North, East County leaders still simmering over mass-transit proposal

County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar speaks at a media event Monday. (For full caption see bottom of story below.)
(Phil Diehl)

A cross-section of elected officials and residents assembled Monday, May 6, to reiterate their dissatisfaction with San Diego County’s regional planning agency’s proposal to shift money away from highway expansion projects and toward more mass transit development.

After speaking for half an hour, the politicians recruited a tree trimmer working at a nearby home to emphasize their point. In front of the few remaining reporters and their cameras, Andrew Deno said it took him 90 minutes to drive from his home in Vista to his job that day in Solana Beach, a trip that without traffic would take 30 minutes.

“I deal with traffic every day,” said Deno, before he got the all-clear to fire up his noisy power tools and resume work on some nearby landscaping.

County supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond organized the media event at the northern end of Rios Avenue overlooking Interstate 5 and the San Elijo Lagoon in Solana Beach.

Each participant in turn denounced the proposal unveiled April 26 by San Diego Regional Planning Agency Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata. His idea would shift money away from highway improvement projects and instead use it to further public transit systems such as the San Diego trolley light rail and the Coaster and Sprinter commuter trains.

Gaspar, Desmond and others said that change could kill long-awaited projects, such as the HOV lanes that were promised for state Route 78 and other highways when the county’s voters approved a 40-year extension of the half-cent sales tax known as TransNet in 2004.

Last week, the county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose the SANDAG proposal, with Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher casting nays.

“This proposal short-changes North County residents on roads,” Desmond said Monday, calling it a “massive bait-and-switch” that promised taxpayers one thing and delivers something else.

Even if the county tripled the number of mass transit riders, 90 percent of San Diego County commuters would still be using their cars, he said.

SANDAG is expected to release cost estimates and other details on the proposal in the months ahead.

The plan outlined by Ikhrata is expected to cost billions of dollars and probably would require voters to approve additional tax increases to pay for the costly transportation projects. Matching state and federal grant money also would be needed.

Also, many of the highway projects outlined in the TransNet ballot measure have not been completed and now appear in jeopardy.

Soaring construction costs are one factor, but also SANDAG overestimated the tax revenue expected from TransNet by billions of dollars. That error, and its reported cover-up, led to the resignation of Ikhrata’s predecessor.

Still, leaders of the county’s most populous cities, San Diego and Chula Vista, have said they support the planning agency’s shift toward mass transit. That has much of the county worried because if the SANDAG board of directors chooses to use its population-weighted voting system, it could approve the new policy with the votes of just four of its 19 jurisdictions.

“This is exactly what I wanted to see,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said when the plan was unveiled, and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas said it would help attract industry to the region. Together, their two cities have almost half the county’s population.

Other speakers Monday included San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, Poway City Councilwoman Caylin Frank, retired Sheriff’s Department Capt. Ed Musgrove, Carlsbad real estate agent Rebecca Conley, and Marjorie Camp, a 37-year resident of Encinitas.

“We can’t forget about the people who are using their cars,” said Jones said, the owner of a furniture sales and marketing business. She said one company in San Marcos, Hunter Industries, has 800 employees, most of whom drive to work, and who need the completion of the Route 78 HOV lanes.

She and others emphasized the need for a balanced approach to transportation spending.

The TransNet plan called for the largest share of tax money, about half of the revenue, to be spent on freeway and highway projects to relieve traffic congestion and improve public safety. The rest of the money was to be divided among bus and rail rapid transit projects, with a small percentage of the money to pay for environmental projects, such as the restoration now underway at the San Elijo Lagoon.

Frank, holding her young daughter in her arms, said mass transit is not an alternative for most families.

“High-speed rail is simply unrealistic for commuting moms and dads,” she said.

It’s also a public safety issue, Musgrove said, adding that lives can be lost when emergency vehicles are stuck in traffic.

-- Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

In photo at top: County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar speaks at a media event Monday. Also present, left to right, were, Supervisor Jim Desmond, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, Poway City Councilwoman Caylin Frank, retired Sheriff’s Department Capt. Ed Musgrove, real estate agent Rebecca Conley, and Encinitas resident Marjorie Camp.