Hasan Ikhrata is the new executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Hasan Ikhrata has a chance to put his mark on San Diego, and he appears to know it.

The new director of the San Diego Association of Governments has taken over the agency in a precarious time that’s also full of opportunity.

SANDAG is recovering from a scandal that led to the ouster of its longtime director, and a resulting state law reforming the agency. Its tax-funded infrastructure program faces significant financial problems. And it has delayed adopting a new blueprint for the region’s transportation system, which will put the agency in a probationary period with state and federal regulators.

Meanwhile, the politics on the agency’s board – composed of elected officials countywide – are changing fast. Some of its most influential members have been forced out of government. They’ve been replaced by a new class of unapologetically progressive officials unlikely to maintain the status quo.

SANDAG has for years sought a middle ground between the desires of the smaller and rural cities in the county and the larger and more urban ones. It has continued to spend on highway expansion along with modest transit investments, while fighting a lawsuit alleging its approach ignored state climate change mandates.

Yet in his first month, Ikhrata showed up ready to say things SANDAG officials haven’t always said. He told the Union-Tribune it’s time to make transit as fast and convenient as driving; he told KPBS climate change will guide the agency’s transportation spending.

In an interview last month, he was likewise willing to tread new ground for the powerful regional agency.

The hyperloop and Elon Musk’s tunnels? Likely to figure into San Diego’s plan for a new transportation system. Self-driving cars? On the way, whether we like it or not. Funding for transportation? Charging drivers for every mile they drive makes more sense than a sales tax, but only once the transit system offers a viable alternative to driving.

Ikhrata talks about transportation and urban development like someone who has worked in it his entire professional life (he has), and who is willing to depart from lifeless talking points (though maybe they’ve just been replaced by lively talking points). Before coming to San Diego, Ikhrata ran the Southern California Association of Governments, an agency with a larger footprint than SANDAG but which doesn’t have the same capital expenditure responsibilities. Before that, he worked for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which like SANDAG collects taxes and builds major infrastructure projects.

But Ikhrata’s been careful not to commit to anything concrete. In fact, that’s his big point. The next year or two, he said, is about fleshing out a new vision for the region’s transportation system. And every other question – what it will look like, how much it will cost, how we’ll we finance it – can’t be answered until that vision is in place.

First a Delay, Then a New Plan

Ikhrata told me he does not intend to complete his new vision by spring 2020, when SANDAG is currently scheduled to adopt a new regional transportation plan. That’s the guiding document for all transportation projects in the region for the next 40 years, required by both the state and federal governments.

The issue is that the agency is already way behind schedule; it’s supposed to adopt the new plan by the end of 2019, but last year staff told the board there was no way it could make that timeframe and needed to extend it six months. That puts the agency in danger of losing out on state and federal funding while it’s in limbo, though staff is taking steps to avoid that outcome.

Ikhrata acknowledges the agency can’t concoct a whole new set of bus, rail, highway and local road projects in that timeframe. So, he said he’d like to adopt a new plan by the deadline – one that will likely contain only incremental changes from the current plan – and amend it later to reflect his big vision, once it has been fully fleshed out.

“My team and I are going to work as hard as we can to put forth a new vision, but it’s not going to be captured in this [regional transportation plan]. This RTP has to meet state and federal requirements, therefore we’re going to have to move it forward with the understanding that the law allows us to amend the RTP anytime we want. So once we’re done with our vision, we’ll amend the RTP to reflect it. If we don’t put this vision on the table in two to three years, I would consider myself failing at my job.”

Bring on Elon Musk (Or His Ideas, at Least)

His goal, he said, is to create a system that’s both environmentally and financially sustainable.

San Diego has been stuck arguing over investing in highways or transit, he said, an unhealthy dialogue that will never solve the region’s problems.

Instead, any good system needs to embrace every mode of travel: cars, buses, trains, bikes, whatever the future holds.

“You cannot put out alternatives where if I drive, it takes me 40 minutes, but if I take the bus it takes me three hours,” he said. “This is not an alternative.”

He said the next vision – and any successful tax measure to pay for it – would need to embrace both highway and transit spending – and self-driving cars, the hyperloop, underground transit systems dug with the help of Elon Musk’s Boring Company, and aerial gondolas (or skyways). The hyperloop is a futuristic concept floated by Musk that would whisk small groups of people underground at hundreds of miles per hour, typically between major cities, like an alternative to high-speed rail.

“We need to build a better, faster system,” Ikhrata said. “In a year or two, we will put ideas in front of the board to discuss, and at the end of the day, it’s up to the board to buy or reject the vision. And the day after that, it’s up to San Diegans to decide if they want to pay for it. The light rail is great and we’re going to make it better and more frequent, but we’re going to add to it systems that make the transit system much better.”

Ikhrata said he isn’t wed to any particular idea yet. For now, he wants to focus on developing a new vision that embraces new technology. Nonetheless, he specifically said he could envision an underground transit system from Escondido to downtown San Diego that provides a real alternative to the freeway while alleviating freeway congestion.

“The Boring Company, that Elon Musk did – I’m not crazy about Elon Musk per se, but I think his company, his ideas, are being adopted by people who want to do stuff,” he said. “There is the hyperloop idea. I think we need to start to think underground, and above ground. We should allow ourselves to discuss opportunities, to do certain things like that.

And autonomous vehicles are going to be part of our future, whether we like it or not, he said.

“Remind your readers that we’re watching the CEOs of Ford and GM and Uber saying that in the next 10 years they’ll be selling transportation services, not vehicles,” he said. “That means a lot. That means that they’re relying on a model where they don’t sell a car, they make a car available for people to use. That tells me that a shared, autonomous, electric vehicle is going to be part of the future very shortly.”

Those vehicles will still use the highways, he predicted, and will still require a transit alternative. The biggest change he expects is to land use. Cities should stop being so worried about building parking structures, and concern themselves instead with designing areas for autonomous vehicles to pick up and drop off passengers, and for drones to make deliveries to their buildings.

Who’s Paying for Everything

Talking about financing a vision before you’ve laid out the vision is a waste of time, Ikhrata said.

“Let us define that vision, and come upfront about, it’s going to cost a lot of money,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s helpful right now to start discussing where the money’s going to come from.”

The Metropolitan Transit System is already working on a tax measure that it could put to voters in 2020. If that measure includes a clear, tangible promise to voters about what it will provide, Ikhrata said he’ll support the measure.

Successful transportation measures, he said, provide a vision of transportation networks where multiple modes of transportation work together.

When he says we need to retire the transit-versus-highways framing that’s defined recent transportation debates, he doesn’t mean we should do so by forgoing highways.

“In L.A., they passed two sales taxes, one in the worst economy since the depression, and the reason they did that is because it had a highway component, a transit component and most importantly, those components worked together to provide a transportation system,” he said.

Since 1988, SANDAG has built its transportation projects with sales taxes, just as MTS is considering doing now.

But sales taxes are regressive – their weight falls disproportionately on the poor. That, Ikhrata said, makes them less than ideal, especially compared with a direct user fee, where drivers pay to use the roads.

The ideal user fee, he said, would be for the state to establish a charge for vehicle miles traveled by automobile to replace the gas tax to fund transportation. But we’re not there yet.

“If you want to do a different form of taxing, you need to have options for people so you’re not penalizing anybody,” he said. “Eventually this will be a national thing, because if we’re all driving electric vehicles, our gas tax will be zero. Therefore, I think it’s inevitable. The question is, is it right to do when you have no choice but to drive? Probably not, but a sales tax is actually more regressive.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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