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

Hasan Ikhrata was ready to unveil his transformation of the region’s transportation system in March, a year after his promise to do so turned the San Diego Association of Governments into a political battleground.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The director of the regional transportation agency paused his plans to lay out in detail how he would remake San Diego’s transit and highway network. Uncertainty around the region’s transit has only increased since then.

The agency is inundated with new information from a vast experiment in telecommuting forced on it. The Metropolitan Transit System has abandoned plans to put a tax increase for transit on the November ballot. And an economic crisis has further cratered revenues – threatening funding for existing plans, let alone new projects required to meet Ikhrata’s lofty promises.

He’s said his “5 Big Moves” plan would create a countywide transit system as fast and convenient as driving, the only way the region can meet a state mandate to cut carbon emissions per person to 19 percent of 2005 levels by 2035. Previous SANDAG plans, he said, met state laws through deception without really lowering the region’s carbon footprint.

But the plan was announced only in broad strokes – and left out critical details like what type of transit systems would operate on hundreds of miles of new rail, and how the agency would charge highway drivers to help manage congestion.

It also did not include a price tag for the whole ambitious proposal.

The public was poised to hear some of those specifics on March 27, before the world changed.

SANDAG put the unveiling on hold, opting to wait until it could wow the board in person with large 3-D models and video demonstrations. It’s now grappling with how much longer it can wait.

“We would rather wait until we can get together,” Ikhrata said in an interview. “But if this goes until September or October, we’re probably going to have to unveil of it through technology.”

SANDAG was due to adopt a new, state-required regional transportation plan by the end of last year. It got that deadline extended until the end of 2021, after Ikhrata announced it was impossible to write a plan that met state greenhouse gas reduction targets without starting from scratch. The agency will still need to conduct a massive environmental analysis of the plan before it can consider adopting it.

The agency is now considering detailing the new framework as early as this or next month. A Zoom call with the board wouldn’t be the grand reveal Ikhrata had in mind, but it would bring into focus what staff has been working on for a year.

“Initially, we put lines on a map and said, ‘it’ll be a transit line here, a highway option here in terms of managed lanes,’” he said. “Right now, we’re going to be detailing what that transit line means – is it underground, is it above ground? Where does it exactly go? What’s the route?”

Transit lines will be one of four tiers, including the existing light rail and rapid bus systems, and a new fast commuter rail concept. The plan will specify how SANDAG will manage traffic by charging drivers to use highways, and where it can add new lanes from existing shoulders, but the plan will not include any general highway-widening projects.

Last year, leaders in North County and other suburban and rural areas dependent on driving – led by County Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar – balked at the proposal due to its shift from highways to transit. They dubbed the plan to charge drivers for freeway use during rush hour “track and tax,” and called it both an invasion of privacy and an unwarranted tax increase.

Ikhrata wouldn’t say whether the final proposal will satisfy their concerns.

“It depends how they look at it. Let me just make a statement: Are we proposing to add any general purpose lanes anywhere? No,’” he said, referring to projects that add new travel lanes to freeways by widening them, an approach frowned upon by transportation planners because it encourages more car travel and hasn’t been shown to decrease congestion over time. “Are adding any pure (carpool) lanes? No. But we’re taking every corridor in San Diego and making sure every corridor has the option of, either you pay to travel faster, or you can take a transit line.”

Other county leaders opposed – or at least expressed skepticism over – the potential price tag of a plan that would remake the region’s transportation system. On that, they’re about to get some clarity.

“And we’ll have an idea of the cost. We’ll be able to say that during the unveil, which we weren’t able to do before,” Ikhrata said.

One thing the new outline definitely won’t be able to say: whether it meets the state’s emissions reduction mandates.

“We don’t know that yet,” Ikhrata said. “We’re running the model as we speak. We will not put out a plan that does not meet or exceed the requirement. If we come to a point where we don’t meet it, there will be no plan out.”

Part of the problem, he said, is the modeling software available to determine how much the agency’s new proposal will change residents’ behavior.

“We don’t have the tools – the old tools can’t evaluate such a system,” Ikhrata said. “So we’re building from scratch the tools to evaluate such a system.”

The new regional outline is also built around dense hubs where multiple transportation options would intersect – one of the titular “big moves” – the largest being a new regional transit center near the airport, at the federal government’s NAVWAR property in Old Town. The $5 billion “Grand Central San Diego” project would be a keystone of the regional plan.

That project is still not a sure thing, but the Navy’s environmental review for it kicked off in January, and a bill to streamline state environment review of the project, written by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who’s running for mayor, has advanced in the Assembly. The Navy could make a final decision on the project in December. The unveiling of the regional plan will include more detail on the Grand Central plan, too.

But the coronavirus hasn’t just produced a procedural delay for SANDAG.

It also led to the demise of a proposed MTS ballot measure that would have increased sales taxes to pay to expand transit service and build new transit projects.

In one way, that’s a hit to SANDAG’s efforts. Though MTS had its own list of projects for the tax measure, any new funding for transit would have helped chip away at the old and new projects that lack funding in the region. And it would have funded service improvements that will be necessary under any plan.

But in another way, the measure was competition that’s no longer in place.

Ikhrata said he had been tentatively planning on putting up a ballot measure in 2022 to help pay for the 5 Big Moves, no matter what MTS did. He concedes that the political likelihood of putting up a tax measure in two years is lower now than it was three months ago, but he’s not ready to foreclose the idea yet.

“We were planning to go for a measure in 2022,” he said. “Now, we’ll join forces and make sure we have one list for the region, and hopefully we’ll be supported. Now, it’s too early to tell how this pandemic is going to go, but eventually we’re going to go together to get the resources to build the 5 Big Moves system.”

The other big change from the coronavirus comes from the sudden surge in telecommuting. The stay-at-home order led to a drop in traffic and the pollution it creates.

Coleen Clementson, SANDAG’s director of land use and planning, said the agency’s previous plans had always projected a 12 percent to 15 percent adoption of telecommuting. Now, they’re testing it out.

“It’s almost like right now we have this little laboratory to see, gosh, that may really be possible,” Clementson said. “Maybe that was visionary, so that’s one aspect of this. The other thing is, and I’m sure you see it in your neighborhood too, just all the people biking and walking more than ever before.”

But Ikhrata seems skeptical those changes will stick. In 2014, the agency received a grant from the federal government to get 10 companies to shift to telecommuting, but it could only get four to participate.

“Maybe the world has changed,” he said. “But I also remind people that even with a total economic shutdown, we still have 60 percent of people traveling.”

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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