I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make the case for their project or vision of San Diego without their reminding me that the county is basically an urban island, stuck in its own little corner. It goes something like this: “We’ve got the ocean to the west, the border to the south, Camp Pendleton to the north and the mountains to the east.”

Sometimes people add their own twists to it. “The border,” for instance, becomes “Mexico,” as if to emphasize that IT’S ANOTHER COUNTRY and it’s therefore as limiting to our long-term vision as an ocean. Sometimes “the mountains” don’t quite make the point clear enough, so they substitute “the desert,” which is dry, hot and forbidding.

Can you work with a desert?

Didn’t think so.

Allan Kosup, Caltrans’ Interstate 5 corridor director, and Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, were the latest to tell me that I-5 was one of our few connections to the outside world. We couldn’t afford to let it choke on congestion.

Think of the children. No, seriously, there will be a lot of children. The other point people always make is the one supposedly driving Caltrans: that by 2050, our little island is going to have a million more people. They’re not coming from Arizona or that other country — they’re coming from our bodies. Two-thirds of the growth is expected to come from our own children.

We have to expand I-5, then, because these planners are assuming that these kids will build houses in North County. And they will have cars, and those cars will jam up the 5.

Caltrans itself predicts that if nothing is done to I-5, by 2030, all of these kids — now with driving licenses (gah!) — will get on the freeway and find that it takes them more than 70 minutes to get from La Jolla to Oceanside. That compares to 38 minutes in 2006.

Caltrans and Sandag have responded with two proposals. One would widen I-5 by four lanes; the other, by six. Both proposals would have two so-called express lanes in each direction.

You might even be able to pay to drive in those lanes.

One of those two proposals would add two more lanes — one in each direction — that anyone can use. That plan would cost up to $4.5 billion, and it’s more or less the one Sandag prefers.

What’s odd is that in downtown San Diego, boosters arguing passionately for more taxpayer-subsidized development also use the San-Diego-as-an-island metaphor. We have to direct these kids into dense housing in the city’s urban core, they say.

So let me summarize: Because we are popping out kids on this urban island, we have to build a wider freeway for all the new homes in North County. Yet at the same time, we should direct the growth to San Diego’s urban core.

Each discussion is happening in isolation from the other. What they share is the frantic sense that we need to build something. The kids are coming!

State Sen. Christine Kehoe is trying to put on the brakes. She wants to halt the interstate widening until the rail lines along the coast get more tracks and other things happen.

But again, that’s happening in isolation. What we need is a comprehensive plan that focuses not just on transportation but on housing, the economy, education and the environment. Other cities have drawn up such plans.

When we know what kind of community we want, we can decide whether taking the road or the rails — or both — is the way to get there.

This story also appeared in the May edition of San Diego Magazine.

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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