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SANDAG needs voters’ trust in order to succeed. It lost that trust, and only sweeping changes can restore it.
The San Diego Association of Governments, the agency responsible for building our transportation network, will have to ask voters to approve new funds in the near future to build the projects that allow us to efficiently move about our region.
But they can’t, because they’ve lost the trust of voters. That is the simple truth after Voice of San Diego revealed Monday that SANDAG’s executive leadership – director Gary Gallegos, chief deputy Kim Kawada and chief economist Ray Major – deceived their board of directors and the voting public by advancing Measure A, a ballot initiative to fund regional transportation projects, that they knew over a year ahead of the vote would fall short of its promises.
To restore the credibility of the agency in the eyes of the voting public, as well as the credibility of the board of directors to effectively guide its staff, all three SANDAG managers must be relieved of their positions – either by resignation or termination.
From the earliest rumblings that SANDAG would put a measure on the November 2016 ballot asking voters to fund transportation projects via a sales tax increase, the amount we were told it would raise over 40 years was always $18 billion. And then they started shoehorning attractive-sounding projects into that number. That’s when advocacy groups joined together to form the Quality of Life Coalition. I wasn’t part of that group, but I supported their goal of wanting to ensure that SANDAG would craft a measure with projects representative of a broad swath of regional transportation goals, and most importantly, that were honestly deliverable.
In negotiations with SANDAG, the coalition had specific projects that would need to be included or reprioritized to gain their support. What came out of those negotiations was actually a decent (if imperfect) advancement of the group’s transportation goals.
That should have been a giant red flag. As coalition projects went in, other projects didn’t necessarily come out of the original SANDAG list. But the $18 billion price tag always remained the same.
Then there was the Purple Line. A late addition to the project list, it was a promise to build a new trolley line following the 805 freeway from San Ysidro to Kearny Mesa within 15 years of the measure’s approval. Many people were convinced to support Measure A on that promise alone. But it came with a huge caveat – ballot language that said SANDAG was only required to put forth its best effort to complete the project – that belied its promise. And many transportation advocates have felt the sting of these broken promises before.
In the end, the Quality of Life Coalition came out against Measure A. They simply did not believe that SANDAG would deliver on its promises. We now know that with an accurate revenue projection, it never could. And after Monday’s revelations, we know that its executives intentionally kept that fact from the elected leaders they asked to sell the measure, and the public they asked to approve it. They lied.
In two interviews with both Voice of San Diego and The San Diego Union Tribune, Gallegos has twice sought to brush this violation of the public’s trust under the rug while simultaneously looking to lay blame at the feet of a previous agency economist.
That economic models are imperfect, that they require tweaking – indeed, sometimes even an overhaul – is not a controversy. But Gallegos is only kidding himself if he believes he didn’t have a responsibility to amend their forecast, publicly, to SANDAG’s board of directors, to ensure that the public was adequately informed of what they were really voting for.
In continuing this self-deception, Gallegos only continues to whittle away at the credibility of an agency that requires the public’s trust for its success.
As the board of directors settles in for its annual board retreat this weekend, its members need to confront the cold reality that Gallegos, Kawada and Major cannot rehabilitate this breach in the eyes of the public, and therefore must make the hard decision of moving this agency forward under new executive leadership. Nothing short of the ability to continue our region’s advancement is at stake.
Andy Kopp is an East Village resident. Kopp’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.