San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria has long fashioned himself a strong champion of the environment. However, the rising Democratic star now faces a vote that threatens to undermine that narrative.
Over recent weeks, Gloria has rejected a near unanimous call from his environmental base to vote against a massive, roughly $200 billion spending plan that, critics have argued, would undercut local efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emission.
“I believe the needle is moving in the right direction,” Gloria said. “Perhaps put me in the respectfully disagree column.”
The San Diego Regional Association of Governments (SANDAG) 2050 Regional Transportation Plan is expected to receive wide-ranging support when it goes before the agency's 21-member board on Friday, Oct. 9. Along with Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Gloria represents the city of San Diego at the agency.
Environmental groups have demanded Gloria take a symbolic stand against the plan, which they argue will send a strong message to elected officials about the dire consequences of climate change.
“There is a lot to lose [for Gloria] in a yes vote,” said Livia Borak, League of Conservation Voters San Diego board president. “So far the environmentalists have seen him as a champion, especially of climate change, and with this vote, he loses that backing.”
Faulconer, who rarely attends SANDAG meetings, declined to comment for this story.
Updated every four years, the regional transportation plan funds the expansion of freeways, bike lanes, trolley lines and bus routes. Over the last decade, environmental groups have increasingly blasted the plan as shorting public transportation while focusing too heavily on freeway expansion.
A previous incarnation of the plan, which Gloria supported, is currently being challenged in the state Supreme Court for failing to take into consideration state-mandated climate goals.
“The environmental community has given Gloria lots of support,” said Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. “Yet, when the chips are down, he's failing us.”
In response, Gloria pointed out that three out of four dollars in the funding plan go to public transportation over the next five years. That's a significant win, he said, especially given that the SANDAG board includes officials from suburban areas that want major freeway expansion.
“This is politics,” he said. “If you get 75 percent of the pie for your point of view, you're winning right?”
However, seen over a wider timeframe, the Regional Transportation Plan looks significantly less aggressive. Between 2010 and 2020, public transit is slated to receive less than half of all funding; and by 2030, the plan could fall short of state-mandated reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.
Acknowledging some of these concerns, Gloria said the plan would likely be amended over coming years. “What is really valuable about a multi-decade plan are the first couple of years,” he said.
However, with Gloria expected to replace termed-out Assemblymember Toni Akins in the state legislature in 2016, it's unclear who would take up this mantle. Environmentalists see Gloria as providing their only near-term chance to make a political stand.
“It's a fundamental question of do you represent your constituents or do you vote for your own political future?” said Debbie Hecht, Sierra Club San Diego Steering Committee chair.
The Sierra Club gave Gloria an award in 2014 for his shepherding of the city of San Diego's draft Climate Action Plan. However, most recently, activists blasted the Regional Transportation Plan as undermining the city's climate plan.
“It doesn't compute,” said Hecht. “It's a total disconnect. It's almost an about-face and heading in the other way.”
The city's draft climate plan—which calls for running the city's electrical grid completely on renewable energy by 2035—also sets benchmarks for significantly boosting public transit ridership.
The plan calls for 20 percent of residents living within half a mile of public transit to commute without driving by 2020. That goal increases to half of all residents within a half-mile of transit by 2035.
However, given the impacts of the Regional Transportation Plan, the city of San Diego will only get to 13 percent by 2020 and 15 percent by 2035, according to a joint report by Climate Action Campaign and Circulate San Diego that analyzed SANDAG data.
Last week, Climate Action Campaign Executive Director Nicole Capretz publicly blasted Gloria and Faulconer for hypocritically supporting the two seemingly incongruous plans.
“[I]t is mathematically impossible for the city of San Diego to achieve its transit and active transportation goals with the transportation network SANDAG is currently planning,” the joint report found.
Given this setback, Capretz remained cautiously optimistic the Regional Transportation Plan could be amended over coming years to allow the city to meet its climate goals.
“Yes, it's possible, but it's contingent on strong leadership and a willingness [by elected officials] to be a vocal supporter of shifting toward a new transportation paradigm,” she said.
“There is opportunity moving forward for the mayor and Todd to step up and unite and become the leading voices at SANDAG and in the region about what it's going to take to build a world-class transportation system that also reduces our carbon footprint,” she added.
Not willing to write off Gloria, some environmentalists believe he will spearhead a so-called quality-of-life measure for the 2016 ballot to aggressively fund public transportation with a half-cent sales tax. Because the measure would need two-thirds voter support countywide and approval of the SANDAG board, ensuring public transit is prioritized would require significant campaigning.
“It's still very important to keep up the pressure on SANDAG about the inadequacies of the plan in large measure because that same board is going to be considering the adoption of a quality of life measure for 2016, which has the opportunity to fund a whole variety of projects and will have the opportunity to bring in new resources that can fund those same transit and active transportation projects,” said Colin Parent, policy counsel for Circulate San Diego.
SANDAG projects are currently funded with Transnet, a half-cent sales tax with specific requirements, and state and federal funding. Agency officials and board members have routinely pointed to the measure as mandating specific freeway expansions.
While environmentalists have pushed for a more liberal interpretation of Transnet, Gloria has resisted the idea.
“To deviate from that is to violate the public's trust precisely at the time when we may be going to the public to ask for more resources to do more transit,” he said.
Before the city of San Diego faces climate reduction benchmarks in 2020, both Gloria and Faulconer will have moved on from their current positions. Whether it makes political sense for either politician to fight aggressively for climate change goals is unclear, especially given that much of that work would need to be done at a relatively obscure transportation agency.
However, many in the environmental community told CityBeat that Gloria has fought hard behind the scenes to curb freeway expansion and push for increased investments in public transportation. It's his reluctance to take a hard public stand on such issues that has disappointed those same advocates.
“He has the capabilities of a great leader,” said Hecht of the Sierra Club. “You expect great leaders to buck the flow sometimes and take a hard stand on things, and maybe it just takes one person to stand up.”