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In putting together our recent San Diego Explained on the $110 billion, 40-year transportation plan that’s currently in the works, I had to start from scratch. Unlike most of our S.D. Explained topics, transportation is an issue I hadn’t spent much time researching previously.

Here are five interesting things I learned in the course of putting together the piece I think serve as a good baseline for understanding.

1. The plan frontloads freeways and backloads rail.

In all, the Regional Transportation Plan being considered by the San Diego Association of Governments would put more money toward public transit than anything else: $49.2 billion compared to $32.2 billion for freeways and $25.3 billion for local roads. That transit focus is a marked shift.

But the early years of the plan greatly favor freeways over rail, as this graphic from public transit advocate and environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez shows:

Transit advocates argue this needs to be flipped. First of all, good transit could alleviate the need for freeway expansion. Plus, successful transit needs freeway congestion. “For transit to work, highways can’t work. You need to make freeways a less attractive alternative,” says environmentalist Bruce Reznik, who takes over as the Planning and Conservation League’s executive director on May 1. Under the current approach, “you doom transit from the get-go,” he says.

Heather Adamson, a Sandag senior regional planner, said many of the rail projects just aren’t ready to go yet. The plan’s goal is provide many options. “A lot of the highway isn’t the typical highway,” she says. It’s managed or express lanes. It can be used for car pools and what’s known as bus rapid transit, a type of bus system that runs more like a rail system but without the rails.

2. There’s a real movement to focus on transit first on the coast.

State Sen. Christine Kehoe is pushing a law that would require public transit and local road projects be done before freeway expansion along the coast. Her bill made it out of one committee this week in Sacramento and is headed for another May 3.

3. San Diego is the first major metro region in the state to have to show how its plan reduces greenhouse gases.

New state regulations require the region to demonstrate how its development and transportation planning can cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent in 2020 and 13 percent in 2035. If it can’t do that, then it will have to develop an alternative plan to do so.

We’re the first major metropolitan area to go through this planning process since the new rules went into effect, meaning we’re being watched across the state. The latest draft plan, along with this greenhouse gas study, known as the Sustainable Communities Strategy, are due out later this month.

4. One of the biggest battles is over complex computer modeling.

I originally planned to focus the San Diego Explained just on this angle. But I realized that we needed a basic foundation first and it required much more research before it could be ready.

Basically, Sandag starts off with a number of possible transportation visions that have different emphases, such as transit or freeway expansion. Then, it runs complex computer modeling to estimate how those plans will impact travel times, taking into account things like how many trips can be expected each day out of a home, what type of transportation each person will choose, individual income and which route a person will chose to get to their destination. Adding to its complex allure: It even plays off of Sir Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

Clint Daniels, who manages Sandag’s regional modeling, calls it “distilling reality into mathematical models.” Armed with that distilled reality, Sandag’s board members can then decide which plan they desire or work on a new plan.

I hope to get into this more later, but the complaint from advocacy group Move San Diego is that the model is flawed by:

• Underestimating the need of lower income residents for good transit service by assuming that travel time means almost nothing to them, and

• Underestimating the potential for higher income people to use transit because the model assumes that time is so valuable to them that they wouldn’t walk to a transit station or wait to transfer between vehicles.

Daniels says he believes the model does a good job of reflecting how individual income plays into transportation decisions. And he says Sandag’s modeling has been accurate so far. “We’re hitting the numbers,” he says.

5. Sandag-speak is a hard language to understand.

Here’s a passage from Sandag’s two-page fact sheet on the Regional Transportation plan:

Per SB 375, the 2050 RTP will incorporate new legislative requirements. The Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) will be a new element of the RTP, and will be designed to show how regional greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets, established in September 2010 by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), will be achieved through development patterns, infrastructure investments, and transportation measures or policies that are determined to be feasible. For the San Diego region, CARB has set GHG reduction targets of 7 percent by 2020 and 13 percent by 2035 from a 2005 baseline. Additionally, the SCS must be consistent with the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) and must address protection of sensitive resource areas.

The unofficial count for acronyms on that two-page document is 81, according to our reporter, Rob Davis.

It’s my job to parse through documents like this and translate them, so I’m not complaining. But this process can be complex enough to get through that I worry dense fact sheets like these could discourage resident participation in what is a very important public decision.

All the more reason to watch our San Diego Explained if you haven’t yet:

Have any transportation stories to share? What’s your commute like?

You can reach me at andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526. Follow me on Twitter: @AndrewDonohue.

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