One thing about traffic: everyone thinks they have it worse than everyone else. When I’m sitting in congestion at one of my least favorite intersections — at Balboa Avenue and Mission Bay Drive, say, or the 5/805 merge — I cannot believe that anyone, no matter where they’re stuck, is suffering worse than me.
According to San Diego drivers and transportation experts, there’s more than enough grief on our roads to go around. New councilman Scott Peters represents District 1, which includes La Jolla and the area between University City and Del Mar Heights. Peters campaigned on a platform that promised relief to fed-up commuters; true to his word, he spends a good deal of time working with city officials to improve transportation. In mid-February he told me, “Traffic rates very high as an issue among my constituents. I would say that, overall, it’s the number-one issue in the district.”
Peters discussed several trouble spots in his district. “One problem is the failure to build infrastructure before you build housing,” he explained. “That’s a particular problem in Rancho Peñasquitos, which depends on Highway 56, which isn’t built. So everything is jammed up there. They just opened an east-west loop road that connects Black Mountain Road to 56, and people snake across it. There’s a stop sign in the middle, and every morning and every evening it’s lined up for miles. In Carmel Valley there will be traffic problems when 56 is opened. There’s no northbound connector planned from Highway 56 to Highway 5, so we’re concerned about traffic backing up on surface streets. In Del Mar Heights, congestion on Highway 5 is a big problem. University City also has tremendous pressure, especially on Genesee and on the 805.”
Late last year, the Union-Tribune published a flurry of letters by District 1 residents who were upset about plans to build new apartments and condominiums in the area. Dianne Lincoln, a University City resident, wrote, “I am appalled and outraged at the short-sighted view of the people we trust to plan the future of our city as it inevitably grows. Anyone who isn’t blind would see that we are already experiencing severe congestion in University City, mainly on La Jolla Village Drive. On Genesee Avenue at rush times, it’s total gridlock. This is before the thousands of new apartment units being completed in this area have been filled with their thousands of new cars.”
Kim Baker, who sits on the La Jolla Town Council, told me, “People are very much concerned about the traffic in La Jolla.” She agreed with Peters that a particularly troublesome spot is the so-called “throat” — the infamous intersection of Ardath Road and Torrey Pines Road. Things have gotten so bad there that the city has just begun preliminary work on a major reorganization of the intersection, which will require removing and transplanting ten Torrey pines. “It’s a huge project,” Baker said. “They’re going to be doing sewer, water, and a road reconfiguration all at one time.”
District 1 may be bad, but according to Bob Davidson, who commutes from his home in Carmel Mountain Ranch to his job in Little Italy, nothing beats the I-15 corridor. “This traffic today reminds me of LA. 20 years ago,” he said. “People have got to start driving and stop doing whatever else they’re doing. Driving their Ford Excursions in the fast lane is one thing, but talking, eating, flipping through papers, arguing — it absolutely boggles the mind to know that these people are actually driving as well. On a good day, it takes me 30 minutes; on a bad day, upwards of an hour. It’s worse going home. When it’s dark this time of the year, something just gets lost in the brain. Honestly, these people have worked all day, and driving just doesn’t seem natural to them. I live off of Ted Williams Parkway, and to get to the 15, I have to go a mile in the wrong direction, make a U-turn, and come back.” Davidson told me that he discovered an alternative route onto the 15, but he made me swear not to divulge it. “Coming out of Mission Valley on the 163 is another place where people simply lose it,” he added. “I would say it’s bumper-to-bumper every day from Miramar Way to Ted Williams Parkway and beyond — I guess to Lake Hodges. But you know, it’s a problem that has no solution.”
Robert Kim, a public-affairs officer with the California Highway Patrol, told me that many San Diegans feel desperate about their commute. Most often, they vent their anger at the highways themselves, but increasingly it boils over into road rage. “In the past five years, traffic has definitely gotten a lot worse,” Kim said. “What was once a 30-minute commute has become a 45-minute-to-an-hour commute. So people have become less courteous and their tempers have grown. What comes with being stuck in traffic is that people are less willing to forget about issues; they cannot escape what has angered them in the first place. In that respect, problems have increased in San Diego. We are fielding more calls on road rage, but there isn’t a whole lot we can do if we don’t catch people in the act.”
Figures available at the websites of Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments, which oversees virtually every aspect of the county’s transportation plans, substantiate public anxiety about traffic. In fact, the numbers are alarming. In San Diego County, the population rose 47 percent between 1980 and 1997. During that period, the number of registered cars rose 57 percent; the number of commercial vehicles rose 72 percent; and the number of miles traveled by all autos in the county rose 86 percent. Meanwhile, the miles of state freeway rose a mere 10 percent, and the miles of local road rose 18 percent. Moreover, the association projects a dire future. By 2020, San Diego’s population will grow another 38 percent, and the total number of miles traveled by local vehicles will increase 47 percent.
