Hasan Ikhrata / Photo by Megan Wood

This post initially appeared in the July 13 Politics Report. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox.

After weeks of protests, opponents of a new direction for San Diego’s transportation system tried and failed Friday to kill the idea before it really got started.

But the marathon hearing at the San Diego Association of Governments demonstrated just how much things have changed at the agency, and that Mayor Kevin Faulconer has emerged as the most powerful figure on the board, after aggressively avoiding the agency at all costs at the start of his administration.

It also managed to clarify some of the issues that have been unclear during an ugly public dispute, leaving some opponents of the agency’s new direction less concerned than they had been.

Last month, County Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond led a charge to put SANDAG’s new direction up for a referendum. SANDAG Director Hasan Ikhrata calls the concept 5 Big Moves, a set of principles his staff will use to write the agency’s next long-term transportation plan for the county, which won’t be adopted until 2021.

But Gaspar, Desmond and others immediately balked at the concept, arguing it was unfair to the northern and eastern parts of the county that rely more heavily on cars because it was too focused on improving transit. They pushed for a board discussion to decide whether to pursue the idea at all, or start from scratch yet again, arguing it didn’t make sense for staff to spend time writing a plan based on principles the board didn’t even agree with.

It turns out, the board is on board with Ikhrata’s direction – at least for now.

Faulconer took charge. He jumped in and made a motion to support the agency’s current direction to build a plan that complies with state and federal climate laws, after Ikhrata had said earlier this year that a plan in line with the region’s previous plans couldn’t pass muster with the state, along with reasonable and transparent revenue assumptions.

But he also offered a fig leaf to the disaffected officials, emphasizing that the plan should make a point to prioritize congested transportation corridors in North County and East County. He repeatedly emphasized that the plan should include both freeway and transit improvements.

A dispute on language. SANDAG Vice Chair Catherine Blakespear, the mayor of Encinitas, didn’t love that language. She wanted to make the motion more general, so staff wasn’t directed to emphasize investments in any one part of the county over another. But her substitute motion to focus on every corridor in the county ultimately failed.

Faulconer’s motion passed easily. Blakespear and two others voted against Faulconer’s motion, but the rest of the board supported it – even Desmond and Gaspar, who had forced the board to decide whether to continue the agency’s direction in the first place.

But not so fast! Gaspar then circled back to a previous conversation over congestion pricing, or attempting to manage traffic by charging drivers to use freeways. She had asked earlier in the meeting what Ikhrata had in mind, and he said SANDAG was only really looking at what’s already in place on the I-15 – where single drivers can pay to use HOV lanes.

“If your concern is congestion pricing like London did and New York is doing, that isn’t part of the vision,” he said.

But he refused to rule out any sort of dynamic pricing mechanism at this stage, arguing staff needed flexibility to explore and study all options so they could be sure that they could comply with state emissions reductions laws.

Gaspar’s request to forbid study of congestion pricing narrowly failed.

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

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