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Can SANDAG solve traffic woes with 100 MPH commuter rail, rush-hour pricing?

New details of a controversial plan to prioritize rail over widening freeways are starting to emerge — from laying hundreds of miles of high-speed commuter rail to charging drivers to use many of the most congested freeways.

Officials with the San Diego Association of Governments told the Union-Tribune last week that the agency plans to run trains along highway corridors that travel as fast as 100 miles an hour. The most current plan calls for no further expansion of the trolley system, which only goes about 35 miles an hour on average.

At the same time, SANDAG plans to roll out so-called congestion pricing on those stretches of freeway, which would charge drivers a fluctuating toll based on traffic conditions.

Experts say this ambitious, multi-billion-dollar proposal could be the first of its kind in the country.

“We know about toll roads, and we know about commuter rail, but to combine them all at once would potentially be a new model,” said Ethan Elkind, a transportation expert who directs the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Voters would likely need to approve multiple tax increases to fund the transit expansion. The first test will come in 2020 when the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System expects to put a sales-tax increase on the ballot. SANDAG would then likely follow up with its own tax measure.

North and East County officials desperate for traffic relief in the near term have balked at the costly new vision, which would take decades and likely require plowing through property, as well as building underground and elevated sections of rail line.

However, what has most rankled politicians from Oceanside to Santee to El Cajon is that SANDAG’s leadership has simultaneously called for indefinitely shelving more than a dozen long-planned freeway expansions. Those projects — outlined in the 2004 voter-approved half-cent sales tax known as Transnet — include many sought-after projects, such as adding express lanes to state routes 78 and 52, and widening state routes 67 and 56.

County supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond, who both sit on SANDAG’s board of 21 elected officials from around the region, have led the charge to preserve the highway projects.

“The vision that’s been presented to the board is a mass transit vision only,” Gaspar said. “People are trying to make this a roads-versus-transit debate. I’m looking for a balanced transportation plan for our future.”

Desmond echoed that sentiment and said that the proposed transit projects will not materialize fast enough to accommodate new housing and population growth.

“This technology is not going to happen within the next 10 years, or 15 or 20,” he said. “In the meantime we still have housing needs.”

On Thursday, May 9, Desmond and other elected officials joined local talk radio host Carl DeMaio to announce a campaign to shame “road raiding politicians” on the SANDAG board. DeMaio, the former San Diego City Councilman who spearheaded the failed attempt last year to overturn the state’s newly enacted gas tax, also threatened a recall campaign aimed at lawmakers who support nixing the highway projects.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas have been the most high-profile supporters of SANDAG’s transportation vision. However, neither politician has said much publicly on the topic since those opposed to shelving the road projects kicked off their campaign two weeks ago.

Faulconer and Salas declined multiple interview requests by the Union-Tribune for this story.

Faulconer’s office released this statement: “Mayor Faulconer is committed to working with his fellow SANDAG board members on the regional transportation plan as the San Diego region is at its best when we stand together. His top priority is creating a complete transportation system that delivers options for residents and businesses in every part of the county.”

The chief architect of the new vision, SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata, has said his approach is the only way to get people to and from their jobs in a timely fashion.

He has argued that adding new lanes will only end in more gridlock as new drivers pile onto widened thoroughfares. Traffic engineers often refer to this predicament as induced demand.

“I’m a planner and engineer,” Ikhrata said. “I’ve spent 30 years of my life in this business. Adding one lane in each direction does not work. Period. It will just make things worse.”

Most transportation experts agree that expanding freeways does little to solve traffic congestion, although many point out that adding rail is no panacea either.

“Rail is not really suited to reduce traffic congestion,” said Elkind of UC Berkeley. “It’s designed as an alternative to traffic congestion and is a way to accommodate new growth in a region without contributing to air pollution.”

However, implementing congesting pricing to, in part, help pay for transit operations can improve road conditions, according to experts.

“The only proven way to reduce traffic is congestion pricing, but that has been politically unpopular” in the United States, said Martin Wachs, a professor emeritus at UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning. “It’s been done 30 or 40 places around the world, and it actually increases the capacity of the highway.”

The tolling scheme has encouraged drivers, especially those with more flexible schedules, to stay off target roads during peak times in places such as Singapore, Stockholm and London. New York City is now developing such a plan for lower Manhattan and Los Angeles is considering the approach.

While rail will not solve San Diego’s traffic woes, it can help the region meet state-mandated reductions in greenhouse gases from cars and trucks, Wachs said. “Transit enables higher density development and reduces vehicle miles traveled in relation to the population, whereas highways are associated with more dispersed growth.”

Ikhrata said he will ask the SANDAG board to amend the Transnet ordinance this fall to include new rail projects so that the agency can start funding the environmental review process. Actual construction could not start until voters approve a tax increase or the agency secures another source of funding.

SANDAG officals have said the agency doesn’t currently have enough money to complete all the road projects it already has planned.

The agency is strapped for cash because of declining sales tax revenues and skyrocketing construction costs. More than $30 billion in upgrades to major highway and transit projects are still slated for completion through 2048, and officials now estimate the region will be roughly $10 billion short.

— Joshua Emerson Smith is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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