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The Riehl World: Widening Freeways No Solution

By Richard Riehl

Last week I received a letter from Carl DeMaio, Chairman of Reform California, a 527 political action committee. The letter had the headline: “ALERT: New “Congestion Tax” Proposed for San Marcos Drivers.

After ignoring the folksy, “Dear Richard” salutation and “Sincerely, Carl,” signoff from a man I’ve never met, I took a closer look. He claimed, “a cabal of City of San Diego politicians and lobbyists” are about to “steal our road improvement funds” and impose new taxes to pay for more buses and bike lanes. He invited me to sign a petition to stop the “raid of our road repair funds.”

Alarmed by Carl’s warning (we are on a first name basis now), I followed his link to his Fix San Diego Roads website, but found not a word about this secret gang of politically connected San Diego power brokers and what they were up to, just a petition to sign.

Having been misled a few years ago into signing a petition to save Carlsbad’s Strawberry Fields, later to find it was to allow a developer to open a megamall on the shore of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, I decided to investigate my friend Carl’s claims.

According to Webster, a cabal is a secret group engaged in a plot to serve their own interests. Who belonged to this cabal, plotting to deprive small-town San Marcos commuters a more pleasant ride to the big city?

I Googled, “Who is responsible for planning roads and highways in San Diego County?” and found the secret group! They call themselves, “SANDAG,” an acronym for San Diego Association of Governments.

And what are the names of these, “big city politicians who (sic) you don’t even get to vote for”? The Chair of SANDAG’S Board of Directors is Poway Mayor Steve Vaus. Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear is Vice Chair. Our own San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, is a board member. All 18 cities in San Diego County are equally represented by their elected officials, not a cabal of unelected politicians and lobbyists.

Although my pal Carl got that wrong, is SANDAG planning to “steal” our road improvement funds? Here’s what Vice Chair and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear wrote about that in her June 2nd letter to constituents.

Behind the Controversy Over SANDAG’S Transportation Plan


“SANDAG prepares a plan every four years that looks ahead 50 years and asks, “How do we want our transportation network to look in the next half century?” It’s essential that this future vision reflects what we, as citizens, want. If a project is not on the plan, it doesn’t get built.

Plus, the plan has to meet state requirements. That means we have to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases resulting from everyday travel around the county. This state regulation requires every county to do its part to combat climate change.

And the state means business – it requires a 19 percent reduction in carbon emissions from every person within the next 15 years, based on the emissions generated in the county in 2005.

On top of that, the county can’t take credit for the emission reductions predicted by advances in technology – cleaner cars, for example. The plan needs to reduce the VMT, or “vehicle miles traveled.” If SANDAG proposed widening highways and then predicted every single person would drive an electric car, the plan still wouldn’t receive certification. And without certification, we can’t build any transportation improvements.

Some accuse SANDAG of breaking its promises to the voters by reconsidering the projects in the regional plan. They are calling it a “bait and switch” to look beyond the proposal to widen highways and consider a broader range of available transportation options.

This accusation is premature, because the plan doesn’t have any meat on its bones – at this point, there’s nothing solid to be opposed to. I believe that when we see an ultimate plan it will incorporate both transit and road improvements.

I think we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to live in reality, not the San Diego County of 15 or 30 years ago.

Another stark reality is that there aren’t enough funds from the voter-approved TransNet sales tax to fund all the road projects listed in the 2004 ballot measure.

When the sales tax was passed 15 years ago, TransNet was expected to generate about $14 billion over 40 years in 2002 dollars. Because of changing driving habits and lower sales tax revenue, TransNet is now predicted to generate only slightly more than half that amount, about $8 billion.

Furthermore, freeway widening, by itself, has been shown in cities around the world to be inadequate. Studies show that a few years after a freeway is widened, congestion returns to previous levels. It’s called induced demand – if you build it, they will come.

We really can’t widen our way out of freeway congestion. But we can make driving more efficient, and provide convenient and attractive alternatives to driving.”

Mayor Blakespear gives us an insider’s account of SANDAG’s transportation planning, revealing how wrong my new pal, Carl is, either intentionally, or out of ignorance. There is no secret group plotting to steal road improvement funds. But if his political action committee’s campaign to widen our freeways is successful, it might be more accurately named, Deform California, Add More Pavement.

The Riehl World