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Desmond addresses transportation priorities at town hall meeting

Joe Naiman

Village News Reporter

County Supervisor Jim Desmond held a virtual town hall meeting Aug. 24 to address the San Diego Association of Governments’ transportation priorities.

Desmond noted that the SANDAG "Five Big Moves" initiative may not keep promises made to the county's voters when they approved the TransNet sales tax extension in November 2004 and that the transit-oriented focus in preliminary versions of the Regional Transportation Plan update will not benefit much of the county. Desmond was joined at the town hall meeting by Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and by North County Economic Development Council CEO Erik Bruvold.

The original SANDAG half-cent sales tax was approved by the county's voters in November 1987. It took effect in 1988 and was for a 20-year period. The revenue was divided with one-third apiece for highways, local streets and roads, and transit. "Polling suggested that voters wanted a balanced approach," Bruvold said.

The November 2004 extension covered a 40-year period from the 2008 expiration date of the original tax to 2048. The appeal to reduce traffic congestion caused the voters to provide the necessary support. "There was clear frustration with the public," Bruvold said.

Federal law requires that a region which receives federal funding for transportation projects update its long-range Regional Transportation Plan every four years. The RTP covers highway, transit, rail, and bicycle projects including privately-funded toll roads. The revenue includes projections of anticipated federal, state, local, and private funds from existing and reasonably available future sources. The revenue projections account for growth assumptions and potential new funding sources consistent with historical funding trends.

The federal forecast requirement is only for 20 years, but because the TransNet tax will be collected through 2048, SANDAG approved an RTP through 2050 in October 2011. "The existing approved RTP was a collaborative effort," Desmond said.

The 2011 adoption of the plan through 2050 meant that few changes for specific projects were needed for the update, so the 2015 plan focused on implementation including timeframes.

"Historically, about every five years SANDAG tweaks the existing plan," Desmond said.

SANDAG has been promoting its "Five Big Moves" plan which places more of an emphasis on transit. "SANDAG has completely scrapped the previous regional transportation plan and is starting anew, so this is extremely concerning," Desmond said.

"We've got a plan which is basically about two-thirds for transit and one-third for highways," Desmond said. "It takes away progress by not being able to invest, I think, in our infrastructure."

In 2017, State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher introduced Assembly Bill 805, which was eventually passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Brown. Prior to AB 805, any SANDAG board action required both a majority of jurisdictions and a majority of the weighted vote based on the jurisdictions' population to pass.

AB 805 allows a SANDAG representative to call for a weighted vote if a majority of jurisdictions do not approve a motion. Such a weighted vote override would require at least 51% of the weighted vote and support from at least four jurisdictions. Desmond noted that the City of San Diego and the City of Chula Vista would only need two other cities to pass a motion opposed by the other 15 jurisdictions.

"What that does is silence the rest of us for voting," Desmond said.

Desmond added that the proposed new RTP allocates the majority of projects to more populated areas.

SANDAG's "Five Big Moves" are completing corridors, transit leap, mobility hubs, flexible fleets, and operating systems. Bailey noted that the SANDAG meaning of complete corridors is managed lanes with congestion pricing, that transit leap means high-speed rail, that mobility hubs mean densely populated centers, and that flexible fleets mean such elements as rideshare, bikeshare, scooter share which are likely concentrated in mobility hubs.

The SANDAG plan in its current draft form would spend approximately 57% on transit, 30% on managed lanes including conversion of existing lanes, and 13% on highways.

"What we really need is a balanced plan," Desmond said.

"It hasn't been balanced," Desmond said. "We've got to make sure that it's a balanced program going forward."

Desmond noted that transit works best in areas with high concentrations of people. "We don't have that in San Diego County, and I don't think we ever will except for Downtown," he said.

Approximately 2.5% of San Diego County commuters used public transit prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and the percentage has decreased since citizens were told to limit contact with others. The SANDAG best-case scenario increases transit users to 10% of total commuters over the 30-plus year long term.

