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There is a lot riding on whether California environmental officials sign off on San Diego’s bid to kill a key part of its long-term transportation plan: the implementation of a future driving fee.
For one, Hasan Ikhrata, CEO of the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional agency that built the plan, said it will reveal whether the state is serious about all its pledges to combat climate change.
For another, their decision could mean it’s time for the controversial planner to move on.
In a lengthy interview with Voice of San Diego, Ikhrata expanded upon recent comments he made about whether his term leading SANDAG should end. He also reiterated his belief that any plan for transportation in San Diego that doesn’t charge drivers for how much they drive isn’t a real attempt to combat climate change or build a transit system that offers a meaningful alternative to driving.
Last year, SANDAG approved a new long-term plan for the region’s highways and new rail lines – including the controversial fee to eventually charge drivers for driving. Moments later, the board voted to begin the process of yanking that driving fee from the plan.
The California Air Resources Board, which is responsible for signing off on such regional plans and confirming they meet state greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, approved SANDAG’s blueprint, including the driving fee. That approval is necessary to make sure the region keeps getting state and federal funds for transportation projects.
But at the same time, SANDAG’s board directed staff to begin the planning work required to remove the driving fee. The board is due for an update early next year.
Eventually, Ikhrata said state regulators will need to give a thumbs up or down to the new plan, without the fee. And he said he’ll learn a lot about the state’s climate policy, based on how they go.
“If the Air Resource Board approves the plan, I’m really happy that San Diego has an approved plan, and we’ll move on,” he said. “Life goes on – I will be very happy because that would actually kind of clarify to me that this is not a serious discussion. I mean, let’s face it. If the state wants to go that way, I’m willing to tell my colleagues at the state, ‘Thank you. You clarified for me where you really stand.’”
“This is all a fantasy?” Voice’s Scott Lewis asked.
But if the state approves the plan, we asked, where would that leave Ikhrata? Would he be willing to lead an agency that has an approved plan even if he thinks it reveals a farce at the center of state environmental planning?
“Probably not,” he said.
But shortly after, Ikhrata left room for him to stay at the agency even with a plan that he doesn’t take seriously. He said he would submit the plan without a driving fee to the state with a smile on his face, and that it wasn’t a bet that they would side with him and against the board.
“I am not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, ARB, please don’t approve the plan,’ because I’ll live. Who cares? I want them to approve the plan. The plan meets the requirement. It’s up to them now.”
Without the driving fee, the region’s outline for future transportation improvements would cut emissions 18.6 percent by 2035, Ikhrata said. That’s below the state requirement for a 19 percent reduction, but Ikhrata conceded that the state allows agencies to round up.
Ikhrata said he believes he still has the board’s support, and that it would be time for him to leave if that isn’t the case. So, we asked, does he expect to be SANDAG’s CEO at this time next year?
“I hope so,” he said. “I want that, but again, I’m not going to lose sleep over that. Whether I’m here or not, it’s really irrelevant to the discussion. What’s relevant is, is this region serious about providing different ideas for the future?”
Right now, he said the region is not serious.
“Maybe with time it will be. I’m actually looking forward to the new leadership,” he said, referring to the new board coming in after last month’s elections.
Elected officials who say they support actions on climate change and improving transit, he said, aren’t grappling with the policy question if they don’t support a driving fee, or significant new tolls on roads that would be an alternative way of charging people for driving.
“It’s wishful thinking to think that you’re going to have a plan that changes behavior and reduces greenhouse gas emissions for real, without a pricing mechanism,” he said.
Ikhrata said he stands by his decision to submit the plan – including the driving fee – to state regulators even though the board had already expressed its desire to strip the fee from the plan.
“They said I’m insubordinate in my review,” he said. “Fine, and I would do it again because my No. 1 priority was to get the plan approved by the state and federal government, so funding continued to flow,” he said.