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Every morning, San Diegans wake up and prepare for their workday. We get into our cars, drop off our children at school and start the ever-lengthening slog to work.
When I moved to San Diego 10 years ago, my commute was about 15-20 minutes from the El Cajon Boulevard on-ramp of Interstate 15 to the Mira Mesa Boulevard exit. Today, the same commute takes 30-40 minutes. Nothing’s changed except for the increase in the sheer number of cars moving up and down that freeway.
Commuters on the 805, the 5, and the 94 freeways will tell you that this doesn’t even begin to describe the problem with traffic that we’re all confronting today. To say nothing of the greenhouse gases being produced by our disproportionate use of single-occupancy automobiles, and the negative impact of those fumes on our communities’ health.
The issue of traffic congestion is not limited to our highways, though. In many communities, surface streets become clogged during rush hour, dealing with vehicle loads that they were never designed to accommodate. In my own community of Mira Mesa, both Miramar Road and Mira Mesa Boulevard resemble parking lots during the morning and evening rush hours. And even worse, understandably frustrated commuters start looking for ways out of the quagmire, causing cars to bleed into the residential neighborhoods that flank the main thoroughfares, bringing speeding vehicles and fumes into close contact with homes. This situation compromises neighborhood safety, resident health and property values.
The reason we’re stuck in traffic is because of the lack of efficacy on the part of the San Diego Association of Governments, over the past decade. SANDAG is one of the most powerful regional bureaucracies in the state. Over a decade ago, it assumed the role of funding and building transit for the county. It has unparalleled authority to tax our region’s residents, and spend local, state and federal taxpayer dollars on transportation. A half-cent sales tax for every dollar spent in the region goes into its coffers.
Yet SANDAG has failed to meet the region’s transportation needs. San Diegans are seeing traffic increase, commutes grow longer and air pollution impact the health of their communities. Traffic delays for each auto commuter in the San Diego region have worsened during the last decade, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Travel times to work have remained stagnant, even as more people are working from home. And the San Diego region continues to get an “F” grade for ozone and particle pollution from the American Lung Association.
Despite SANDAG’s sales tax expenditures, the agency has failed to make any impact on transit ridership. The table below shows that when we examine the commutes for workers, the share of those who drive alone has increased and the share of those who walk or use public transportation has decreased in the last two decades.
This is because for most San Diegans, it’s hard to get to work using transit. The Brookings Institution found that less than a third of San Diegans can get to their jobs within 90 minutes when using transit. Ridership can only increase if there is a system-wide investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers downgraded San Diego’s public transportation grade from a C in 2005 to D+ in 2012. The group estimated that there is a $190 billion shortfall in transit investments in the San Diego region.
As the region grows and adds more people and jobs, it’s not able to catch up in public transportation growth. The result is more congestion on the freeways since it is the only choice for most commuters to get to work in a reasonable amount of time. SANDAG is now proposing to augment the funding of this failing system with an additional half-cent sales tax increase on all San Diegans.
Some may argue that the best way to alleviate traffic and congestion is to build more highways. But even the state’s own transportation agency admits that building more roads only increases traffic since it causes more people to drive, plus drive longer distances. This harms economic growth and business attraction. A clear example is the stifling of high-tech campus growth in Sorrento Valley that SANDAG’s sales tax extension a decade ago failed to address.
Our neighbor to the north, Los Angeles, has already tried building crisscrossing freeways – choking communities – and is now backpedaling and laying down light rail as fast as it can. Anyone who has ever driven on a Los Angeles County freeway or even along any number of Los Angeles County surface streets knows exactly why. As the region’s population grows, more people are forced onto increasingly congested freeways and roads. Those freeways and roads can only be widened so much before we simply run out of space.
By comparison, a well-designed transit system is scalable and can grow with ridership. In Los Angeles, voters acknowledged this in 2008 when they voted in Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that provided funding to build light-rail throughout the city. In addition to significant funding of freeways, Measure R has been key to Metro’s rail expansion, and many rail lines have already been completed. And as a bonus, it is projected to provide tens of thousands of good-paying jobs for local residents through a project labor agreement.
To be clear, I am not opposed to freeways. I drive them every day, and I agree that they need improvements. But our freeway system is not scalable and as such, we must be willing to allocate our resources in a manner that looks to a more flexible and sustainable transit future. San Diego aspires to be a global leader in innovation and creativity. Our public transportation system must reflect these aspirations and get us downtown, to the airport, to university campuses, to beaches and to employment centers. Walkable and bikable neighborhoods could connect to transit stations in urban areas and feed mass transit ridership. And as more commuters chose to use transit, our freeway drivers would find their commutes less frustrating,
It’s time for San Diego to learn lessons from other cities and realize that in order to maintain our quality of life as we grow, we need to think differently about our transportation system. SANDAG’s proposed tax increase lacks creativity and precludes us from exploring other possibilities for the next 40 years.
Carol Kim is the director of community engagement for the San Diego County Building Trades Council Family Housing Corporation. Kim’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.