The San Diego Association of Governments began a series of workshops this week to roll out its new, revised regional transit plan, dubbed San Diego Forward. The previous plan was scrapped following lawsuits from environmental activists who claimed the plan failed to address state mandates for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Opponents argued that the plan was heavily reliant in its early years on freeway expansion. Improvements to transit systems and to benefit cyclists and pedestrians were some of the last scheduled between implementation and the year 2050. They've pushed instead to prioritize these investments, and to avoid road expansion at all cost, since meeting the state's pollution goals ultimately requires a significant reduction in miles traveled by cars.
The association of governments fought, and lost, the case in both district and appeals court. Still, the matter didn't die until the California Supreme Court refused to hear a second appeal. Now, some of the same activists who fought the first plan are claiming the new one still calls for more pollution rather than less, and accuse others who've jumped on board with the plan of "greenwashing" — providing an air of legitimacy to an environmentally unsound proposal.
"This is all about transportation choices," said plan project manager Phil Trom, opening a Thursday meeting (May 14) at Caltrans headquarters in Old Town. "We're looking at an addition of five new trolley lines, 32 new rapid [bus] services; in North County some new Sprinter [light rail] services, more double-tracking on the Amtrak and Coaster corridor, and new streetcar lines around some of the urban neighborhoods surrounding downtown San Diego."
Trom went on to tout $200 million set aside in the plan for bicycle transit and another $1 billion to be spent purchasing open space in the county's easternmost reaches to mitigate the impact of increased freeway construction. Comparing future plans to those envisioned in the 1990s, the balance of projected development has shrunk: instead of one day covering two-thirds of the county, reliance on increased density is now expected to leave more than half of the county's total land mass — including state and national parkland — undeveloped.
"This plan does meet and exceed our greenhouse gas reduction targets," Trom assured.
A panel presentation included local government representatives and people with business and environmental interests expressing optimism and support for the new plan. However, during the question session that followed, Jack Shu of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation challenged the association of governments’ assertion of exceeding gas-reduction goals.
"It really seems like what SANDAG is saying by predicting a 30 percent decrease in [vehicle miles traveled], with a one-third increase in population, is that total miles traveled is going to remain level," observed Shu, noting this conflicts both with the need to reduce the overall number of car trips and the authority's assertion that more freeway lanes will be needed to handle additional traffic. Under the new plan, many of these freeway expansions are billed as "managed" lanes, similar to the carpool lanes on Interstate 15 that solo drivers can still access by paying a fee.
"The chart [provided by the association of governments and used by Trom to highlight projected pollution cuts] is a per capita reduction — the 30 percent reduction is not a total," admitted a staffer in response, seemingly validating Shu's accusation.
"I'd love to be able to get you out to your camping trip in the Cleveland National Forest on a trolley," quipped Metropolitan Transit System chief of staff Sharon Cooney, responding to Shu's analysis of the MTS system as "the worst in the state."
Cooney also expressed support for more road construction as a means of providing better bus service, which remains the biggest component of the region's mass-transit system. "When we do transit, we've got to think about what gets the biggest bang for the buck."
Other comments from the near-capacity crowd of about 100 attendees also focused on reducing freeway reliance and expanding or hastening investment in mass transit and other car alternatives.
"We already have a lot of mobility choices by freeway — we have a lot of freeways," said Nicole Burgess, an Ocean Beach resident and cycling enthusiast. "It's actually fairly easy to commute by bike — if we put our dollars into the [cycling network proposed as part of the new plan], it would be even easier...$2 billion would build that network of bikeways. That's one percent of the total budget – we could build that in five years and get more people off the roads."
SANDAG will continue hosting workshops and gathering resident feedback on the draft version of the new plan through May 28 before moving forward with a final version.