The lively and pointed questions surrounding the proposed widening of the northern corridor of I-5 have provided fascinating reading on Voice of San Diego and other media.

But I must confess that the public debate around the widening gives me déjà vu, flashbacks to similar ones surrounding the proposed toll road through San Onofre State Park, or potential closing of the Cabrillo bridge in Balboa Park, among others. The conversations often seem focused on a piecemeal approach to our region’s long-term growth challenges.

Based on Equinox Center’s research and conversations with experts, including one on Friday with State Senator Christine Kehoe, and Laurie Berman, District Director for the California Department of Transportation, we’d like to pose new questions that may help reframe the very debate itself:

  • How does our over-arching regional transportation plan fit into a greater vision for the San Diego we wish to be, one that attracts and retains the new generation of top talent and businesses that enhance our economic prosperity?
  • In what ways do any of the proposed plans for highway widening consider rapid technological advancements already underway, or soon to come? Are we stuck on the idea of simply improving what Senator Kehoe calls “a mid-20thCentury idea,” instead of capitalizing on the tremendous intellectual assets in this region that might help us redefine mobility altogether?
  • What does traffic congestion cost our economy today, for example by deterring commerce, degrading air quality, impinging on natural spaces and impacting public health? How will expanding freeways address these issues? Would another mix of options have a more beneficial effect? Is it plausible or practical to deal with each of these concerns bit-by-bit?

Friday’s forum provided Equinox Center supporters the opportunity for unfiltered dialogue in a non-partisan atmosphere around an important and controversial topic. It was clear that many in the audience wanted to move beyond a tit-for-tat debate on how traffic congestion will or will not be improved on a project-by-project basis, and instead want to begin to define what a shared vision for a future San Diego might look like.

For example, a focus on the issue of mobility and choice as relates to our growing population, rather than transportation more narrowly, may engender more visionary thinking altogether. Innovations in mobility are not beyond our imagination. They are real and soon to be upon us, certainly well within the 20 to 40-year time-frame in which Caltrans and SANDAG make their future plans.

With respect to the I-5 widening, Senator Kehoe astutely called attention to the fact that our transportation challenges are not merely a freeway issue, and indeed, must not be if our region is to take seriously the security, health and environmental issues that come with dependence on the automobile and foreign oil. Caltrans’ Laurie Berman also noted that the region needs choices, and there is no one “fix all” solution to our traffic congestion problems.

Whatever the final outcome of her latest negotiations with SANDAG regarding Senate Bill 468, Senator Kehoe has challenged our region to consider how we can advance improvements in our public transit system at least concurrently with the I-5 expansion rather than after. This is a step forward in more integrated planning for the region that can help guide decision-making across all facets of our growth challenges: transportation, land development, job creation and a healthy environment, among others.

Equinox Center is committed to helping inform this type of regional vision setting and planning by providing balanced research and innovative solutions to policy makers and others as they wrestle with some of these complex issues.

(For those who would like to read more about questions posed to Senator Kehoe and Ms. Berman during Friday’s discussion, we’ll be blogging about Friday’s discussion on our website over the coming days.)

Ann Tartre is Executive Director of Equinox Center, a locally based, non-partisan research and policy center founded in 2008 dedicated to helping the San Diego region craft an intelligent future.

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