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Using Transportation Dollars Wisely

As Published in the San Diego Daily Transcript; December 13, 2007

Erik Bruvold

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Earlier this month the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) passed the latest iteration of the “Regional Transportation Plan” (RTP). To meet projected demand over the course of the next two decades, SANDAG estimates a need for $82 billion worth of transportation projects between now and the year 2030. The rub is that when one looks at tax revenues and projected federal and state spending on transportation, the San Diego region can reasonably expect to have available only $51 billion over that period of time. Even that number, as the San Diego County Taxpayers recently noted in the Voice of San Diego, assumes increases to state and federal gas taxes. Thus at the heart of the current RTP is SANDAG’s prioritized lists of potential projects.

The result is a plan that is an incremental document. Like the previous version, the cornerstone of the current RTP is a county-wide network of managed lanes like those being built on I-15. Unlike traditional carpool lanes, access to these lanes on I-5, I-15, SR 52 and I-805 will be available not only to carpools and transit vehicles. Solo drivers who are willing to pay a toll that will be determined by the time of day and the amount of congestion on the freeway will also be able to access these lanes and avoid congestion. Varying the price encourages drivers to shift their commute times to slightly less costly periods. Demand is spread out and everyone’s commute gets a little bit better. As the Reason Foundation has shown in a number of important studies on transportation, the use of market signals has proven itself to be an effective tool to fight gridlock and SANDAG deserves compliments for fully embracing this approach.

However, given that SANDAG forecasts a nearly $31 billion dollar gap between the resources that the region needs and the funds that will actually be available, it is unfortunate that the RTP does not go further.

Efforts to get the greatest benefit for regional transportation dollars would argue for SANDAG to build at least one of the managed lane projects and the two proposed toll roads for the far northern segments of I-5 and I-15 through public-private partnerships (PPPs). As commuters making use of the South Bay Expressway are happily discovering, PPPs work. Franchisees granted the right to build and operate toll roads have a strong incentive to keep costs down and deliver projects on time. Using PPPs to get these projects completed would also be in line with the ideas of the Governor who, this November, renewed his commitment to PPPs. Most importantly, public-private partnerships on I-805, I-5 and the two northern toll roads would help free up resources to help close the $31 billion gap – allowing other projects where tolling makes little sense to move from SANDAG’s wish list to reality.

The second reform missing from the 2030 RTP is any serious rethinking of the Mid-Coast Trolley. While SANDAG occasionally makes reference to evaluating alternatives to spending a projected $1 billion to develop a light-rail line from Old Town to UCSD and UTC, the momentum is clearly in the direction of building a trolley on the corridor. That seems unfortunate. In December the region will welcome the ironically-named “Sprinter” to North County. Taking almost twice as long to make the trip from Escondido to Oceanside than a comparable car trip at rush hour on SR-78, this light rail project’s $400+ million cost is 800% more than what was originally estimated. Passing through largely industrial and environmentally constrained areas, the opportunities for transit-oriented development along the line are few and far between. It isn’t cynical to believe that after the hoopla of the project’s opening day is over, the Sprinter will be lightly used while SR-78 commuters experience hours of near-gridlock conditions.

Sadly, planners seem to have almost willfully ignored the parallels between the Sprinter and the Mid-Coast Trolley. Like the Sprinter, the first two-thirds of the Mid-Coast line is located in areas were there will be serious environmental and political challenges to densification. When the line reaches UTC there will be tremendous pressure to minimize conflict with surface traffic by building costly grade separations and elevated structures, further pushing the cost of the project higher. If there are legal challenges to the line, it is inevitable that construction costs will increase over original estimates. Everyone in the region has a stake in this because if the Mid-Coast experiences the cost increases that have plagued the Sprinter, it is destined to become the regional black hole for transportation spending – impoverishing other projects as bureaucratic momentum drives the Mid-Coast toward completion.

Given these and other parallels between the Mid-Coast and the Sprinter, it is vital that SANDAG adopt a strategy for keeping costs from escalating. One way would be for SANDAG to take full advantage of the Independent Taxpayers Oversight Committee, a group of six private citizens charged with ensuring the effective and efficient use of the region’s one-half cent transportation sales tax. As the engineering and environmental documents are completed, SANDAG should ask the ITOC to conduct a fully independent analysis of the Mid-Coast plans. The ITOC and SANDAG boards should identify specific critical milestones relating to cost, planning, right of way acquisition, and densification along the line. Absent adequate progress in meeting those milestones, SANDAG would be forced to adopt a more cost effective alternative such as a bus rapid transit line or improvements to existing transit service. The goal is to keep the project’s budget from inflating from a series of incremental and disjointed decisions that, while seemingly justified in isolation, together work to vastly increase the cost of the project and delay its final completion.

Federal law requires the RTP be updated once every few years. Thus we can be assured of other opportunities to break out of the existing status quo and rethink ways of constructing transportation projects in the region. Given the one million new residents that will arrive here by 2030 and the $31 billion funding gap between the transportation resources that we need and the funds San Diego can reasonably expect, there is no time like the present for new approaches and innovative thinking.