Amid controversy and after much debate, the Board of Directors of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), San Diego County's regional planning agency, voted unanimously Friday to approve a $14 billion transportation plan, pending last-minute review by the county's city councils. A final vote is scheduled for May 28, allowing for public comment until May 14.
The so-called TransNet Extension ordinance would put on the ballot a measure asking voters to push forward an existing half-percent sales tax, which expires in 2008, another 40 years. It requires two-thirds voter approval in November for passage.
The plan divides the tax revenues among highways, local roads and public transit. But some critics charge that the TransNet funds are being siphoned away from their original intent of funding regional transit, thereby allowing local politicians to avoid raising taxes for road and highway projects.
The SANDAG board abruptly voted March 9 to change the plan from raising $9.5 billion over 30 years to $14 billion over 40 years. Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of San Diego County Board of Supervisors, lobbied for the change because she wanted more money for local road projects.
Former State Sen. James R. Mills, who led the campaign to create the half-percent tax in 1987, said he thinks SANDAG needs to focus the funds in support of regional public transit.
"It should be done for very many reasons, partly for all the people who are dependent on transit, which includes people who don't have enough money to own cars and people who are blind and can't drive, people who have epilepsy and other disorders," he said. "We should make transit so attractive and reasonable that people will leave their cars at home."
A new group, San Diego Transit Riders United (SDTRU), announced its formation last week in response to the TransNet proposal and what its members believe are growing inadequacies in transit funding.
"Politicians like to cut ribbons," said Paul Blackburn, SDTRU's executive director. "They don't get to cut ribbons when they make a bus better."
Bus fare in San Diego is currently $2.25, which is high, said Blackburn. But seats are gray with dirt, and the vehicles are packed with people, he said.
Blackburn is hoping to rally organizations with transit-dependent constituents, like low-income citizens, the disabled and senior citizens, as well as student advocacy groups, since school buses are increasingly being replaced by city buses.
Since there's no telling which areas of transit the money will benefit, Blackburn fears projects will be aimed at improvements for those able to contribute to political campaigns rather than those who need it. North County Transit District (NCTD) signed a contract last month committing more than $50 million for 12 sleek light rail vehicles to transport passengers through North County in style.
"There is a clear gap here," Blackburn said. He alluded to a bus riders' victory over the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority in 2002 when the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that funding of new rail routes and neglect to urban bus routes disproportionately benefited white people.
SANDAG board Chairman Ron Morrison countered that the TransNet plan is set up much the same way as the 1987 original, which he said also allocated one-third each to roads, highways and transit. This time, he said, it's one-third for highways and the other two-thirds for congestion management. "All of the projects in there, you could label transit projects or you could label them road projects," he said. For instance, implementing the Bus Rapid Transit plan requires good streets, he said. There will also be money for managed lanes that change direction to adjust to the flow of traffic, he said. "First in the U.S. to do this."
And local money is restricted by a proposed competitive-funding plan, he said, so the communities must first present a good smart-growth plan before receiving funds.
At Friday's SANDAG meeting, Imperial Beach City Councilmember Patricia McCoy said mass transit in 30 or 40 years is going to be key in maintaining San Diego's status as a first-class community. "It's tainted money that t'aint enough," she said. "We are not looking honestly at mass transit; it's not attractive and we're not making it attractive."
Lynne Baker of the Endangered Habitats League and Smart Growth committee hopes to convince SANDAG to think ahead to projected population growth. "Instead of adding a million more people to our roads," she said, "we create this transit system and these vibrant walkable village communities, where people can have better personal health and more time for their families because they're not on the freeways."
Freeways don't relieve traffic congestion; they create it, Mills said. "If you were taking a vacation, would you rather go to Los Angeles, which depends so much on automobiles, or Paris, where people depend upon public transportation?" he said. "Now would you rather have San Diego become more like Los Angeles, which is what happens when you build more roads, or more like Paris, which is what happens when you put more money into transit?"