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Wednesday, April 20, 2005 | Traffic congestion relief is what’s on the minds of many San Diegans at least twice a day.

Making the multi-billion dollar decisions to reduce growing traffic congestion is one of the primary responsibilities of the San Diego Association of Governments.

This public agency, whose directors are mayors and council members from each of the 18 cities in this region as well as a county supervisor, is ready to make some moves, and at the same time, needs to avoid getting burned.

With the November 2004 passage of Proposition A, the half-cent transportation sales tax measure called TransNet, a new era in transportation development is being ushered in. And for the first half of this century, how well our transportation system is moving people and products will be largely determined by actions taken by SANDAG over the next year.

However, it is a dicey situation for SANDAG. One loaded with issues and associated risks. So SANDAG has to be nimble. The 67 percent of voters who said “yes” to extend the sales tax want congestion relief now. So SANDAG has to be quick, too.

What can SANDAG do? Voters want action. Local money is available, sort of; new tax revenue won’t be generated until mid-2008 when the tax extension takes effect. The region can get the money sooner but a number of factors are involved.

State and federal matching monies

Also aggravating things, the state of California doesn’t have the money these days. On top of this fact, regions like ours are in danger of losing what transportation funds we have been promised by the state government.

The federal government may be a little better off but not much. Although Congress is mulling the latest multi-billion dollar, multi-year transportation funding bill, insiders say we won’t see any new federal transportation money until next year.

Pay me now or pay me later

On the flip side is the influence of time on the costs of construction. No longer can we be assured that inflation will exact a 2 or 3 percent annual cost on projects. Last year alone, the California Department of Transportation highway construction cost index increased a whopping 44 percent.

Plus, all of the major projects are located in busy corridors where construction must compete with ongoing traffic operations. As traffic volumes increase over time, so will the construction complexities.

As a result, the inflationary costs to a project of waiting could be more than those of bonding.

What about my project?

You live in Santee? How about finishing State Route 52? It now ends on the west side of Santee dumping traffic onto local streets. North County? How about Fallbrook: Have you seen the east-west bumper-to-bumper traffic on the eastern two-lane portion of State Route 76? Let’s not even talk about Interstate 5 passing through Encinitas, and Interstate 15 across Lake Hodges during rush hour. You live in the South Bay you say? I-5 south through downtown San Diego and National City is no picnic, and Interstate 805 is just as congested.

And don’t forget about the trolley, bus and rail systems. If we really want transit to help stem some of the congestion, and I certainly do, then we have to use some of the TransNet money to provide more and better quality transit service that San Diegans demand.

SANDAG’s strategy

Directors have already approved priority projects, and the halls of the agency are churning with staff and consultants gearing up to fast track major projects. “Wow projects,” as SANDAG executive director Gary Gallegos calls them. The projects cover major corridors from north to south: I-5, I-15, I-805, SR-52 and SR-76. Transit is included with the mid-coast trolley onto the UCSD campus and over to the UTC shopping area, and bus rapid transit along 20 miles of new managed highway lanes constructed along I-15.

These projects are dubbed as “get in and get out.” Start and complete construction as soon as practical in one fell swoop. Such a strategy should save costs, reduce the time commuters will be inconvenienced, and deliver a completed corridor in the shortest time possible.

Directors have set an aggressive schedule five months after voter approval of Proposition A. SANDAG is determined to be nimble, and to be quick, and not to let commuters get burned jumping over all the candle sticks.

Tom Larwin has been a professional transportation engineer for 40 years. He served San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit Development Board as general manager for 24 years and recently retired from SANDAG, where he was a chief deputy executive director.

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