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San Diego is no one’s idea of a glowing monument to public transit. Sure, a small minority of us ride buses, trolleys and trains due to reasons of convenience, economics or environmental do-good-ism. But in general, we drive our cars, and we like it.
Should our future be our present, just with more freeways and more cars? Or should we become more like New York, Washington D.C., or San Francisco, where public transit transports both the poor and wealthy alike?
An umbrella agency of local governments has been tackling this issue all year, coming up with a plan to spend $200 billion over the next 40 years. This Friday, the board of the agency — the San Diego Association of Governments, or Sandag — will decide whether to approve the plan. It’s expected to say yes, but it won’t be final: the big blueprint will be updated every four years.
Here’s a five-step reader’s guide to help you better understand what’s going on.
1. Start with our video explainer breaking down the plan:
(One note: You’ll see in some older stories the plan referred to as being around $100 billion and later $200 billion. The size of the plan didn’t change; Sandag began using future dollar values rather than present. We followed suit.)
Only about between 2 percent and 5 percent of the region’s daily trips are taken on public transport right now. “All the rest, as many as 98 percent, are in private vehicles,” the Union-Tribune wrote in an editorial this week in support of the plan. “In the next 40 years, that percentage will change but not dramatically, Sandag estimates.”
Therein lies the biggest criticisms of the plan: That it prioritizes freeway expansion first and mass transit later (and not sufficiently).
Here’s another global view:
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 … and for the region because it creates more capacity for cars while doing little to encourage transit use.
2. Read our compilation of five things you should know about the plan.
In brief, here’s what they are:
a) The plan frontloads freeways and backloads rail. In other words, the freeways come first and trains later. Public transit advocates want to flip it the other way, but a Sandag representative says many of the train plans aren’t ready yet.
b) There was a real movement to focus on transit first on the coast. State Sen. Christine Kehoe sparked a brouhaha by hoping to force public transit to be built before the expansion of Interstate 5 — the idea being that effective transit could relieve the need for some of the expansion.
The bill got watered down through compromise. It morphed “into a bill that had something positive for everyone with a stake in the highway,” the U-T reported. “It went from a bill that I thought had to be killed to a bill that we must have,” the Sandag head told the paper.
c) San Diego is the first major metro region in the state to have to show how its plan reduces greenhouse gases. This is why all eyes are on San Diego as it went about this process, and why the state attorney general came out strongly critical of Sandag’s plan, saying it didn’t do enough to cut down on emissions.
d) One of the biggest battles is over complex computer modeling. State regulators, the attorney general and the governor’s office all want Sandag to make its models — which predict future transportation use — widely available and understandable so the public can participate in the agency’s decisions. Those decisions, they say, have been shrouded in secrecy.
Sandag, however, says the models are proprietary.
e) Sandag-speak is a hard language to understand. Like, really hard.
3. Get a handle on the nitty gritty details that will affect you. They’re in the plan itself or check these highlights:
• 156 new miles of trolley service, faster and expanded Coaster service, and $3.8 billion for projects to boost biking and walking.
• Within the first 10 years, the plan “calls for the completion of the I-15 express lanes, car-pool lanes on the I-5, express lanes on I-805, and various car-pool lanes and transit lanes on State Routes 78, 15, and 94, as well as the Mid-Coast Trolley extension to UTC/UCSD. The plan also envisions new Green Line Trolley direct service to downtown, a network of new Bus Rapid Transit services running along major transportation corridors in the region, new Express Bus services, and increased frequency on the Coaster,” writes Sandag chairman and Encinitas Deputy Mayor Jerome Stocks in the North County Times.
• $3 billion in express bus lines. There are only eight routes right now, including some from North County to downtown, but at least 26 new routes are planned. They’ll get to use things like reserved freeway lanes and special off-ramps.
There’s a hitch, though:
… transit advocates are struggling with Sandag’s choice of buses, because they want to see less freeway expansion, not more. While generally supportive of the expansion of express bus service, they want to see it pried free of its dependence on freeway expansions so it becomes a more viable option for everyday commuters trying to get around.
4. Get a glimpse of the human side of this issue by seeing how transit plans like this one can affect people’s lives.
We hear from Maria Cortez, who watched in 1985 as part of her City Heights neighborhood was razed to make way for part of I-15. The folks at Sandag promised residents that they’d get an express bus line to take them to jobs. Next year, after nearly a three-decade wait, the express bus line is finally scheduled to appear.
Advocates promise to not allow transit to be an afterthought again.
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.
5. If you’d like to dig even deeper, here are more resources:
• The San Diego mayoral candidates responded to our question about how they’ll deal with transportation needs.
• In commentaries, you can hear from the executive director of Move San Diego (she warns about the environmental, health and pocketbook costs of unnecessary car trips), the executive director of Equinox Center (she calls for an “ambitious vision“) and the regional vice president for TechAmerica, who wonders why public transit doesn’t well serve high-tech job hot spots.
• A few weeks ago, I referred to public transit in our region as an “epic hassle.” A reader wrote to say it’s no such thing: “If more people tried and used the time productively (relax, read, etc.), they might find that it is not a hassle and the benefits of having fewer cars on the road outweigh the occasional delays.”
Her comments sparked a debate in our comments section and on our Facebook page, with many readers complaining about the annoyances, inconvenience and infeasibility of using public transit. However, wrote one commenter, “public transportation is fixable in San Diego… We accept traffic jams, high costs, and traffic dangers. We can do better.”
• Sandag’s meeting is open to the public in the Sandag board room at 401 B Street in San Diego, on the seventh floor, from 9 a.m. to noon on Friday, Oct. 28.