Maria Cortez was 29 years old when she watched her neighbors’ homes demolished to make way for the final stretch of Interstate 15 through City Heights.

It was a traumatic event that transformed her neighborhood. To soften the blow, Caltrans agreed to run a transit line down the freeway that would pick City Heights residents up at overpasses and take them to jobs downtown or in the north.

That started in 1985. Today Cortez is 54, with a few wrinkles and some streaks of gray. The San Diego Association of Governments, the regional transportation planning agency, expects to break ground on the project next year. After waiting nearly three decades, Cortez, who relies on the bus, may finally see that one arrive.

On Monday morning, transit advocates made Cortez the face of their problem with Sandag’s plan to spend $200 billion on transportation improvements over the next 40 years. Her wait exemplifies what they say is a broader problem in the regional planning agency’s transportation blueprint.

The highway got built, but the bus never came.

Sandag’s 40-year plan would prioritize highways too. Though it would spend more on transit than highways overall, it would delay the heaviest transit investments for decades.

“This is a missed opportunity and we could have done much better, and we need to do much better in the future,” said Steve Padilla, chairman of Sustainable San Diego, a coalition of nonprofits formed in part to advocate for more transit in Sandag’s transportation plan.

Sustainable San Diego’s press conference Monday morning — on the overpass in City Heights where Cortez has been awaiting the bus — came too late to likely influence Sandag’s plan. The agency’s board is expected to approve it on Oct. 28.

But the year-and-a-half old group wanted to offer a reminder. It plans to be a vocal presence as Sandag undertakes future updates.

Sandag says its plan balances the needs of transit users with the needs of people in the farthest corners of the county for whom transit is less feasible. Transit supporters say the current plan is a bad one for bus riders like Cortez and for the region because it creates more capacity for cars while doing little to encourage transit use.

Now, for the first time, they have a potentially powerful tool to push Sandag to be more aggressive in encouraging transit use. New state laws require the agency to show how its transportation plan will achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 13 percent over the next 25 years by giving commuters options beyond cars and trucks, and by promoting more compact regional growth.

That law gave advocates a reason to organize.

But they haven’t gotten Sandag to make any major changes to its plan. The agency has moved ahead despite protests from state Attorney General Kamala Harris and planners for Governor Jerry Brown. The state officials have criticized the plan for barely meeting emissions reduction goals by 2035 and allowing pollution to increase again once the state deadlines have passed.

But Sandag’s plan is still poised for approval. So advocates are focusing on influencing the plan’s next iteration. They have to get average residents interested in how Sandag’s decisions will affect their ability to move around decades from now.

Their press conference Monday morning portended the challenge ahead. Transportation planning can be a highly technical and overwhelming endeavor difficult for the average resident to understand. The impacts are hard to envision because they’re often a long way away. Cortez was one of only a handful of residents who attended the press conference. Only two reporters did.

Padilla said the coalition would prioritize getting residents interested in how Sandag’s plans will affect them. The agency updates its transportation plan every four years, and the coalition just hired Padilla, the former Chula Vista mayor, to lead its efforts for the next go-round.

“We’re sending a message that someone is watching,” said Susan Tinsky, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, an affordable housing advocate. “Sandag needs to know there are people watching.”

Adrian Florido is a reporter for He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at or at 619.325.0528.

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

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