Georgette Gómez / Photo by Megan Wood

This post initially appeared in the June 8 Politics Report. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox.

Two of the most powerful figures in regional transportation, SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata and MTS Chair Georgette Gómez, shared a stage last week at the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club.

Ikhrata kicked it off by acknowledging the elephant in the room: his embattled vision to remake transportation countywide.

“I’m not a communist, I’m not a Soviet, I’m just trying to do my job at SANDAG,” he said.

Then Ikhrata clapped back at the North County and East County electeds who have said his proposal reneges on the voter-approved sales tax TransNet.

“Before we put that out, there were press releases, saying ‘oppose SANDAG’s plan.’ We hadn’t even talked about it. People went on to say, ‘SANDAG is stealing the highway money and giving it to transit.’ I have news for you. The secret. We have no money to be stolen … All this talk that SANDAG is taking money from transit and giving it to highways is not true. There is no money to be taken.”

As a result of the scandal that took down Ikhrata’s predecessor and made way for a state law that remade the agency’s governing structure, TransNet is facing at least a $10 billion shortfall.

He acknowledged TransNet will still bring in some money, but said it’s “not enough to finish the projects that were originally on the list.” He’s said there’s enough to finish what’s already underway, which includes both transit and highway projects, but not enough to break ground on anything that hasn’t – a list of almost exclusively highway projects.

When Ikhrata took the SANDAG job, he said, a friend of his who became governor and used to be a mayor (kinda like Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco), warned him that “San Diego is different.” Ikhrata said he asked, “How so?”

“He said, ‘Well San Diego takes things slowly. San Diego doesn’t like to do big stuff. They don’t think of themselves as a big urban area,’” Ikhrata recalled.

Yeesh. Thanks, gov.

La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent, who moderated the discussion, pointed out that Gómez and Ikhrata are to some extent offering different visions of transit in San Diego.

Ikhrata has proposed a brash plan to build underground and elevated heavy rail lines around the county, while Gómez has pursued a ballot measure at MTS that would largely expand the existing bus and trolley system.

Underground rail projects in L.A. are costing roughly $1 billion a mile, Parent pointed out, and he hasn’t heard Gómez proposing an MTS measure, which could potentially raise a total of $12 billion, that would build only 12 miles of rail.

But Gomez said she rejected the premise.

“I want to be very clear, there’s been some media narrative – and even what was said today – I want to be very very clear that what I’m saying and what Hasan is saying, it’s not one or the other,” she said. “What I’m doing through MTS is trying to figure out how to support the system that we currently have for the now, and how do we do that in a way that we can transition that expansion of the now for what the future has for us.”

She said Ikhrata’s vision, which could apply for the next 100 years, is necessarily bigger than the resources immediately available for it.

“We’re not clashing, I want to make sure we are addressing the issue snow, and we can do it through MTS,” Gómez said. “I’m on the board of SANDAG, and I’m very much supportive of what has been laid out.”

“The reason I’m not participating in this media spectacle, that’s what I call it, is because the vision is not crafted yet,” Gómez said. “What comes and what it’s going to take to make it happen, none of that is there. It’s not – the media, and the Republicans to be frank – they’re trying to create this narrative of roads versus transit, and the Democrats are taking our money. But we’re not doing any of that. There’s no money to be taken. Secondly, we haven’t made a decision as a board. It’s this is what we’re thinking, we’re going to do some more work. The conversations are barely in their infancy. I refuse to engage in that conversation, because we are supporting one another, we’re in it together.”

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

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