"We're spending two-thirds of our money to achieve a goal which will only serve maybe 10% of the population," Bailey said.

"I'm okay with transit. Transit works in some areas," Desmond said.

Desmond proposed more frequency and double-tracking along those routes. Although State Route 78 is in the Fifth Supervisorial District represented by Desmond, he believes that Highway 78 isn't the region's biggest need. "It's really the Del Mar bluffs," he said.

Currently a single-track rail in that area limits Amtrak and Coaster service.

Desmond noted that transit doesn't go everywhere, and transit service is minimal east of Interstate 15. "Too much of it is going to transit at this point in time. It is not really serving the people who are really paying the taxes," Desmond said.

"Mass transit does not make sense for a lot of people," Desmond said. "It takes your freedom away of going where you want to go when you want to go.

Desmond noted that some commuters drive to various destinations at various hours. He also noted that many workers are not close to a transit hub.

"They're going to need vehicles. We've got to support those people. They're the ones who will be paying the taxes, so I'm going to fight to do everything I can to do that," Desmond said.

Desmond noted that the price of housing has forced many San Diego County workers to live in Riverside County. "These people who live outside of San Diego County have to commute in here," he said.

"Many businesses are counting on still using the roads," Desmond said. "Freight's going to be using the roads."

Desmond noted that a high-speed train likely would serve few regional residents. "You maybe would have one stop," he said. "It's not very efficient."

The proposal for new rail lines has issues other than cost efficiency. "There's no land that's been acquired," Desmond said.

The price tag of approximately $163 billion is in 2021 dollars rather than in year of construction dollars. Bruvold noted that after the 2004 passage of the TransNet extension some projects were front-loaded to compete for federal and state dollars. The projects included trolley, Coaster, and managed lane improvements. The front-loading also utilized bonded indebtedness, and the concept was that future revenues would cover those as well as other promised projects.

"Financial projections that were made in 2004 did not come to fruition," Bruvold said.

Bruvold noted that increased housing costs caused residents to spend money on housing rather than on items subject to sales tax.

"Promises were made in 2004," Desmond said.

Desmond noted those include high-occupancy vehicle lanes on State Route 78 including connectors to Interstate 15 and Interstate 5.

"The 67 was also promised. The 67 really needs to be four lanes. That's for fire evacuation. We need roads in the unincorporated area for fire evacuation and safety," Desmond said.

State Route 67 connects El Cajon to Ramona and is four lanes between El Cajon and Lakeside but only two lanes between Lakeside and Ramona. The entirety of State Route 67 is in the Second Supervisorial District currently represented by Joel Anderson. Bailey and the City of Coronado are in the First Supervisorial District currently represented by Nora Vargas.

"We borrowed against future dollars," Desmond said. "We have more debt right now than we have money coming in, so basically we're not going to get any new money in until like 2035."

SANDAG has proposed multiple additional revenue sources: a new local sales tax, a new sales tax within the Metropolitan Transit System area, a potential state per-mile fee, a potential local per-mile fee, and a future ride sharing user fee.

"There's a tax you're already paying now until 2048," Desmond said.

Desmond added that residents not only pay the TransNet sales tax but also gas tax and vehicle registration fees. "You're paying multiple ways and you're not getting what has been promised," he said.

Bailey noted that for a vehicle obtaining 20 miles per gallon a per-mile tax would cost motorists about 40 cents at the local level and 40 cents from the state for each vehicle mile traveled – and that's if gas tax was eliminated.

"Public transit is what is known in economic terms as an inferior good. As people's economic conditions improve they tend to shy away from transit. They use less of it. They purchase a car because a car gives them more choices when it comes to going to and from work, what job opportunities they take advantage of, how to spend more time with friends and family, and so to increase the price of achieving or acquiring that superior good also punishes the lower-income and middle class San Diegans more than the upper-income San Diegans," Bailey said.

