As Trump Nixes California High Speed Rail Money, San Diego Considers Mass Transit Plan
Top Image Credit: San Diego Association of Governments

Top Image Credit: San Diego Association of Governments

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On May 16, President Donald Trump announced a removal of the roughly $1 billion in funding allocated for California in its quest to build the nation’s first true high-speed rail line.

Trump’s decision to pull the funding came after Governor Gavin Newsom said he would put building the line on hiatus during his February State of the State Address. The regulatory process for building it has dragged on for years, marred by cost overruns. Newsom irked Trump when, in his address, said that California would still keep the $3.5 billion in money it had obtained in a bipartisan budget bill during the Obama era as part of the economic recovery stimulus package. Newsom said the state will use it to build a shorter line, for now, between the more rural central California cities of Bakersfield and Merced.

“I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump,” Newsom said in his address.

Trump used the comment to typically, critique green initiatives.

“California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!,” Trump tweeted.

Newsom responded back, “We’re building high-speed rail, connecting the Central Valley and beyond…This is CA’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back.”

Eventually, Trump officially pulled $928 million from California’s coffers for the project.

California has since responded, in turn, by filing a federal lawsuit against the Trump Administration to recoup the money. If built, the line would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and then eventually from Sacramento to San Diego.

“The high-speed rail project, the first of its kind in United States history, is a critical part of California’s long-term strategic planning, not only to address critical transportation needs, but also greenhouse gas emissions and climate change,” wrote the state in its complaint. “FRA’s sudden decision to terminate the grant in violation of its own procedures and policies was arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law, and threatens to wreak significant economic damage on the Central Valley and the State.”

A draft of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee’s Transportation-Housing and Urban Development Funding bill for 2020 also says that, until the federal litigation is resolved, “none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to terminate [the grant money].”

But while that court case begins and the battle over high-speed rail spanning the state of California plays out nationally, the county at the southernmost end of that prospective line, San Diego, has launched its own countywide high-speed rail proposal. If it goes from proposal to reality, project proponents say that the San Diego County plan could revolutionize the area’s transportation grid and serve as a national model for urban planning rooted in public mass transit as a means of tackling the climate crisis.

One of the things that makes the proposal notable is that San Diego County, with a population of over 3.3 million—the fifth most populous in the United States—has a historic reputation for its conservative politics as a major U.S. military training hub. The city has a Republican Mayor and many of its suburbs and rural areas have Republican ones too. And its County Board of Supervisors maintains a 4-1 Republican majority.

Simultaneously, a veto-proof 6-3 Democratic supermajority has taken over the San Diego City Council as a result of the 2018 election cycle and some of its historically conservative Republican areas have flipped Democratic in recent years. It is a sign that the political tide may be shifting in the county, though the still existing divides have shined through in the early days of the roll-out of the mass transit proposal.

Part of that divide is owed to San Diego County’s car-centric culture. The American Lung Association recently ranked it sixth in the country for the highest level of ozone, a greenhouse gas emitted from gasoline-powered cars, in the atmosphere. The county, particularly during rush hour, is notorious for having heavy traffic levels.

California as a whole’s greenhouse gases from transportation-related emissions amount to 41 percent of the state’s inventory, according to the California Air Resources Board.

“Look What San Diego Did”

The San Diego County Plan released by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) on April 26 is part of a broader package called “San Diego Forward: The 2021 Regional Plan.” It revolves around connecting the rural and suburban parts of the county with the urban core via an integrated rapid mass transit system.

The plan lists “5 Big Moves”: complete corridors (defined as the interconnection of “transit, cars, bikes, pedestrians, and commercial vehicles” into one system), transit leap (explained as a hypermodern upgrade to the transit system and a “transition to electric or alternative fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”), mobility hubs (spelled out as placing transit centers “in the heart of the communities where people live, work, and play”), flexible fleets (pointed to as a combination of transit options at all hubs, such as rent-sharing electric vehicles, bikes, scooters, and eventually driverless vehicles all of which “will use a mobile app where users can plan, book, and pay for all their transportation services in one place”), and next OS (this operating system, says SANDAG, will be the “brain” of the operations and provide users and administrators real-time data “to orchestrate more efficient movement of people and goods”).

