones in the state, but what we’ve done is wrong. We can’t use that and say, ‘Because we got it done first, we’re going to go to court and bully our way through you, because we responded first.’

From emails and things like that I’ve received, I think people were really surprised how overwhelming the vote tally was …

I guess I was surprised too, when people I thought would vote like me made statements in support of what they thought we should do.

What do you think motivated the vote to appeal? We only see the vote total, so there’s been some speculation that maybe certain people were really voting that they should play out the string, or other attempts to explain why someone may have voted the way they did, beyond simply thinking this was a good plan that was worth defending.

I don’t think that they thought this was necessarily a good plan. I think what other members of the board believe is that if we don’t as an organization respond to the quality of — it’s like some of that was covered in the piece you wrote — they thought they were responding to the needs of communities, as if the needs of their communities are represented by catering to people who want to get home from work in 30 minutes just like it takes them today, which in fact isn’t the case. In five years, it’ll be 45 minutes unless we build out the freeway again — and then it’ll fill up again. The research shows very clearly that they all fill up again in two years after expansion. (Expansions) don’t buy us anything. They’re huge, multiple billion-dollar projects that don’t get us anything. I’m not saying SANDAG is auto-centric, but I’m responding to people who think we should spend—let’s just say it’s only $250 million—so they can get home on the freeway like they do today, but it won’t actually work that way. I’ve talked to the people at Caltrans, and they know they can’t hold traffic flow to those numbers even with expansion. If that’s the case, and these agencies know that’s the case, and based on their own information — and we the public know this — then they have to think ahead, and this one plan can’t be satisfactory 50 years from now.

Do you think being an alternate had anything to do with your casting the lone dissenting vote?

No.

You don’t think there is a culture or dynamic within the SANDAG board that influences votes to often be unanimous or near unanimous?

I think there probably is a culture. And I think because I’m not a part of that culture that has developed over a period of years, I feel more freedom to represent what is not represented. And I think that’s what I have to do anyway. If I — I don’t know if it would have been any different a vote if it was (Mayor Jim) Wood or Councilwoman Esther Sanchez at the meeting. I don’t know. There’s a lot of, you just want to get along with the peer members because the county and city hold so many votes on that board. If the county and city votes go a certain way, it’s like, why even have the meeting with Oceanside and San Marcos and Vista? Why did we even bother to take the train down? Mayor (Wood) realizes that’s the dynamic, that we don’t have equal representation, so you have to work with members, so maybe he would have voted no not to make waves, to have certain benefits for Oceanside. I was thinking in terms of a larger regional need, not just what works for San Diego or Oceanside. One of the — I spoke with another member who is a mayor — and I was asked if I’d ever been on boards with this kind of dialog and desire to work together — I said, “Yes, for years I’ve done that.” We share a common goal on most other boards I’ve worked on. In this case, we have divergent goals, and the common goal is to do what’s best for the region. If people in the region think, based on their lives today, that more cars and more infrastructure for cars is always going to work for us, then they need more education. We are becoming an urban area, not just a series of suburbs with a freeway connecting one to the next.

If you go to San Francisco, you don’t want to go there with your car anyway. It’s crazy, you’d spend $50 just to park your car. We don’t have that here. People still expect free parking. You hear, “The reason your business failed is because you don’t have free parking.” That might be true, but it won’t be true by 2050.

Is this vote a clear indication that the basis of SANDAG’s transportation plan, its priorities, won’t be changing anytime soon?

One response is, until the taxpaying residents of the region let their opinions be heard — and I don’t mean by not participating, but by participating — if only two of 45,000 people or whatever in La Mesa oppose the plan—I had 60 comments from my community before the meeting, they all said, “We don’t want you to sue, we want you to save money.” Until we see a lot of active responses, I don’t think we’ll see a large change in the SANDAG board. But I would say the board is open to reflecting the needs of our various communities. The residents, the tourist community, the business community, all communities are being listened to by the SANDAG board, and we need more people who see a slightly different future, than a more-of-the-same future.

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