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Here’s How to Fix Your Transit Plan, SANDAG

Here’s what SANDAG should do next, instead of wasting time and money on an appeal on behalf of its flawed long-term transportation plan.

Way to go, SANDAG.  You managed to waste a huge opportunity to turn around San Diego’s climate future.

fix san diego opinionEvery four years, SANDAG – San Diego’s regional transportation agency – has to update its long-term transportation plan.

Because of a variety of state laws and an executive order aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these plans must now also aim to reduce climate impact by offering better transportation choices and supporting more walkable communities.

In a momentous 2-1 court ruling on Nov. 24, environmental groups in San Diego won an important round over SANDAG. Groups led by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity had made the case that SANDAG should have analyzed the plan’s projected greenhouse gas emissions for 2050. The appellate court backed them up in its decision.

Unfortunately, SANDAG voted on Dec. 5 to appeal that ruling, and it may be taken up by the California Supreme Court. Instead of spending money on lawyers, SANDAG should have used this opportunity to create a visionary plan, with more options for reducing driving and greenhouse gas emissions.

While appealing the court decision, SANDAG agreed to put together a scenario that does more to reduce greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, as currently proposed, it too is problematic.

SANDAG’s current plan lays too much focus on highway expansion. San Diego already has an extensive system of highways and arterial roads. The problem is that so many people want to use them at the exact same moment: weekdays at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Building more roads is incredibly expensive: Highway projects and connectors would consume over $22 billion of the disputed 2011 plan, and would require about $10 billion more for maintenance and rehabilitation. This continued focus on highway expansion will generate new trips that lead to yet more people stuck in traffic.

SANDAG is in a Catch-22.  Most of its proposed highway expansion is in the form of “managed lanes” that allow carpools and transit in for free, but charges solo drivers a toll. The agency argues, with some merit, that managed lanes are needed for effective Rapid Bus systems, vanpools and carpooling (and without them we’d get a whole lot of congestion).

My organization TransForm is proposing that SANDAG shift gears in its plan for 2015, known as San Diego Forward, and incorporate these characteristics into the new scenario they are producing.

Focus on reducing vehicle miles of travel: SANDAG’s plan focuses too much on relieving congestion. Instead, it should work to reduce vehicle travel in general. Done well, this would relieve congestion in the end. But we need a smart, iterative process to identify the best solutions.

Change land use projections: For the most part, the San Diego region is now predicted to grow in a more walkable, compact way than just a few years ago. Yet there is still a significant amount of job and housing sprawl projected; much of it supported with SANDAG investments. SANDAG can do more to accelerate smart growth, such as set aside a portion of its sales tax funding that repairs local streets and roads to reward local jurisdictions that accommodate a significant portion of the region’s affordable homes.

Don’t spend more than the current plan does: Building more public transit early means additional funds will be needed to operate them.   While this transit should be moved up, it means we’ve got to find some areas to reduce costs so that plan remains financially realistic.  Identifying some road expansions to delay, scale back or eliminate will be critical. The next recommendation shows how that can be done.

Expand highway capacity, without widening roads. SANDAG has done an excellent job expanding vanpooling in the region, which works well to bring commuters from spread-out suburbs to central work locations. The agency proposes expanding vanpools and its network of commuter buses. But the success of these services depends on free-flowing lanes. That is why a letter by Circulate San Diego and others calls on SANDAG to “consider converting select general purpose lanes to Express (aka HOT) Lanes, and using the revenue for transit and vanpooling, before costly (road) expansions are included.”

recent TransForm report shows how converting a regular lane in each direction to express lanes can work. This would save money, reduce environmental impact and free up funds to put toward better transportation choices. Spurred by our report, San Mateo County transportation officials voted overwhelmingly to analyze TransForm’s proposal to take the far left lane and convert it to HOT. There is also growing state-level support for pilot projects. SANDAG was a pioneer with these “managed lanes” on I-15 – this is a chance for it to continue breaking new ground.

Dramatically expand demand management strategies. From car-sharing to free transit pass programs to subsidizing the vanpool program, reducing demand works and is one of the least expensive ways to achieve greenhouse gas reductions and true congestion relief. Smarter parking management is another area of great opportunity. These programs will be key for reducing the demand for road expansion. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission anticipates a reduction of roughly 2 percent from a massive expansion of car-sharing alone, and recently put out a call for projects to jump-start that. (Importantly, the grants are prioritized for the 16 cities taking on the most housing growth.)

SANDAG has certainly started many good programs, from Safe Routes to Schools to vanpooling. But that is not enough. The agency needs to use its resources to make a plan that can create a truly sustainable, affordable future for all San Diegans.

Stuart Cohen is executive director of the transportation advocacy group TransForm. Cohen’s commentary has been edited for style. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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