SANDAG’s Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata, has said that the climate crisis will be at the center of all of his transit policy proposals. He said he envisions San Diego’s mass transit system serving as a national model.

“This region deserves a great vision to have a state-of-the-art, unmatched transportation system that the rest of the world will say ‘Look what San Diego did,’” Ikhrata said in September.

Ikhrata has a long track record of pushing for bolstering mass transit in Southern California. He began the SANDAG job in September by way of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), an agency he ran as the CEO for over a decade. SCAG oversees transportation policy planning for six of the 10 counties in the southern half of the state, including Imperial County, Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, and Ventura County.

While running SCAG, Ikhrata rolled out its  2016-2040 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy, which in many ways mirrors SANDAG’s “5 Big Moves” in its climate change-centric view of developing mass transit.

“[W]e can choose to build new sprawling communities that pave over undeveloped natural lands, necessitating the construction of new roads and highways—which will undoubtedly become quickly overcrowded and contribute to regional air pollution and ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change,” reads that report. “Or, we can grow in more compact communities in existing urban areas, providing neighborhoods with efficient and plentiful public transit, abundant and safe opportunities to walk, bike and pursue other forms of active transportation, and preserving more of the region’s remaining natural lands for people to enjoy.”

We were live at our 2021 Regional Plan press conference to give you a firsthand look at our bold new transportation vision for the San Diego region and the 5 Big Moves that will help make it a reality. ‪‬ #SDForward #5BigMovesMetropolitan Transit System Caltrans District 11 North County Transit District (NCTD)

Posted by SANDAG – San Diego Association of Governments on Friday, 26 April 2019

The “Big 5 Moves” fit within a similar conversation sparked by SB 50, the recently-shelved 2019 bill that attempted to make an intersectional policy link between transit planning, the affordable housing crisis and the impacts of the climate crisis.

In an attempt to gauge where people work in relationship to where they live in the county, SANDAG has dug into and published employment centers data. It maps out where the jobs centers are in the county, alongside the mean number of miles people drive to and from work in those areas, their mode of transportation, number of employees in those respective districts, among many other things.

This data “constitutes the basis” for the broader mass transit plan, Ikhrata said at a June 7 SANDAG meeting.

“This data that we are bringing in is going to be even more important as we move into the 5 Big Moves and what each one of them means based on this data,” said Ikhrata. “This is all going to lead into what kind of future transportation system we’re going to move forward with.”

The San Diego County Plan would connect modes of transportation such as high-speed rail, dedicated bicycle lanes, on-demand electric vehicles at key transit hubs and a broader electrification of the public transit grid. Transportation planners call it a “complete corridor.”

And SANDAG has explained that climate change, and the prospective impacts of the climate crisis, serve as the impetus for the plan’s rollout.

“Ensuring our region is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and prepared for a changing climate is an important part of San Diego Forward: The Regional Plan,” says SANDAG. “Building resiliency to a changing climate will help us reduce the risks that come with extreme heat and sea level rise, as well as higher storm surges, wildfires, and mudslides. Policies within the Plan will consider ways to curtail our greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use and prepare for climate change.”

Transportation Fails Climate Goals

A 2018 report, “California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act” published by the state government motivated SANDAG’s policy proposal.

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That report, written by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), concluded that the state has fallen short of meeting its mandated climate goals for the transportation sector. It named several factors why, including spending far more money on building roads than on public transit.

“[T]he portion of commuters driving alone to work instead of carpooling, taking transit, walking or cycling is rising in almost every region,” reads the report. “The supply of housing in many regions is a small fraction of the need, particularly homes affordable to low-income communities, which is contributing to lengthening commutes. The overall ratio of dollars planned to be spent on roads versus on infrastructure for other modes in the largest regions of California has shown remarkably little shift.”

