Riders board a Sprinter train in San Marcos. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

When SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata appeared at a Metropolitan Transit System board meeting in December, he was there to express support for the agency’s proposed sales tax measure.

But he mentioned offhand another idea that could shake up how the region handles public transportation.

“There is one planning agency in the region; that’s SANDAG,” Ikhrata said at the meeting. “There are two transit operators, and I hope they become one soon, NCTD and MTS. And we both plan, they operate, they work back and forth.”

Ikhrata told VOSD that for now, consolidating MTS and the North County Transit District, is just his own vision. But Ikhrata said he believes there shouldn’t be multiple transit operators in San Diego County.

Currently, MTS operates transportation, including San Diego’s trolley and bus system, in most of the urbanized portions of the county, including San Diego and Chula Vista, while NCTD operates the bus system in North County and the Coaster and Sprinter rail lines.

“I believe very strongly given my experience that if you are to plan and build a state-of-the-art transit system, one of the most important things is efficiency, and to gain efficiency you should have one system,” Ikhrata said.

He said he proposed the idea to North County mayors on the SANDAG board two weeks into the job. They weren’t thrilled. Their disapproval hasn’t stopped him from pressing the idea.

“It made me think I was on to something,” he said.

Ikhrata said the idea is worth a good public policy debate and hopes that will happen.

NCTD Board Chairman Tony Kranz said Ikhrata hasn’t talked to him about the idea of consolidating the transit agencies, but knows the North County mayors were concerned when he brought up the idea without consulting NCTD.

Kranz said he has concerns about where priority on North County transit would fall, how efficient it would be and how riders who rely on transit will be affected if the agencies were to combine.

“It would not be easy to merge two agencies together. It would not be impossible, but it would require a significant amount of planning to make it work effectively,” Kranz said. “Any time you start tinkering with transit agencies, the reality is you have a significant amount of people who depend on transit currently in place.”

Things have been tense between Ikhrata and North County leaders almost since Ikhrata’s arrival at the agency last year. The regional sales tax program TransNet is bringing in far less money than expected, meaning not all of the projects promised to voters can happen. Ikhrata has said transit projects should take priority when it comes to doling out what funds remain, angering North County leaders who believe highway projects should remain on the table.

Ikhrata said that projects like the planned Purple Line trolley extension, which would run from the U.S.-Mexico border to Kearny Mesa, is one example of a project that would benefit from one unified agency. Hasan told VOSD his vision is to eventually extend the Purple Line to Oceanside.

“It doesn’t make sense to have one agency coordinate half and another agency coordinate half,” he said. “The sequence we’re designing will benefit North County.”

Kranz said the best time to consider combining agencies would be closer to when work begins on that expansion but that for now the status quo is best.

Ikhrata said he will discuss consolidating MTS and NCTD, as well as extending the Purple Line trolley to Oceanside, with the SANDAG board in March, when the agency goes over its new vision for a regional transportation system.

When I asked Rob Schupp, a spokesperson for MTS, about the idea of joining with NCTD to create one agency, he wrote in an email Tuesday, “Oh, I think Hasan was just kidding. We don’t have a comment on that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified SANDAG’s new plan for a regional transportation system.

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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