Jim Desmond (left) and Hasan Ikhrata / Photo by Megan Wood

The ongoing dispute over transportation funding in San Diego County moved out of the board room last week and into the daylight — and landed on the rooftop of a Lexus dealership in Escondido.

It was there that North County Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond and their conservative allies made the case at a press conference that regional transportation officials should continue to widen highways as they also build out public transit over the coming decades.

The problem is that a tax sold to voters in 2004 for transportation improvements — including highway expansions — is falling way short of expectations (at least $10 billion). There’s not enough money for every project that was previously promised.

At the same time, SANDAG wants to rethink the way we move about the region while taking seriously state and federal requirements to reduce carbon emissions (we’re falling short on that front too). Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata has laid out a new set of principles that will guide the agency’s next long-term transportation plan. That plan, slated for adoption in 2021, is still in the works but will likely include more investments in rail and buses.

Elected officials in both North County and East County say they’re not opposed to those investments but argue that highways must remain a priority because driving is how most people get around suburban and rural areas. This point of contention has been a major source of news coverage in recent months and it was eased, at least temporarily, when SANDAG’s full board agreed earlier this month to consider both freeway and transit improvements to relieve traffic along major corridors.

The dispute is ongoing, but it’s moving in a different direction.

Several terms are worth defining and understanding as we go forward. Bear with me. This conversation is filled with professional planning jargon, but it’s an important one, as it’ll help frame the District 3 race for the Board of Supervisors in 2020 — a race that’ll likely determine whether Democrats take control of the county or whether Gaspar and her fellow Republicans hang on.

At last week’s press conference, the Union-Tribune reported, Gaspar and other elected officials also vowed to oppose any attempts to charge drivers a fee to use general roads or highways. It’s a concept known as “congestion pricing” and it’s intended to manage traffic by providing a financial incentive to ditch one’s car on the way to work every day.

But again, there’s a problem: No one at SANDAG is proposing that. At least not yet.

Congestion pricing recently showed up, although vaguely defined, as a possibility in the agency’s materials. Ikhrata has said he doesn’t intend to seek a tax on all drivers who use certain roads or highways, but he wants the option available long term as officials seek to reduce carbon emissions.

Days before the press conference, Gaspar petitioned her fellow SANDAG board members to force Ikhrata to take congestion pricing off the table, but the proposal failed.

Ikhrata noted that a modest form of congestion pricing already exists on I-15, where solo drivers can pay for the privilege of using carpool lanes. He contrasted that system against the more expansive tolls that currently exist or will soon exist in other places, such as London and New York City. In the process, though, he helped conjure images of a dense metropolis and left the conversation seeming cloudier than ever.

To be clear, Gaspar is supportive of the congestion pricing that has long been in effect on I-15 and she’s praised upcoming road improvements on the I-5, which are being coupled with a rail line and new carpool lanes that solo drivers can also pay to use.

“That project is a slam dunk, everybody likes it, and that’s my expectation as we go forward, a balance that accommodates all users,” Gaspar said, according to the U-T.

What she’s against is a larger toll system, and the vagueness over what SANDAG could do in the future.

Rather than use “congestion pricing,” Gaspar last week described it as “track and tax.” San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones also used “track and tax” when speaking to KUSI. The phrase does two things at once: It combines concerns about mass surveillance in an era of “smart technologies” with San Diego’s already high cost of living.

In the meantime, Gaspar has also been directing the public to a website called Stop Track and Tax, which reads in part: “Despite San Diegans being taxed more than ever for transportation improvements, the SANDAG board majority is considering a new dynamic pricing scheme that would track your whereabouts and charge you for the use of arterial roads and highway lanes.”

In waging this campaign, conservatives in North County are trying to appeal across the partisan spectrum by pointing to people’s pocketbooks. The government, they say, is coming for your money and a toll is going to hit low-income people the hardest. Progressive Democrats counter that low-income people are being forced to drive the freeways because their alternative transit options are, well, not great.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher sounded exasperated at a committee meeting last month when North County officials raised questions about a federal grant proposal that would look at the possibility of including congestion pricing as part of the region’s future upgrades.

Fletcher asked Ihkrata to clarify whether he understood the situation correctly: “We’re just simply taking something we already do that works in a place we already do it and potentially applying to get some money to consider if we might do what we already do in a different place?”

Ihkrata said yes.

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, a Democrat and one of the top leaders at SANDAG, has been among the only North County elected officials to challenge what the others are doing. She opposed Gaspar’s attempt to take congestion pricing off the table and told the Union-Tribune that congestion pricing is probably not going to happen in the short- or mid-term.

“But what we don’t want to do is start taking tools out of the toolbox and tie the hands of staff in the future,” she said.

Homeless Service Provider: Stop Blaming Us for Homelessness

Oceanside elected this week to take a closer look at the permit allowing a homeless service provider to operate where it does. The city’s planning commission appointed a three-person committee to consider whether Brother Benno’s Center has been complying with local rules that prohibit loitering and that require organizations to keep track of who comes through their programs.

A group of residents demanded Monday that the city force the organization to change “the way the center does business,” 10News reported. The residents complained that clients of Brother Benno’s were leaving trash in their neighborhood and defecating and urinating on their properties. One speaker, Fox 5 reported, said he’d seen “sexual paraphernalia.”

Others spoke positively of the center’s work and said it was being unfairly blamed for homelessness in general. The center provides food, clothing and addiction recovery programs, and one woman praised it for helping her through a difficult time in her life.

Marco Gonzalez, an attorney representing Brother Benno’s, urged the residents to stop vilifying and scapegoating an organization that has been doing work in Oceanside for decades.

“Encampments will exist here regardless of whether you provide services,” he said.

This Story Has Angry Neighbors and Adorable Alpacas

I’ve been a professional journalist for nearly a decade, reporting for newspapers in the Midwest, New York and Oregon. But it wasn’t until I moved to Southern California in 2015 that I discovered a certain genre of news reporting. Let’s just call it what it is: neighbors hating on neighbors.

I’m sure this thing happens across the globe, but it seems to get a lot of play in San Diego and especially in North County. I understand the temptation of property engaged in disputes: No doubt it’s easier to call city hall and let a neutral third-party deal with it. At times, though, the pettiness is stunning.

Consider a story from a couple months ago in the Encinitas Advocate in which two neighbors raised hell because another homeowner had constructed a skate pool in his backyard for his kids. Even though skate pools are permitted within residential areas in Encinitas, the neighbors argued that no one was taking seriously the potential impact on noise, traffic and property values.

To which the contractor of the project replied: “We didn’t build the X-Games back there, just a few functional features to skate.”

Here’s the latest example.

The U-T reported that an Escondido couple is petitioning the city for a zoning change that would allow them to keep a pair of alpacas after a neighbor complained about the animals to officials. But even if the petition goes through, the neighbor said noise regulations should still prevent animals from disturbing the peace.

For the record, I liked the story because it involved adorable llama-looking creatures and land use.

In Other News

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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