It also said that “emissions from statewide passenger vehicle travel per capita [is] increasing and going in the wrong direction” as it relates to meeting state climate goals in the transportation arena. SANDAG Executive Director Ikhrata has said that his goal is to get the county’s transportation grid to “net-zero” for greenhouse gas emissions in response to the data published by CARB.

“I think we need to do more to curb the vehicle miles traveled,” he told San Diego’s public radio and television station, KPBS. “We have to be sustainable, environmentally and financially, into the future. And we’re going to factor in greenhouse gas emissions.”

San Diego County does have some public transportation, but it is not a robust or interconnected system. Ikhrata has even called San Diego County’s transportation system a “good” one, but in need of a vast overhaul to meet the scale of the climate crisis by offering something “as convenient if not more convenient than driving.”

According to survey data recently published by SANDAG, 19.4 percent of the over 4,300 San Diego County individuals polled said they would take an alternative commuting option if more convenient than the status quo option. Another 16.7 percent said they would do so if it were the fastest option, while 69-percent of people polled said they would use mass transit at least once per week under the right circumstances.

Image Credit: San Diego Association of Governments
Image Credit: San Diego Association of Governments

Political Divide

Politically, San Diego County is represented predominantly by conservative local leaders, creating a divide among the five members of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors who are also SANDAG members. Conservative members say they would rather see more funding go towards expanding and widening highways. Their counterparts, by contrast, see the goals of mass transit as important for reducing traffic and meeting the county’s state-mandated climate goals.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the only Democrat out of the five members who sit on the body, said he supports the plan under the banner of climate change action. “It doesn’t make sense to go back decades to find failed policies that we know are not going to achieve the outcomes that we need,” he told KPBS.

Yet outside the bounds of the County Board, the proposal has also gained momentum due to the support of a prominent Republican, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

“[It is] a real way to look at how we do things differently, how we bring this region together,” said Faulconer at a press conference launching the plan. “Transit options that can work, be convenient, and have the benefit of all of us in the region to address our climate action goals.”

In his second and final term due to term limits, Faulconer sits as Mayor in a city government which is governed by a 6-3 majority for the Democratic Party, with the Democrats winning an additional seat in the 2018 election cycle. Now having a supermajority, it means they can override any veto Faulconer proposes.

In contrast to Faulconer, among those spearheading the efforts against the transit system is Kristin Gaspar, a Republican member of the San Diego Board of Supervisors. Up for reelection in 2020 after having unsuccessfully run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 by tying herself to President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, Gaspar has made a national name for herself as a frequent guest on Fox News.

Gaspar says that SANDAG has yet to deliver upon the will of the voters, who in 2004 voted in favor of Proposition A. That ballot measure called for the continuance of a half-cent increase in the sales tax through the year 2048 as a means of improving the county’s roads and highways. It did so by extending the lifetime of a program called TransNet (San Diego Transportation Improvement Program), which was created in 1987 and was set to expire in 2008.

And though SANDAG created a list of TransNet-funded priority projects, including a key east-to-west highway in Gaspar’s district, the tax revenue generated under Proposition A so far is not enough to fund even close to all of the projects on the list because SANDAG over-promised what it could do with the money it actually had in the bank.

“San Diegans have lost faith in SANDAG. They can’t be trusted to follow through with their promises to voters,” Gaspar said at a May 6 press conference in opposition to the plan. “In 2004, 67% of voters said they were collectively willing to take on a higher tax burden for the next 40 years in exchange for much needed highway improvements. Fast forward to 2019, SANDAG has a new idea on how they want to spend that money.”

And so just days after SANDAG released its proposal, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2—in a symbolic resolution—against the proposal.

The two front-running Democratic challengers running against Gaspar for the District 3 County Supervisor seat told The Real News that they see her actions as political theatre. They say that is the case because Ikhrata already acknowledged months ago that the previous SANDAG leadership sold the public a false bag of goods about what the money in its bank account could actually buy them.

“What essentially the 5 Big Moves are proposing to do is connect segments of transit that are not connected,” said Olga Diaz, a member of the Escondido City Council, in response to the question posed at a May 9 Democratic candidate debate. “Is it expensive? Yes it is, but so is building roads, so is subsidizing fossil fuels. There’s an expense to everything.”

