Shortsighted San Diego – Rejecting Transit First?

The global population will pass 7 billion within days. The worldwide oil supply is dwindling. We’re already living in an atmosphere which has exceeded ideal carbon concentrations. The CO2 parts per billion are projected to rise exponentially in the decades to come, together with related environmental and human health impacts. And on Friday, San Diego is poised to commit the next 40 years to building more highways at the expense of desperately needed transit – unless they hear from us. 

California is famously the nation’s incubator for smart policy, and it’s taken the lead at the state level to reduce greenhouse gases. SB 375 (California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act) has been effective since January 2009, and requires that metropolitan planning organizations throughout the state create “Sustainable Community Strategies” (SCS) to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.

San Diego County is the first in the entire country to draft a comprehensive plan intended to serve the transportation needs of a growing population while attempting to reduce cumulative carbon emissions, meaning this plan will set the national standard. In charge is the San Diego Association of Governments, SANDAG, comprised of local elected officials throughout the county’s 18 cities. 

For decades, SANDAG has favored funding more roads and freeway widening to serve sprawl development as the City has grown. Despite a transit emphasis promoted by stakeholders throughout the drafting of the Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (2050 RTP/SCS), SANDAG leaders are poised to approve this sprawl-first model of ‘sustainability’ that will set a precedent for the nation and commit the region to 40 more years of the same misguided planning principles. For most of us, that’s a lifetime. We have a chance to seize this opportunity to achieve sustainability goals, but the current Plan will only serve to promote further sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions, perpetuating poor land use and traffic congestion.

Although the very goal of SB 375 is to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and by extension emissions, San Diego’s 2050 RTP/SCS would actually increase VMT in the region by 50 percent over the next 40 years. By 2050 it will only achieve a 9 percent GHG reduction per capita – if it even reaches the levels mandated by SB 375 at all.

The many fundamental flaws in the proposed plan even drew rebuke from Attorney General Kamala Harris. In a recent letter, Harris cautions that “the RTP/SCS seems to be setting the region on a course that is inconsistent with the State’s climate objectives” and the agency has “set too low a bar” in determining how the Plan would affect communities that are already overburdened with pollution. You can read the letter and coverage of the Attorney General’s objections here. 

Advocates of SANDAG’s plan argue that the plan includes transportation alternatives and will achieve “balance.” However, these alternatives largely serve to justify further highways expansion. “Balance” in this case means defining transit as intensified bus service and adding buses to new, pay-HOV lanes. Comprehensive and specific transit options are not detailed in the Plan, and implementation is postponed until the latest phases, if they’re eventually funded at all. As a result, the Plan fundamentally fails to serve as a catalyst for compact, urban development.

The failure of SANDAG to contemplate a plan that will achieve a meaningful shift in realistic sustainability planning runs contrary to the results of multiple public polls and community outcry for an effective integrated light rail/multimodal solution. In response, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation (CNFF), through its Transit San Diego campaign, has submitted an alternate planning model for SANDAG’s consideration. This “50-10 Transit Plan” commits funding 50 years’ worth of transit infrastructure into the first 10 years of implementation. CNFF has also submitted multiple comment letters promoting transit first and opposing SANDAG’s sprawl-development-friendly plan throughout the planning process.

Prioritizing transit as in the CNFF proposal would finally address the fundamental transportation challenges instead of just doubling down on more cars for another generation. We know that SANDAG’s choices will be felt throughout the region and across the country. Indeed, we’ve already seen the chair of SANDAG lobbying for the rollback of EPA standards in order to accelerate highways throughout Southern California. Before this accelerates further, we have a chance to demand responsible transportation development this Friday – but we need all the help we can get.

Make sure they hear from us. Email SANDAG at: twr@sandag.org


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