SDUT: Can Hasan Ikhrata sell San Diego on a $177 billion transit revolution in a pandemic?

August 8 – SDUT – Joshua Emerson Smith reports – Only the security guards were there to greet Hasan Ikhrata on Thursday morning in the lobby of Wells Fargo Plaza downtown, where San Diego’s premiere regional transportation planning agency is headquartered.

Several flights up, Ikhrata walked into an empty room, labeled Vision Lab, wearing a surgical mask and his signature pinstripe suit. Five months ago, he would’ve been greeted by dozens of planners and data experts, feverishly poring over maps and computer models.

Today, Ikhrata’s nearly two-year-old campaign to revolutionize San Diego with a multibillion-dollar expansion of public transit has run headlong into the worst pandemic in a century.

Trolley and bus ridership have been more than cut in half. Unemployment is at record levels. Many people are working from home, including most of Ikhrata’s 385 employees at the San Diego Association of Governments, better known as SANDAG.

Still, the agency’s leader comes into the office nearly every day, joined by a small cadre of top lieutenants. He said he’s determined to push forward with his vision — which would cost roughly $177 billion over the next 30 years.

In the lab, Ikhrata pressed several buttons on a large topographic model of San Diego County.

Dotted purple lines lit up across the region’s major urban areas, representing hundreds of miles of new high-speed rail. Green lines appeared over much of the region’s existing highway system, revealing a network of express toll lanes that would also serve buses and carpooling.

“This will resemble Barcelona, Madrid, Paris,” Ikhrata said in his Jordanian accent.

“It will be a much better drive for you, but it will cost a bit more,” he added, acknowledging perhaps the most controversial aspect of his plan. “Every lane should be a toll lane, at some point, if we want this to work.”

He then pointed to a model of his envisioned San Diego Grand Central in the Midway District, which, after years of discussion, would finally connect transit riders to the airport. The massive transportation hub, he explained, would also include lots of new housing, office space and retail, and would spur dense urban growth all around it.

“It will be like another downtown right next to downtown,” he said excitedly.

Ikhrata left the Southern California Association of Governments in Los Angeles to lead SANDAG in December 2018. His main message to the elected leaders who hired him, as well as average residents, has been consistent: Don’t become L.A.

He’s repeatedly argued that without his progressive revolution — which includes not only charging people to drive on freeways but forgoing new parking expansions — San Diego will in time be dogged by the same mind-numbing gridlock traffic.

Ikhrata plans to officially unveil his vision before SANDAG’s board of 21-elected officials from around the region on Friday, Aug. 14. The agency has painstakingly analyzed commuter patterns using computer modeling to determine where roughly 350 miles of new rail track should be constructed.

It’s not clear how well the plan will be received. Conservative leaders who favor freeway expansions over public transit have attacked Ikhrata’s ideas as a doomed attempt at social engineering. They argue few will ride the costly system if it ever gets built.

Some have said that the pandemic, coupled with future technological innovations, will so radically change commuter patterns as to render the plan obsolete by the time it’s under way. They argue that the major job centers of today, for which San Diego has about 15, will likely change over time.

The criticism caries extra punch at time when getting on a packed train or bus currently seems a risky alternative to driving alone, and when the allure of city living has dulled with the closing of restaurants and bars.

“These are mausoleums to an era gone by, getting on a fixed train to a fixed job site,” said Tony Krvaric, the outgoing chair of The Republican Party of San Diego County. “Things are going to change. If anything, have buses and have autonomous driving.”

There’s no shortage of speculation about the extent to which work-from-home policies will become the norm and the impact such a shift could have on commuter patterns.

Still, there’s evidence the pandemic’s impact will be largely temporary. While traffic on San Diego’s busiest freeways was down 50 percent in early March, today, traffic has come roaring back to more than 80 percent of normal.

“Right now most of the economy’s still closed and you’ve got jammed roads,” said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “It seems hard to believe that in 20 years there will be no point to having mass transit to San Diego’s job centers.”

Ikhrata argues that his high-speed rail system will help ensure that those employment centers thrive for decades to come.

“This is the perfect time for San Diego to do this,” he said. “All future growth is expected to happen in the urban area, and that’s why this system will make a lot more sense.”

