By Miriam Raftery
August 30, 2019 (La Mesa) The future of transportation has sparked debate across our region. SANDAG and MTS are both moving forward on goals to boost transit access with options such as better trolley and bus service with high-speed rail as a long range option.
But what about reducing traffic gridlock and meeting transportation needs of residents in areas that currently lack adequate transit options? Should building massive housnig projects in the backcountry that add to traffic gridlock be curtailed?
Recently, East County Magazine’s radio show interviewed La Mesa Councilmembers and attorneys Colin Parent and Kristine Alessio on transit issues. Parent is director of Circulate San Diego and Alessio is the Vice Chair of SANDAG’s regional planning committee.
Click here to hear our full interview, originally aired on KNSJ radio, and scroll down for highlights.
SANDAG recently hired a new executive director and has set 5 big goals aimed at boosting transit. The nonprofit Circulate San Diego similarly works to make transit a more viable option for people than driving.
The new SANDAG director is pushing high speed rail, a goal Alessio says is “not realistic to all parts of the county and it’s very costly.” She sees a need for other options to get people out of cars and into transit.
There’s also an issue of existing gridlock on freeways such as State Route 52, I-8 and 94.
Parent see three factors to be addressed.
One is the update to a regional transportation plan pushed by the new SANDAG director. Prioritizing transit is a positive, he notes thought there is debate on what type.
Second is a proposal to reallocate part of the funds from a half-cent transit tax called TRANSNET to spend on transit instead of freeways. There has been a lot of “push back” from East County and North County officials, says Parent, but there’s not enough money already for those projects. “There’s no mathematical way to pay for all the highway improvements through Transnet,” he says. “It’s not on the table to build all the highways in Transnet. There’s just not enough money.
Third is Metropolitan Transit System is looking at a ballot measure to fund mostly transit expansions in our region.
Alessio says SANDAG is floating a one cent sales tax increase. To make it equitable for all people in the county could mean adding a managed lane to 52 and “definitely” increase safety on 67, as well as potentially some money into 94, she says. “The overall goal is greenhouse gas emissions (GHG),” she notes, and that has to be achieved.
Parent says this would not be earlier than 2022, but Parent is skeptical it would happen at all.
More likely short term is an MTS transit half-cent measure to fund certain projects in SANDAG’s plans. Asked how that might benefit East County, he says “Google `Elevate 2020’” and “provide some input.” Options might include increased frequency to existing trolley lines, building extensions to trolley lines – perhaps cutting wait times down from 15 minutes to 7 minutes. Increasing frequencies is “actually the cheapest way to increase transit,” he says.
Parent says SANDAG is looking at long-term strategies but he want to see immediate needs addressed.
MTS is also looking to connect the trolley to the airport, he adds, as well as improving bus service to have higher frequencies and dedicated right of ways.
TRANSNET is “functionally out of money,” she says, so to build anything – a roadway or new trolley line – will take new money from somewhere,” which is why MTS is proposing a separate plan.
Alessio says SANDAG may unveil a new regional transportation plan in November, prioritizing high speed projects. She wants to see more work on it, adding “I do think you need to add in there some highway projects. In La Mesa, we’ve been promised a Highway 94/ State Route 125 interchange for years.”
She says community groups are starting to come to SANDAG meetings, such as the Grossmont Mt. Helix Improvement Association.
Her biggest concern with SANDAG’s regional is, “How will you pay for this and is it an effective use of money?”
Another issue is evacuation routes; highway 94 is worse than Paradise – in the worst 1% statewide, and highway 6 is also deemed dangerous.
“We should be really skeptical about putting more and more people in areas farther from where they want to go,” Parent says of major housing projects in rural high-fire areas.
Alessio agrees, and says building close to urban areas also helps reduce evacuation problems as wildfire dangers grow, “leaving the open areas open. I cannot agree more with that idea.”
Parent’s ideal transportation plan for our region would be prioritizing improved frequency and service where there’s an existing demand, which could be done with modest cost to increase trolley and bus service – all far cheaper than high speed or light rail lines. These could be done “right away” without environmental review. Second he would identify job centers not adequately served and create new transit lines to serve areas such as Kearny Mesa and Sorrento Valley.
Alessio’s ideal plan would include necessary highway improvements like the 125/94 proposal as well as elements of Parent’s plan such as frequency to recognize the diversity of the county and what people are looking for. She would also tie this all into homebuilding and growth patterns. “You can widen freeways as much as you want and if you keep building out there you will increase gridlock.” Tying transportation to land use is “imperative” she says, allowing those in areas without adequate transit to use cars, while improving transit for urban areas.
“Both Colin and I are not anti-development, but we are definitely pro development in the right places.”
Parent says sprawl development can be attractive to some for affordability, ie getting a house with yard for a family. If we embrace that, he says, we also have to embrace infill development and avoid the not-in-my backyard attitude. “I’m a big believer that we have to approve more housing, and we have to be willing to say yes to good projects. That means we have to say yes to infill projects near transit.”
Alessio notes that as baby boomers age, more existing homes will come on the market for families. Cities are also moving toward approving granny flats, as alternative to building in areas without infrastructure.
She says it’s important for listeners to be part of the process via Elevate 2020 or going to local planning meetings, contacting elected officials, attending MTS and SANDAG meetings, or your local council meetings to let officials know “what your vision is.”
Parent says “It’s going to take elected officials to make the right choices, and citizens pressuring elected officials to make the right choices,” to “improve transportation for everybody.”