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Regional planners outlining the future of transportation in San Diego are ready to acknowledge which highway and transit projects from the region’s last vision aren’t happening.
Twenty-one projects included in TransNet, the 2004 voter-approved sales tax for regional infrastructure funding, are unlikely to be built as part of a broad reimagining of San Diego’s transportation system, executives from the San Diego Association of Governments told an oversight board last month and confirmed to Voice of San Diego in a follow-up interview.
The board of directors – composed of elected officials from across the county – still has final say on any decision, but the agency’s staff, led by director Hasan Ikhrata, has said in no uncertain terms that there is no money for the unbuilt TransNet projects, and that they wouldn’t have any place in his new vision for regional transportation even if there was.
The list of likely-to-be-canceled projects includes 19 highway improvements, one rapid bus line from San Ysidro to Sorrento Mesa and a tunnel in Coronado. They’re the same projects that have been on the chopping block since Ikhrata came to SANDAG in 2018, and began promising a new system built around hundreds of miles of fast, frequent trains.
Ikhrata has not sugar-coated SANDAG’s financial shortcomings, or his desire to kill the remaining TransNet projects and the freeway-first mindset they reflect.
“These projects, not only do we not have the money to do them – they’re not the right projects for San Diego,” he said last month, at a meeting of a committee created to oversee TransNet spending. “We’re telling you that straight out. I thank you for listening to us.”
But as SANDAG has embraced Ikhrata’s so-called 5 Big Moves regional plan, it has also shifted its focus from building a list of specific projects – as was the premise of TransNet – to instead committing to broad concepts for an integrated transportation system. That has made it unclear whether there was room for some of the unbuilt projects for inclusion in the new plan, which could be approved by the agency’s board this fall.
“Everything has been re-envisioned in this regional plan,” said Coleen Clementson, SANDAG’s director of regional planning. “Ultimately it’s the board of directors’ decision, but if they adopt the plan as proposed, the projects as initially envisioned in the TransNet ordinance would not happen.”
Killing the projects once and for all is likely to require a two-step process. First, the board of directors this fall will need to adopt SANDAG’s new regional plan – which is required by state law. The state gave SANDAG a two-year extension so Ikhrata could start from scratch after taking over. Then, since TransNet was approved by voters, the board would need to pass an amendment to TransNet by a two-thirds margin, reflecting that the projects as conceived on the ballot won’t ever be built. Clementson said that could happen early next year.
Ikhrata has battled with elected officials from San Marcos, Escondido, Poway, Coronado and elsewhere since he began arguing that the unbuilt projects from TransNet were no longer priorities. At the oversight committee last month he remained unapologetic that the agency didn’t have the money to build them, and argued they were bad projects in the first place.
“To say, ‘You promised me,’ well, we just told you: In 2002, we forecasted $14 billion, actually it’s $8.9 billion. That’s almost 40 percent less money. Ladies and gentleman, we have no capacity to build this TransNet. But even if I did, I would question whether we should continue with the thinking of 1987, the world is different today,” he said, referring to when TransNet was first passed by voters.
SANDAG staff outlined why it’s pushing for a rethink of the region’s infrastructure desires.
When planners first put together the TransNet extension, they expected the region’s population to reach 4.45 million by 2050; that’s been reduced to 3.74 million now, as population growth in the region has slowed.
Between that and other faulty assumptions in the agency’s forecast, revealed by Voice of San Diego, that’s brought the tax measure’s overall revenue expectation from $14 billion listed on the ballot, to more like $8.7 billion today. After accounting for all the money that’s already been spent, and all the money that’s already needed to pay back bonds that the agency took out to pay for projects, SANDAG only expects to have $700 million, in today’s dollars, available for new spending by 2048, most of which won’t be available until after 2035.
As SANDAG has tapped out the money coming from San Diego taxpayers, it’s also changed its expectations of where people will live, driven by state mandates clamping down on suburban sprawl and the greenhouse gasses that come with it.
Two state laws, in particular – SB 375 and SB 743 – have combined to force SANDAG’s hand, and to stack the deck against any board members who want to preserve the freeway projects that were in TransNet.
“If you look at the future projects, many of these are roadway expansion projects, which under the new laws, we really can’t do any longer,” Clementson told the board.
That doesn’t mean the areas previously expecting freeway enhancements won’t get any attention under the new plan. In some cases, the new vision may not be too far from the old one. On SR-78, for instance, TransNet envisioned expanding the freeway to add a new, managed lane in each direction – lanes with certain restrictions meant to optimize traffic flow. The new vision wouldn’t expand the footprint of the freeway at all, but by reconfiguring it would create two managed lanes in each direction.
Stewart Halpern, vice chair of the oversight committee, said the conversation on the new plan has been politicized, leading to undue focus on the list of unbuilt projects. It’s overdue, he said, that the conversation shifts to the benefits SANDAG can deliver with its investments, not on completing projects from a list just for the sake of completing the list.
“The rub for the public will be, ‘I hear that you’re canceling this freeway expansion I’ve been hearing about for 10 years, convince me that what you’re replacing that with is going to impact my life in a more beneficial way,’” he said. “That’s their challenge, and I think they can answer those questions, they just haven’t started that part of the communication process yet.”
Just like there’s no money for the old TransNet projects, as of now, there’s no money for the new vision either. About $100 billion in new revenue would have to come from a series of new sources. One would be from San Diego’s share of a state-imposed road user fee of about 4 cents per mile – replacing the exiting gas tax, as the state ostensibly makes good on its commitment to go without fossil fuels – and another would be a local version of the road user fee in the same amount, piggybacking on the new state framework. Then, the region would need to impose new sales taxes for transit totaling about one cent, in addition to the half-cent tax imposed by TransNet, which residents will keep paying through 2048.