Alan Hoffman dreams about transit systems—about Quickways, T-ways, V-ways and Super Stations. They're all components of what's been dubbed the FAST Plan (“Financially Achievable, Saves Time”), a blueprint for a massive overhaul of the San Diego region's public-transit system.
Hoffman, a transportation consultant for the San Diego-based Mission Group, has been working on FAST for the last four years. On a recent morning at a Normal Heights coffeehouse, he took a reporter through the most recent version of the plan.
“Every time I drive around San Diego, I see this—I see it built, I see what it looks like, I see how it operates,” Hoffman said. “I always see the mistakes I made—I see how I can improve it.”
Where some folks see an empty lot, he sees a future transit station; he may be driving on Uptown's Fifth Avenue, but he's thinking about the transit way that might one day run under the road.
FAST is being peddled by Move San Diego, a nonprofit that started in 2004 as a partnership between environmentalists and developers who had a shared goal of advocating for alternatives to road and freeway expansion. FAST is just that—it's so alternative that there's no model in the U.S. that Hoffman can point to. His closest example is Brisbane, Australia, where transit planners took the traditional concept of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)—a system where buses have their own operating lanes—and turned it into something that, infrastructure-wise, resembles a blend of subway and light-rail systems: In Brisbane's system, transit vehicles (comfortable, clean-fuel-burning buses) run through dedicated tunnels, on flyovers and alongside existing arteries in a system built to move people as quickly as possible (hence Hoffman's term “Quickways” to describe the main component of the FAST plan). Riders board, transfer and exit at a mix of traditional stops, stations and “Super Stations,” the latter having rider-friendly amenities like restrooms and food shops. In addition to a bus system, the FAST plan incorporates and builds on San Diego's existing light-rail lines and adds a Downtown streetcar line.
Hoffman's, and Move San Diego's, argument is that while San Diego's been innovative with public transit in the past—it was the first U.S. city to build a modern light-rail system (the trolley)—public transportation is failing to attract “choice” riders, people who can choose to take public transit but opt not to because of cost or inefficiencies.
“I remember the Union-Tribune editorializing about how perfect [Mission Valley] was for transit,” Hoffman pointed out. “The thinking was, We'll run a trolley line down the middle. But you've got a river running through it, so not all that area is actually accessible and the trolley stops are on the other side of the river, located about everywhere except for walking distance from [workplaces].
“So, we spent three quarters of a billion dollars to extend the light rail to Mission Valley,” Hoffman said, “and it's a parking shuttle.”
Hoffman emphasizes that the San Diego region, especially the urban core, needs a system rather than a set of projects that don't necessarily link up.
“All we need to do is look at Los Angeles to see what happens if you treat transit as a set of trophy projects that don't, together, a system make,” he said.
The FAST plan has yet to be formally presented to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the region's transportation-planning agency, but there are two opportunities pushing the plan forward. SANDAG, like other planning agencies in the state, is required by law to come up with a transportation plan that gets cars off the road as part of a statewide effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. And, in June, as part of a legal settlement with environmental groups, SANDAG is hiring a consultant to review its plan for public transportation in San Diego's urban core. (The environmentalists successfully argued that SANDAG's regional transportation plan was lacking when it came to public transit.) SANDAG executive director Gary Gallegos said the consultant has been asked to review all options—the FAST plan among them—and come up with four alternatives schemes. All this has to happen by 2011.
Hoffman has come up with a conservative estimate of what FAST might cost to implement. Leaving out the North County portion, which is still being worked on, he thinks it could be done for around $8.3 billion, which is a little more than half of what SANDAG plans to spend on public transit (both operating and capital costs) over the next 30 years. Hoffman points out that Brisbane's public-transportation system has seen ridership increase to the point where fares almost cover the system's cost. San Diego's public-transportation system, like with most U.S. cities, relies heavily on government subsidies, with fares covering only about one-third of costs. And in February, the state, despite its mandates for environment-friendly transportation, cut public transit's main funding source for the next five years.Still, Hoffman doesn't hold hope that the SANDAG board, comprising elected officials and representatives from public agencies, will be where the FAST plan gets its support.
“The impetus cannot and will not come from within agencies or from, necessarily, the board of directors as it currently stands,” he said. “This plan will only be adopted when the leadership in this community, in whatever sphere, decides that it's going to happen.”
Move San Diego already carries some clout, with a board of directors that includes heads of some of the region's biggest developers and employers, like Sudberry Properties, Black Mountain Ranch, Westfield (shopping malls) and Amilyn Pharmaceuticals. But it's also won the backing of the four-decades-old smart-growth organization Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, a behind-the-scenes group of planners, architects and environmentalists who don't dole out endorsements lightly. Howard Blackson, C3's past president, described the FAST plan as “sophisticated” and said that C3 members were impressed with the way FAST took into account the travel patterns of San Diego's workforce.
“Linking the appropriately scaled transit system to places where people work and live is unique to San Diego transit planning,” he pointed out.
In December, Move San Diego hired Elyse Lowe to be FAST's public face. Poised, yet assertive, Lowe, who's 35, sported a pair of stylish turquoise and green eyeglass frames and a silver vintage-cut jacket at a recent SANDAG meeting. “I'll be calling each one of you individually,” she told board members.
“I'm working on trying to get some simulations of what our plan will look like,” she said. “That's something I want to take out to the public and say, ‘Look, we are planning long-term; we want to make transit rapid in your neighborhood. This is what it will look like. Is this something you guys would be supportive of?'
“I want to get the creative and design community engaged in this,” she added. “When people from all sectors from the welfare warriors to the architects to the business community, when they all start agreeing on things, that's when change is going to happen.”
Blackson said something like the FAST plan has a chance if it's framed properly in public discourse. He points to water reclamation—dubbed “toilet to tap” by its opponents, as an example of a good idea almost killed by skewed public perception.
“If the plan gets framed irrationally at the beginning, such as the deadly ‘toilet to tap,' its chances are slim,” he said. “I say this because too many San Diegans still believe transit is a wasteful government subsidy while highway building is a necessary investment.” Comments? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.