However, if Ikhrata’s vision is to prove relevant over time, it will first need a major injection of public money. Paying for the multibillion-dollar system will likely require a full-cent sales tax increase approved by a two-thirds vote of the public. Ikhrata was hoping to float a ballot measure in the fall of 2022, but that’s uncertain now, with the economy currently on life support.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit system, which operates much of the region’s bus and rail lines, iced its own plans for a sales-tax hike early this year, citing the pandemic. The agency’s proposal was aimed at the November election and would have roughly doubled its $300 million annual budget in order to dramatically expand the region’s bus network, among other upgrades.

Some have argued that SANDAG should embrace a similar strategy, beefing up the region’s existing transit system rather than pursuing grander long-term visions.

“They’re spending the bulk of their planning resources on expensive rail projects that aren’t going to be built for decades in the best-case scenario,” said Colin Parent, executive director of the nonprofit Circulate San Diego. “What they should be spending their attention on are transit improvements that can happen in the more immediate term and that are going to benefit people who are most likely to use transit.”

MTS is now relying on federal emergency funding, as revenue from ticket sales has plummeted. Transit agencies all around the country are in similar straits, pleading with Congress for continued cash infusions.

Despite dips in ridership, fears that public transit could be a hotbed for the virus haven’t materialized so far in San Diego.

Of MTS’ roughly 2,700 employees and contractors, only about 50 have tested positive for the virus and most have returned to work, according to officials. No workers have died, and no community outbreaks have been traced back to public transit.

There’s little evidence to suggest that riding public transit is particularly dangerous compared with other activities, said Melissa Perry, a leading epidemiologist and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“Practicing physical distancing, wearing masks, not touching surfaces, washing before and after riding public transportation, that really is a safe way to travel,” Perry said. “The extent to which you can adhere to those practices is the indicator of risk far more than the actual setting.”

Many community and environmental activists backed the now-withdrawn MTS plan while also pushing for Ikhrata’s grander vision. They argued that a massive expansion of rail service is badly needed to rein in greenhouse gases, encouraging new urban development without further clogging busy surface streets and freeways.

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the San Diego-based Climate Action Campaign, said the region needs to start “playing the long game.”

“No matter what, there’s always going to be a circumstance that makes it seem insurmountable,” she said. “We’ve been postponing this idea of world-class transit for decades. Nothing’s going to be in the ground for decades, so now is the right time to get started.”

Before Ikhrata showed up, groups like the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity spent years battling SANDAG in court over its approach to transportation.

Under the previous executive director, Gary Gallegos, the agency secured roughly $2 billion to build the Mid-Coast Trolley extension between downtown and University City. However, much of agency’s approach centered on expanding freeways, using new bus and carpool lanes. Gallegos and his team regularly dismissed calls by advocates to pursue the type of transit expansion Ikhrata has proposed.

Today, San Diego’s transit system is often sluggish compared with driving and primarily serves low-income residents without cars. Those with a vehicle have little incentive to ride a bus or trolley to work, as it can add hours to a daily commute.

Ikhrata has said his goal is to make taking transit at least as fast as driving. That parity is important, he argues, if the region is serious about meeting its state-mandated climate goals for limiting tailpipe pollution.

However, he acknowledged that getting people to switch from driving to riding transit won’t be easy. Los Angeles has spend billions building out its rail system over the last few decades, only to see ridership decline.

Transportation experts have said a major issue is the Los Angeles region’s longstanding hesitation to discourage people from using the freeway system with tolls. Instituting some form of congestion pricing, where tolls increase during gridlock traffic, is the linchpin for a system like Ikhrata’s.

The SANDAG leader said that during his time in Los Angeles, he oversaw major investments in public transit but regrets sidestepped tough conversations about congestion pricing.

“I catered to the politician who said, ‘This is great, but don’t talk about pricing,’” Ikhrata said regretfully about his time at SCAG. “Here we’re saying, ‘Let’s talk about it up front.’”

Selling this idea promises to be a daunting political challenge. Perhaps more than anything, San Diego’s mayoral election in November will play a pivotal role in its success or failure.

Ikhrata could have a difficult time selling his vision if City Councilwoman Barbara Bry prevails.

“This is another rush deal during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bry said of Ikhrata’s vision. “After the pandemic ends, we should step back to see how remote working and commute patterns change and what this will mean for future transit needs.”

However, plans for a new high-speed rail system in San Diego could receive a significant boost if Assemblyman and former San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria becomes the city’s next mayor.

“This is the time to move forward with big plans for our regional transportation system,” Gloria said. “Making strategic investments in public infrastructure is a sound and proven form of economic stimulus that I believe we need in order to get out of this recession.”

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