Garry Bonelli, communications director at the association of governments, told me that unless the association can implement its Regional Transportation Plan, which looks as far ahead as 2020, congestion will escalate dramatically. “Not only has our population and employment increased fast, but our travel has grown much more,” he said. “Also, people arc driving further to work and are making more trips. Without the TransNet program, congestion would be even more severe.” TransNet is the local tax — a half cent on every sales tax dollar — that funds a significant portion of the association’s budget for projects, such as adding lanes at the notorious 5/805 merge. Federal, state, and gas-tax funds fill out the remainder of the budget. In 1987, 54 percent of San Diego voters approved the TransNet tax, which expires in 2008. Last summer. Mayor Susan Golding tried to put a measure on the ballot to extend the tax until 2038. Golding also proposed that the money raised by the tax be used for nontransportation projects, such as wildlife-habitat restoration and storm drainage. However, under state law the tax can = only be extended if it’s approved by a two-thirds majority. Believing that voters would reject the 5 extension plan, the association’s board decided not to put TransNet on last November’s ballot. But at some point the board will have to find a way to extend the tax. The association’s own manifesto — its Regional Transportation Plan — specifically states, “If the gasoline tax increases at historic rates over the next 20 years, and if the TransNet one-half percent sales tax is re-authorized, most of [our] proposed improvements could be made.”
Eric Pahlke, the association’s director of transportation, told me that the board wants to write up a reasonable extension proposal for the tax. “We just had a retreat last week where we talked about the TransNet program. We’re in the midst of figuring out our position on the future of that program. We have a citizens’ group that the board formed that is working on putting together some ideas. Also, our board just authorized us to go out and hire a consultant to run some focus groups and a telephone survey to find out about public sentiment regarding the program. We’re trying to get ready if our board says, ‘Let’s try it in 2002.’ ” Pahlke said that the revenue from the program during the past 12 months amounted to about $180 million. “It’s substantial,” he said. “The advantage of the sales tax is that it is the most flexible funding for projects. You can use it for all kinds of projects and use it quickly.”
Bondli is another proponent of the tax, which he describes as a crucial component of the association’s plan for alleviating congestion all over the county — especially on the 5 and the 15. “We project that over its current 20-year period, it will bring in close to $3.3 billion,” Bondli said. “One third goes to highways, one third goes to local streets and roads, and another third goes to public-transit extensions, like trolleys and the coaster.” Bondli said that in order to get a tax extension past voters, the association needs a “detailed expenditure plan. Some people want to keep it as is, others want to look at other possibilities. We won’t have dear direction on this until May or June”
I asked Bonelli what kinds of projects a TransNet extension would benefit. “The number-one highway priority right now is on the border — it’s 905. It handles so much more car and truck traffic than it’s designed for because of NAFTA. Also, in our long-range plan, we’re looking at a $400 million expenditure on the 15.” But Bonelli agrees with Councilman Peters that poor land-use planning, not inadequate highways, causes San Diego’s traffic problems. He explained, “People always say, ‘You got a real transportation problem on the 15.’ Well, it’s less a transportation problem than it is a land-use problem. A lot of the people, because they can’t afford to live here, move up to Riverside County, so 30 percent of that traffic we take on the 15 below Lake Hodges originates in Riverside County. How can we better use our land down here so people don’t have to take such long trips? We need to cut down on the length as well as the number of trips.”
Though transportation officials worry about the future of congestion in the county, most are quick to point out that it’s not nearly as bad as drivers think. Tom Nipper, a public-affairs officer at Caltrans, told me, “We look at things on a statewide and nationwide level. From that perspective, we’re doing really good compared to a lot of other cities. We still enjoy something here in San Diego. If you travel outside peak commute times, it’s pretty much free-flowing. You can’t go to L.A. and do that.” Pahlke added, “Los Angeles and the Bay Area have longer periods of congestion and probably a higher percentage of roads that are congested. You can’t move around San Diego as well as you used to be able to, but in a relative perspective, we’re in decent shape.”
The figures support these claims. The Texas Transportation Institute releases a periodic report on urban mobility, which ranks congestion in U.S. cities using a number of factors. The most recent report, published in November 1999, ranked San Diego — the sixth-largest city in the country — as the ninth-worst city in its “travel rate” category. The report showed that traveling on San Diego highways takes 30 percent longer than it would if the roads were always free-flowing. But in the annual delay-per-driver category, San Diego ranked 29th. That means that, on average, each San Diego driver spends 36 hours per year stuck in traffic. Compare that to the 76 hours drivers spend jammed up in Washington, D.C., or the 82 hours they spend inching along in Los Angeles. Of course, the statistics don’t reveal the cruelest fact — that some of those drivers stuck in L.A. traffic live in San Diego.