Diaz’s opponent in the race, Terra Lawson-Remer—who formerly served in President Barack Obama’s U.S. Department of the Treasury—said she believes Gaspar’s actions are driven by a desire to do “political grandstanding.” Lawson-Remer said she believes Gaspar has the goal to “divide and deceive” the electorate.

“There’s no reason that we need to pit freeways against transit,” she said. “We’re going to have solutions that invest in what we need today, but really invest in what we need for the long-term and where we need to go tomorrow in investing in mass transit.“

The conservative opposition to the SANDAG proposal has moved beyond mere “grandstanding,” however. Republican Party operative and radio host, as well as former San Diego City Council member Carl DeMaio, has threatened to launch recall electoral campaigns via his political advocacy group Reform California against SANDAG Board of Directors members who come out in support of the proposal.

Three northern San Diego County city councils with conservative majorities—Vista, San Marcos and Poway—have also come out against the proposal. All three of those cities sit along a heavily-trafficked state highway segment which has yet to receive Proposition A financing.

Ikhrata, beyond acknowledging past SANDAG false promises about TransNet funding, also has gone beyond mere budgetary talk. He also slammed the idea of relying exclusively on a highway system-centric transportation system in the age of the climate crisis.

“I can tell you right now, our plan doesn’t go anywhere near meeting the mandates,” Ikhrata told the outlet Voice of San Diego. “The county, by saying, ‘We’re going to tell SANDAG to keep expanding (freeways),’ they’re telling ‘Don’t meet the mandates. Don’t meet the law of the land, because it’s not important, and greenhouse gas emissions are not important.’”

“One Shot”

Given the scope and ambition inherent in the “5 Big Moves,” its many moving parts will take time to move through the regulatory and public hearings process. SANDAG says it would like a final plan to be in place by 2021. Before then, the roll-out will be broken into two main phases.

The first phase will involve SANDAG putting all of its cards on the table, publishing a plan which casts aside financial considerations and only involves an ideal-world scenario for a transit system in which money and resources are infinite. SANDAG has called that its “Unconstrained Transportation Network” plan and will come out by the end of 2019.

SANDAG will then take that idealized plan and run it through lists of performance measure questionnaires it has developed to gauge effectiveness of proposal from multiple vantage points. Those include examining if it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and smog, if it makes it easier for people to get to and from their workplace, if it reduces travel time to and from the U.S.-Mexico border and tribal lands, among other criteria. Based on the responses to these questions, projects will be triaged and prioritized.

SANDAG will then produce a smaller subset of solutions called its “Revenue Constrained Transportation Networks” and field public comments about them, while doing its own review. As a final step, the Board of Directors will select one of them for inclusion as a final proposal toward the end of 2021.

According to a fact sheet published by the agency, environmental justice-oriented consultations will be a central component of the plan’s roll out, as well.

“SANDAG is partnering with a regionwide network of 12 community based organizations to engage low-income, minority, senior, and disabled populations in the planning process,” it explained. “A tribal consultation process is being implemented with the support of the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association to ensure the region’s 17 tribal nations are included.”

The Climate Action Campaign of San Diego, a group which has also called for the City of San Diego to implement a Green New Deal, has lauded SANDAG for beginning the conversation to create a “world-class transit system to the San Diego region.”

“This is a huge moment for the region – past inaction on the climate crisis has left us with no time to spare, and we have one shot to get this right,” the organization said on Twitter.

Sophie Wolfram, Director of Programs for the group, also told The Real News that she believes the Trump Administration pulling federal funding from the state for high-speed rail \points to the importance of metropolitan-level climate action in places such as San Diego County.

“SANDAG’s acknowledgement that our region must shift course comes as the Trump administration buries its head ever deeper into the sand,” said Wolfram. “The repeated attacks on California’s efforts to deliver a clean, modern transportation system make it all the more evident that achieving emissions reductions, clean air, and healthy communities depends on a willingness to prioritize those outcomes at the regional level.”

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.