"What SANDAG wants to do is get the single-occupancy driver out of the car. They want to get you in buses, they want to get you more into carpools which is fine, but you're giving up a lot of your freedom by doing that," Desmond said.

A per-mile tax would need to pass a nexus between the assessment and the use, so it would be subject to a legal challenge if it is collected for miles outside of California, on private roads, or in parking lots. Bailey noted that if a mileage tax is implemented, motorists could self-report and be subject to audit by a government bureaucrat, or tracking devices could be installed in vehicles. "There definitely are some privacy concerns," he said.

Desmond was the mayor of San Marcos for 12 years before being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2018, and he was on the SANDAG board as the City of San Marcos representative. He noted that when transportation planning is on the SANDAG agenda most public speakers are transit users.

"You need to get mad, too, about how your tax dollars are being spent," Desmond said. "You're being promised roads, and you're not getting it."

Bailey noted that the SANDAG executive director reports to the board members. "They're supposed to report to their constituents in the jurisdictions they represent, so when I go to SANDAG my job is to represent the interests of the 26,000 residents who call Coronado home," he said.

That includes a component for regional connections. "People in Coronado don't just stay in Coronado," Bailey said. "It's really important to have this kind of collaborative style to make sure that the entire region is being served."

Bailey doesn't believe the current SANDAG proposal is providing service to the entire region. "There are a lot of board members who are increasingly marginalized now," he said.

The "Five Big Moves" measures are not final. "This plan could be reversed. It would require the SANDAG board to vote against it," Bailey said.

The citizens themselves have some recourse. "It will require tax increases, and those will have to be approved by the voters, so when this plan comes up if you're not satisfied with the plan when they ask for a tax increase at the ballot simply say no," Bailey said.

"That final say will come at the ballot box," Bailey said. "It's the best way to make your voice heard."

"This isn't really a partisan issue," Desmond said. "This is more what do we want to do with our transportation in San Diego County."

Bailey also encouraged citizens to contact state representatives. "The public started adopting more fuel-efficient cars, both electric cars and also combustion engines that just got better gas mileage," he said.

That led to a reduction in greenhouse gases. Desmond noted that cleaner engines have eliminated smog days which occurred in the past. "We don't have smog days anymore. What fixed that? Technology fixed it," he said.

"I think technology will help fix greenhouse gas," Desmond said. "It's not the individual driver in their car. It's what the vehicle is emitting."

Bailey noted that the state government was not satisfied with the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. "They added a new requirement, so now it's no longer enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within your Regional Transportation Plan. You have to reduce vehicle miles traveled, so the state now requires even if we were to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero as of tomorrow, the state would still require us to put together a plan that would reduce vehicle miles traveled per capita, which is just kind of ridiculous," he said. "I think it creates a lot of suspicion as to whether or not the state really wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or if they're more interested in getting people out of their cars, and based on their latest decision to require a reduction in vehicle miles traveled even if those vehicle miles traveled are releasing zero gas emissions, I think the state has a lot of explaining to do."

Desmond noted that policies which make housing unaffordable increase vehicle miles traveled. "We force our workforce to live in Temecula, to live in Hemet," he said. "We force them out there and now we're complaining about the greenhouse gases."

Professionally Desmond was an airline pilot before he retired. He noted that airplane technology allows aircraft to communicate with each other without pilot interaction other than response. Desmond noted that car manufacturers are working on autonomous electric vehicles. "I think technology is where we should be focusing," he said. "I think that's going to make our roads much, much more efficient."

Desmond believes SANDAG should prioritize roadway infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. "I think that should be the future, not trains," he said.

"They're using 1800s technology," Desmond said. "They want to get us out of our cars and put us in trains and buses."

Desmond noted that electric vehicles are not a panacea, but he noted that the private sector will be using autonomous electric vehicles for transit. "I think Uber and Lyft are getting ready to do that," he said.

"We all want San Diego County to be a better place," Desmond said. "I think the future technology's going to take us there, not the past technology."


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