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San Diego Forward Offers a Vision of What a Transportation System Could Be

SANDAG’s new regional plan envisions “Mobility Hubs” as “centers of activity where different modes of transportation and a variety of amenities come together to provide comprehensive transit services in urban and suburban communities.” Image: SANDAG

San Diego is about to get a good look at its new Regional Transportation Plan when SANDAG staff present the final draft to its board for approval on December 10.

It is unlike any previous regional plan in San Diego, or in California. That's in part because SANDAG got into a bit of trouble over its last, very inadequate draft plan, which pretended to be forward-looking but, like many regional transportation plans, was mostly a warmed-over rehash of previous plans that prioritize freeways. The previous SANDAG plan included some transit and bike improvements, but those investments were all put on the back burner, and highway expansions came first.

Not this time. The new draft plan - written under new SANDAG leadership - presents a utopian vision of what a connected, equitable, easy-to-navigate transportation system could be, focusing on new technologies for managing vehicle traffic, improving transit, and building streetscapes that work for people on foot and on bike.

"Over the last five or six decades, the country built out an interstate system that brought economic progress," SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata told Streetsblog in a recent interview. "But we found ourselves with a lot of challenges from it. There are social equity issues, emissions, breathing, bad air, greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise. Those issues are important enough for sustainability that we believe it's going to take utopian thinking to change direction - and I hope that our board sees it that way."

The plan, San Diego Forward, is expensive - more on that below - and it covers a 30-year time period. Most of the potential funds it identifies would not be available for at least fifteen years from now. That means that, in order to meet state climate goals, investments that cut greenhouse gas emissions have to be made sooner rather than later.

So this regional plan prioritizes - for funding and implementation - projects that reduce, rather than increase, greenhouse gas emissions. That pretty much turns the previous plan on its head.

San Diego Forward focuses on "Five Big Moves" to shift the region's transportation system towards a sustainable and equitable one. These include: complete corridors that accommodate all users safely; transit improvements that would greatly increase service frequency, hours, routes, connections, and priority; mobility hubs where all forms of transportation can meet and mingle to make getting around easier; flexible and shared fleets of everything from transit vehicles to cars to "ridables," as the plan labels bikes and scooters; and technological advances in safety, clean vehicles, wayfinding, and the like, including autonomous vehicles.

"One thing that differentiates this plan from many others is that it's data driven," said Ikhrata. "We went where the data took us. For the first time, we were able to use cell [phone] data to understand commute patterns."

"In the past, we had a set of transportation projects that we just kind of did a refresh on," added Coleen Clementson, SANDAG's Planning Director. "So we set it aside, and we used cell phone data to see where people are traveling - and looked at where people couldn't get to. That's how we built the plan."

"I've been a planner in the public sector for over 25 years," she said, "and I gotta say, this is the most exciting plan I've ever worked on." SANDAG staff drew connections not just between land-use patterns and transportation, as required by the state, but also acknowledged that other issues are just as connected. The new plan, said Clementson, is "about equity and connecting people to upward mobility, to jobs, to higher education - it's about truly affordable transportation, and making it safe. It's super important that people feel safe on public transit, and that people feel safe biking and walking. Maybe a lot of the investments that we're talking about don't come through as big, shiny objects, but they are certainly key elements to the quality of life in the region, and some of the things that make this plan transformational."

It is a model of what regional transportation plans should do: it draws a picture of what a great transportation system could be.

How all of this transit expansion and new mobility hubs will be paid for is a big question mark, of course, and it won't be cheap. This plan will be attacked because many of the potential funding sources it lists, as required by federal law to keep the regional plans somewhat grounded in reality, don't exist yet. For example, it lists toll lanes on freeways and a local sales tax, both of which would have to be passed by voters. It also relies on an idea that hasn't been suggested before: a local add-on to a not-yet-in-existence state road user charge.

"Obviously, this is expensive," said Ikhrata. "It's 160 some billion dollars over fifty years. And by the way, the last [regional plan] wasn't cheap either - it was $150 billion. It's a lot of money, no question, and money that we do not have in our back pocket." But, he points out, "the cost of not building the plan is much higher."

SANDAG's job, he said, is to create a tangible, realistic vision and put it out there for the people of San Diego to decide on. "We're not lying to people and saying, 'Oh, this is going to be paid for by the federal and state government.' That's not going to happen."

"Here's the good news: The bottom line is that every single financial revenue source will be dependent on whether the people say 'yay' or 'nay'. It's not me. It's not my staff. It's not the board of directors. It's the people of San Diego" who will decide.

And the people of San Diego will make a choice at each juncture when asked to approve funding. Do they want the status quo of clogged freeways, polluted air, and minimal public transit? Or do they want a city with a really great, equitable, usable transportation system?

"I believe if you put a tangible story with tangible benefits in front of people, they will come around," said Ikhrata.

There will be a lot of discussion in the ensuing years, and "eventually, we're going to ask the people: are you willing to pay for it? Just because we have a road user charge or a sales tax in the plan doesn't mean that automatically it is going to happen. It's the people of San Diego who are going to finally be the final jury of this, not anybody else."

Meanwhile, frontloaded in the plan are near-term improvements that do have some funding, and can start the necessary shift towards better, more sustainable travel in the region. These include bus frequency upgrades for over 2/3 of existing local bus routes, plus new Rapid and local bus routes; the development of a managed lane network - on all major freeways - which would bring in toll revenue as well as speed up transit, further enhancing its efficiency.

And note that the "managed lanes" proposed in the plan are not new or additional freeway lanes - they would convert existing travel lanes to carpool/bus/toll lanes at an unprecedented scale.

Biking, however, doesn't get enough love in the near term. While over a hundred bike projects are listed in the plan, only about ten - mostly filling gaps in existing networks - are planned as near-term projects (by 2025). Longer-term (by 2035), more projects would build out bikeways and a coastal rail trail. However, one of the plan's "Five Big Moves" is Complete Corridors, a policy shift to create programs that make biking easier, such as better bike parking. In other words, to accept riding a bike as a valid transportation mode for many.

Ikhrata and his team will present San Diego Forward to the SANDAG board on December 10.

Will the board approve it?

"It will be a missed opportunity for our leadership if they don't pass it," said Ikhrata, "but they are the final decision maker. I respect that. My team and I did our job and we put it in front of them."

"I'm an optimist," he added. "I believe that this reimagining of the future of transportation in San Diego is good for the region, and I believe our leaders are going to see it that way."

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