Board of Supervisors divided over SANDAG transportation proposal

Supervisors Jim Desmond and Nathan Fletcher assume the dais after being sworn in to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors at the County Administration Center in San Diego, California in January.
(Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A majority of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors rejected key parts of the San Diego Association of Governments’ new multibillion-dollar plan for regional transportation.

The divided board voted 3-2 Tuesday, April 30, for the county to oppose much of the new proposal, which would dramatically shift regional transportation priorities toward expanding public transit and away from building highways and roads.

Supervisors Dianne Jacob, Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar voted for the measure, while Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher voted in opposition.

The board action calls on the county to advocate for highway and road projects in the new plan and requests that SANDAG seek different sources of funding for public transit projects not already included in the 2004 TransNet ordinance, which includes the half-cent sales tax voters approved.

The vote also means the county will oppose any modification to the TransNet ordinance.

SANDAG’s new vision, revealed last week, would use TransNet sales tax dollars and other sources of funding to add hundreds of miles of high-speed transit lines throughout the county, as far east as Poway and as far north as Oceanside. SANDAG staff said this would help the region meet state mandates related to greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan also would do away with many long-anticipated highway improvement and expansion projects, including adding express lanes to state routes 78 and 52 and widening state routes 67 and 56. Those road projects were initially promised when voters approved the half-cent sales tax, though some supporters say the language of the TransNet resolution appears to have been non-binding.

Those discarded projects have been the main point of contention for many East and North County officials, including Desmond and Jacob, whose districts cover much that territory.

Desmond said that if SANDAG were to use the TransNet money while discarding those road projects, it would be a “bait-and-switch” to voters.

“I’m not really opposed to the new vision; however, I think it should be in addition to and not replace the projects that have already been promised by TransNet,” said Desmond, who proposed the board’s action Tuesday, April 30.

Gaspar said she is concerned about not having a definitive price tag for SANDAG’s new vision.

The supervisors voted to send a letter to SANDAG expressing these views, but the ultimate decision about transportation priorities will be SANDAG’s. Although two county board of supervisors are on SANDAG’s board, its weighted vote process gives more influence to big cities.

Public speakers in support of SANDAG’s vision outnumbered those in opposition Tuesday, April 30, with supporters highlighting the importance of having an ambitious plan to help the region meet the state-mandated emissions standards.

A handful of speakers in opposition said SANDAG needs to follow through on voters’ expectations. Some said mass transit may not provide what residents want for transportation.

Fletcher issued a press release soon after the supervisors voted.

“Today the majority of the Board made a choice to contribute to increases in greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion,” he said.

“My choice is to fight for a better future and reject the idea of clinging to a failed past. The non-binding resolution will not prevent SANDAG and our community from moving forward with delivering fast, safe, reliable and green transit for San Diego.”

Cox, whose district includes much of the South Bay, said the board’s actions were preemptive because SANDAG has not come forward with a comprehensive plan yet. He added that he would support advocating for highway and road projects and looking for sources of funding for public transportation, but he believes SANDAG should have the flexibility to modify TransNet, to pursue big opportunities when they present themselves.

In his district, for instance, TransNet bought the South Bay Expressway, SR 125, in 2012 for $341 million, about a third of what it cost a private company to build it.

--Charles T. Clark is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune