This week, some readers have dreamed about futuristic trolleys that zip to and from thousands of spots without any malfunctions, while others have lamented the lack of foresight from our San Diegan forebears who neglected to pay for the perfect system decades ago that could help us out now.

Turns out those lamentations are substantiated, at least a little. When I was getting my head around public transit last week — or trying to — I spoke with Garry Bonelli, who’s the director of communications for SANDAG. He told me about the county’s first regional transportation plan in 1975, when the SANDAG equivalent agency proposed a heavy rail system for the urban core that would have cost taxpayers $2 billion or $3 billion dollars — a lot of money at that time, Bonelli admitted. And traffic wasn’t nearly the problem it is now.

“Where it fell short was on coalescing enough political and public support,” he said. “People were asking why should I spend that kind of tax money when I can get in my car and drive anywhere I want and get there in 10 or 15 minutes?”

Now, using the half-cent sales tax for transportation, SANDAG estimates it has raised $40 billion. But now, the need approaches $80 billion, Bonelli said. He said the funding gap doesn’t necessarily symbolize San Diegans’ notorious averseness to taxes — the onus is on leaders to effectively communicate to voters and taxpayers why they should care to fund the system. That’s what hasn’t been articulated clearly enough, he said.

“Most people would tell you they understand the value of public transit,” he said. “But it’s for the other guy to use.”

Rob Schupp, MTS spokesman, sent in his understanding of a way to think of the funding:

… we have a one-half sales tax that supports all transportation measures, with revenues split somewhat evenly between freeways, highways and public transportation. Another way to look at that is that public transportation gets one-third of the half-cent sales tax, or just one sixth cent. And MTS shares that one-sixth cent with North County Transit. Other transportation-rich regions provide far more funding, up to a full cent for public transportation. Just think what we could do with six times more funding …

Bonelli mentioned a couple of future dreams for transit, including a proposal for an automated highway system, where drivers on Interstate 15 would drive their cars into a dedicated lane, take their foot off the gas pedal, and a computer would drive the cars in a line. He said that could happen in the next ten years.

Schupp shared a few of his personal (read: not necessarily MTS’s) transit dreams, should funding be there. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

  • More commuter service between South Bay and Sorrento Valley and Kearny Mesa
  • Perhaps new Bus Rapid Transit lines complete with dedicated lanes, signal priority and dedicated stations to provide rail-like service at a fraction of the cost
  • Faster implementation of “Next Bus” technology to give people real time information on when the next bus will arrive
  • Underground the trolley through downtown
  • Put the Coaster and or trolley underground through the UTC area
  • Faster replacement of aging trolley cars to low car models
  • Faster conversion of diesel buses to cleaner compressed natural gas
  • Double-tracking the rail heavy rail corridor down the coast and realigning it off the Del Mar bluffs

Funding is one of the most debated parts of the transit system. A couple of the people I rode with this week said they think people would be more likely to support tax increases for transit if they understood better what their money was going for.

And, check this out — there’s a good transit-funding discussion happening over in Cafe San Diego today.


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