October 13 – San Diego Union Tribune – Joshua Emerson Smith reports – With transportation funds strained, the San Diego region has one path to hit the state’s increasingly strict caps on greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks — forego highway expansion in favor of dramatically beefing up its bus network.
That was the take-home message from a report by the regional transportation and planning agency the San Diego Association of Governments presented on Friday to its board of 21 elected officials from around the county.
To meet the state targets, agency staff recommended elected officials approve more than $400 million in bus projects through 2025, while also enacting a suite of local policies aimed at discouraging driving, such as increased parking fees and highway tolls.
The SANDAG report comes in the wake of revelations this week from the United Nation’s scientific panel on climate change that humanity has until 2030 to dramatically curb greenhouse gases or face devastating consequences, such as increased drought, wildfire, floods, and food shortages.
At an agency board meeting Friday, most elected officials seemed unfazed by the staff’s call to dramatically boost the regional public transit system as an extension of California’s internationally watched blueprint to fight climate change.
While many city leaders recognized the need to meet state-mandated emissions caps on tailpipe pollution, they also repeatedly advocated for freeway expansion in their home cities.
North County officials clamored throughout the meeting for an expansion of state Route 78 between Carlsbad and Escondido.
“OK, I want the 78. Four lanes. HOV. By 2028,” said San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond, shouting over San Diego Councilwoman Georgette Gómez during a workshop session to discuss transportation projects.
Gómez, one of the only members in attendance to voice firm support for transit, said she was concerned about the board’s commitment to expanding bus and rail networks.
“If the question is are we doing more for transit, I would say ‘no,’” she said, “but I’m going to make sure that the board does.”
To help the state meet its goals of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, the California Air Resources Board has issued reduction targets for regional transportation agencies, such as SANDAG. Specifically, the region is required to cut per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions from driving by 19 percent below a 2005 benchmark by 2035.
To get there, the region has limited funds at its disposal and is facing increasing construction costs.
Without a new tax increase, any new trolley projects beyond the $2.1 billion Mid-Coast extension from downtown San Diego to University City are likely infeasible.
Instead, SANDAG has suggested doubling down on its network of Rapid buses, which connect residential communities to urban job centers with limited stops, often using dedicated guide ways.
While freeway expansion projects throughout the region often include so-called managed lanes that service buses, as well as carpool and toll drivers, such costly highway projects are not necessary to create new Rapid bus routes.
Continued focus on the expansion of managed lanes over the last decade have frustrated transit and environmental advocates. They argue that direct investments in new buses and trolleys are required to dramatically improved commute times and increase ridership.
“We need a transit network that competes with driving,” said Sophie Wolfram, an advocate with the San Diego-based Climate Action Campaign. “We have a short window to avert catastrophic climate change. We can and we must do better.”
Many on the SANDAG board agreed that transit times were poor throughout San Diego County. However, they disagreed with advocates on how to remedy the situation, pointing to freeway expansion and managed lanes as the solution.
“The system is going to be as good as its weakest link, so if you put more buses, they’re not going to go anywhere when you have bottlenecks,” said Escondido Mayor Sam Abed.
“Having an efficient system that reduces the travel time, reduces the bus time, I think that would be key to encourage people to use public transportation,” he added.
Others such as Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey said that investing in transit was a waste of resources.
“Even if you beef up the bus networks or add more rail lines, no one’s riding it,” he said. “However, as fuel economy improves to low-emission to eventually zero emission vehicles that’s going to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”
Many elected officials have said that adoption of electric cars will reduce and even eliminate the need for bus and rail networks.
However, electric and plug-in hybrid cars are expected to account for just under 16 percent of California’s light-duty fleet by 2030, up from less than 2 percent today. And those electric vehicles will be plugging into a grid that’s estimated to be running on just 50 percent renewable power.
Even with those advances, according to the air board, Californians still have to reduce their driving by about 1.6 miles a day on average from their car or truck trips to meet the 2035 target — a deceptively challenging goal.
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