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The region’s planning agency stops expanding its freeways. As the population grows, traffic becomes so unbearable that commuters don’t have a choice.

They flock to buses, trolleys and trains, forcing cities and developers to create more compact communities, and making the sprawl that has long defined San Diego development a thing of the past.

That’s the vision being put forth by local public transit advocates as the region prepares to make a massive investment in its infrastructure: The San Diego Association of Governments plans to spend more than $100 billion on transportation projects over the next 40 years.

How it spends that money will shape the future of development across San Diego County for decades to come.

Sandag is moving forward with more of a compromise plan, one that prioritizes both highway expansions and public transit investments. Public transit advocates, meanwhile, have asked that the agency spend money on public transit first, with the hope that the investment will reduce future need for congestion-relieving highway expansions.

But this is San Diego, and Sandag’s 2050 transportation plan has raised a perennial question here: how to promote public transit in a region where long entrenched development patterns have turned it into a poster child for suburban sprawl, and where the challenge of geography is nearly matched by the challenge of negative attitudes about riding the bus.

Advocates believe the agency has an opportunity to flex some public policy muscle and change the course of San Diego’s development trajectory by spending more on transit and letting drivers be damned. Sandag officials and advocates for North County have taken a more conservative tack, saying that suburban sprawl is a reality of the regional landscape and that the agency, which represents the entire region, must find a happy medium between highway and transit investments that will serve all of San Diego’s residents.

“I don’t buy the criticism that freeways are bad,” said Gary Gallegos, Sandag’s director. “It’s a combination of making our region sustainable by making a transportation network that works.”

What remains to be seen is just how Sandag will prioritize its more than 100 projects, which include:

• Several widening projects on most of the region’s major freeways, including a major expansion of Interstate 5 in North County.

• Seven freeway connectors, including links between Interstate 5 and State Route 56, and between State Routes 94 and 125.

• Four new trolley lines, including one linking Pacific Beach to El Cajon via Kearny Mesa and another connecting UTC to Mira Mesa.

• Double-tracking of the Coaster train line, new bus rapid transit lines and increased frequency to trolley and bus routes region-wide.

Over the next 40 years, Sandag predicts that the county’s population will grow by 40 percent, or 1.2 million people. Those people will need someplace to live and a way to get around, and how the region accommodates those needs has the potential to leave a tremendous footprint on the region’s economy, its natural environment, and its future housing development patterns.

Sandag’s transportation priorities will be critical in determining the size of that footprint, and advocates are lining up to influence those priorities.

“What a transit plan would do is leave the freeways congested,” said Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney and public transit advocate. “If you expand transit and have transit accessibility, communities are more willing to accept high density development” in areas targeted for growth.

The alternative — expanding highways to relieve congestion — would promote development in disparate parts of the county, encourage continued dependence on cars, and keep San Diego on the road toward sprawl, he argued. That could mean more devouring of open space as more homes are built, more greenhouse gas emissions from car travel and continued pressure on highways that, as population growth continued, would need to be expanded again.

Officials in North County, while appreciating that stance, take issue with it.

The North County coastal communities generally already have low-density development, making it difficult for mass transit to succeed, said Jerome Stocks, deputy mayor of Encinitas and Sandag’s board chairman.

“The Coaster is very successful, and will probably be more successful with the rising cost of gas and increased congestion on the 5, but I don’t see this as a zero sum game,” he said. “From my perspective getting good mass transit and improved trolley service, that does not have to reduce or eliminate services that would come to North County.”

Gallegos said the plan Sandag is moving forward promotes high-density sustainable growth in roughly 200 future “smart growth centers.” Those are areas where Sandag expects most of the county’s population growth over the next four decades, and where it hopes transit, road and housing improvements will promote more self-contained communities. They include areas as disparate as Fallbrook and Otay Mesa.

“The idea is to try to concentrate your investments in areas where you’re planning to grow,” Gallegos said.

Advocates believe trying to build a transportation plan to accommodate 200 growth centers — as opposed to three or four countywide — undermines the goals of sustainable planning. They think Sandag should use its planning responsibilities to drive growth in only a few dense areas by investing lots of money in transit there, rather than accept sprawl as inevitable.

At the heart of Sandag’s efforts to plan for San Diego’s growth are new state requirements for greenhouse gas emissions. The state now requires Sandag to create a strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from cars and small trucks 7 percent by 2020, and 13 percent by 2035.

When Sandag completes a plan and approves it over the summer, it will outline just how the agency expects to achieve those reductions.

Gallegos said the plan would achieve its reduction goals through a combination of highway expansions to reduce congestion, more carpool lanes and more public transit.

But advocates have latched onto the emissions requirements to argue that Sandag should shelve the highway expansion projects that will be funded by the 40-year half-cent TransNet transportation tax that voters approved in 2004.

“They didn’t have the greenhouse gas emissions reduction criteria when TransNet was passed. Now that we have those criteria, we really should say: our freeways induce emissions, not reduce them,” and switch priorities, said Elyse Lowe, executive director of Move San Diego, a smart-growth advocacy group.

Eliminating some of the projects would be a challenge, though, and would require a two-thirds vote by Sandag’s board.

The board, while not elected, is an inherently political body. It comprises elected officials from the county’s 18 cities, whose primary interests reflect the transportation needs of their areas. So getting a vote to reprioritize spending on public transit in denser areas — as transit advocates would like — would require concessions by representatives of more far-flung communities that rely on roads and highways for access.

And that would be a tremendous political feat. Sandag’s board has generally been conservative about making changes to projects approved at the ballot box, Gallegos said. Moving all transit to the front of the line could also displace highway projects in more advanced stages of development.

“It’s wonderful to say don’t do anything until you double-track the entire coastline for the Coaster or grade-separate the trolley lines downtown,” Stocks said. “But those haven’t been environmentally cleared yet, and that’s going to take years and years and years. If there’s a meaningful, environmentally-cleared way of getting rid of a bottleneck, why in the world would we not do that?”

Gallegos agreed, saying Sandag had to consider the entire region and its needs.

“If you lived in San Marcos and needed to get to work in downtown San Diego, would you like for someone to say ‘screw you guys’?” he asked.

That is precisely what Gonzalez would like.

“We say: Your urban core needs to be your focus for transportation infrastructure. If you have an urban core that’s livable, walkable, people will want to live there and you won’t need to keep expanding highways,” he said.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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