In San Diego, redefining sustainability for a cleaner, safer, and more affordable future

Ryan Wiggins Headshot

“Sustainability means simultaneously meeting our current economic, environmental, and community needs, while also ensuring that we are not jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Those are the very first words of San Diego Forward, the San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), adopted in October.

SANDAG was right to put sustainability first in its $200 billion, thirty-five-year transportation plan. But while the region has made some progress towards protecting open space and investing in public transit, the RTP doesn’t do nearly enough to put the region on track for a truly sustainable future.

Yes, there are a few good things in the latest RTP update: it will eventually increase trolley frequencies so they will arrive every seven minutes (up from the current 15 minute intervals), it continues good programs like Safe Routes to Schools, and looks to expand its successful vanpooling initiative.

Unfortunately, overall the RTP falls pretty flat. Leading up to the adoption of the  plan, it was touted as a major step forward, with 75 percent of the plan going to public transportation over the next five years.  But a deeper look at the plan finds that in reality the funding breakdown will be 50/50 – and that’s simply not good enough.  SANDAG needs to make a fundamental shift to achieve a truly sustainable, affordable future for all San Diegans.

SANDAG's public transit investments: too little, too late

The fundamental problem is that this plan is too focused on highway expansion first, with most public transportation projects years and even decades away.

TransForm understands the difficulty that SANDAG faces in prioritizing public transit and active transportation after decades of over-investment in roads. That’s because SANDAG has tied regional transportation funding to a ballot measure that was crafted on the basis of politics rather than sustainability.

Last year, we made suggestions for how to align the funding with the region’s needs, but despite broad support, SANDAG chose to plow forward with an outdated plan.

So now the people of San Diego are left wondering: will SANDAG’s investments do enough to reduce carbon emissions? And will people of all incomes have access to these economic opportunities and healthy communities?

The answer SANDAG provides – even with its $200 billion in projects from its RTP – is not encouraging. SANDAG has a robust set of performance metrics that look at a wide range of variables such as access to jobs, housing, and destinations via car, transit, and bicycle. They also break down access by income and minority groups.

But these metrics paint a picture of a region both now and in 2050 that is heavily dependent on passenger vehicles. SANDAG’s own data predict that most people will face limited and inefficient public transportation service and communities unsafe for walking and biking. And finally there’s the challenge of climate change. After meeting its SB 375 greenhouse gas reduction goals through 2035, emissions begin rising again through 2050. These are not the results we should expect or need from the enormity of this investment.

TransForm, our allies, and many other groups in the region pushed for accelerating a significant number of public transportation, biking and walking projects. Several months ago, TransForm and Circulate San Diego partnered to produce a report that outlined how SANDAG clearly has the funding and flexibility needed to accelerate such projects – flexibility that SANDAG failed to capitalize on in this RTP.

Looking forward

Given the missed opportunities in this RTP, it will be critical for SANDAG to rededicate itself to policies and funding commitments to result in a sustainable region. 

First, SANDAG should raise new funds that allow the region to aggressively invest in public transportation, walking, and biking.  The Quality of Life sales tax measure that SANDAG is considering provides an opportunity for the region to raise a significant amount of revenue for investing in transit, biking, and walking projects. Unfortunately, the RTP already includes the estimated revenue from a new sales tax measure so this new money is already baked into a plan that falls short. A sales tax measure that more aggressively invests in these projects early, often, and throughout the RTP is needed to move the region to sustainability.

Second, SANDAG should implement innovative policies that will make the region more competitive for new revenue sources such as cap-and-trade. Cap-and-trade alone is likely to generate as much as $5 billion annually by 2020, and a significant portion of this revenue (35%), is slated to go to public transit and affordable housing near transit.

Crafting and implementing a strong Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policy is an example of one of the initiatives that SANDAG should take on to attract this public funding, as well as funding from the private sector. The current TOD policy that was drafted for inclusion in the RTP is not strong enough to truly motivate jurisdictions to plan for and implement TOD.

As one of the four major metropolitan areas in the state that collectively account for over 80% of the population, it is imperative that SANDAG reorient its priorities. Without a sustainable SANDAG, it will be extremely difficult to achieve sustainability in the state and build a more inclusive and prosperous future.  The combination of more funding for the right projects and better policies are important and necessary ingredients to achieve this. 

Read TransForm’s comment letter to SANDAG for more details on the RTP’s shortcomings, and our proposed policy solutions.

FeedBlog Signup

About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.