San Diego transit plan includes more air pollution

Nearly all of San Diego’s freeways would be expanded

SANDAG believes its new transportation plan provides greater access to public transit. Opponents of the plan say it will result in more car traffic.
  • SANDAG believes its new transportation plan provides greater access to public transit. Opponents of the plan say it will result in more car traffic.

In October 2011, the San Diego Association of Governments adopted the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, a document intended to guide development of transportation infrastructure — from freeways to bike paths to road construction to bus routes — throughout San Diego County over the next 40 years.

The plan has drawn fire from critics ever since. Within weeks, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and Center for Biological Diversity had filed a lawsuit, later joined by Sierra Club California. The suit alleges that the plan violates the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires state and local agencies to analyze and publicly disclose the potential environmental impacts of a project, as well as take measures to mitigate them. By January 2012, California attorney general Kamala Harris had come to the groups’ aid, filing on behalf of the state as an intervenor.

In the transportation plan’s executive summary, a vision of “environmentally sustainable communities” that are “more conducive to walking and bicycling” and “have more access to public transit” seems to depict the plan’s goal.

Not so, say the plan’s detractors, who cite the association’s admission that, if the plan is followed, total vehicle-miles traveled will increase by 50 percent in coming decades. This will cause an expected net increase in air pollution, which violates the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The act calls for the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to decrease by 2020 to the levels recorded in 1990. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-03-05 targets an 80 percent decrease from 1990 levels by 2050.

The transportation plan’s final environmental impact report violates the environmental quality act in several ways, according to the attorney general’s amended opening brief: it “fails to disclose the [plan’s] serious air pollution impacts” and does not adopt mitigation measures; it “fails to fully analyze and disclose potential harm to populations that it recognizes are sensitive receptors to air pollution,” including children, the elderly, and people living in predominantly low-income areas that already experience high levels of pollution from existing transportation development; and it “violates [the environmental quality act’s] mandate that agencies not approve projects with significant environmental impacts without proposing and adopting all feasible mitigation,” among other claims.

“We mainly have a lawsuit that says [the San Diego Association of Governments] did not do their job in complying with [the California Environmental Quality Act], in providing information to the public with regards to the impacts of their plan,” says Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, during an interview in early August.

Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, says his group filed suit to stop the plan after their suggestions to SANDAG were ignored.

Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, says his group filed suit to stop the plan after their suggestions to SANDAG were ignored.

Shu points out that increased air pollution leads to a higher incidence of cancer deaths, particularly in urban areas close to freeways, where residents are exposed to greater particulate matter. The lawsuit says that impacts on air quality and public health were not disclosed in the final environmental impact report.

The environmental organizations’ opening brief filed with the court calls the information regarding air pollution that the association provided “plainly inadequate.” Further, the suit claims, the association “ignores that it already has gathered, or could gather” data about the health risk posed by widening freeways.

The plaintiffs lament that the plan’s spending on public transit is back-loaded, with 75 percent of projects scheduled for after 2030. Further, they say, many of the public transit projects are actually freeway expansions, where roads are widened to add “managed lanes” for “rapid bus routes” that would also be open not only to carpools but to single-occupant car commuters willing to pay a premium. (The San Diego Association of Governments denied that such highway funding was labeled as “transit” spending in the plan.)

In the plan’s early years, nearly all of San Diego’s freeways would be expanded. Environmentalists argue that adding freeway capacity encourages further suburban sprawl and increased reliance on single-occupancy automobiles, instead of encouraging new high-density construction in areas accessible by a beefed up bus and light rail system.

The groups involved in the lawsuit say they would like the association to consider an alternative called the 50-10 Transit Plan, a name adapted from a similar measure enacted in Los Angeles. Under 50-10, no new transit improvements would be added to the existing plan, but all transit-oriented proposals planned through 2050 would be pushed forward to be adopted in the first ten years of the plan. A particular emphasis, proponents of the alternative say, should be placed on improving transit in San Diego’s urban core (as far east as City Heights) and on making public-transit trip times competitive with trip times by car.

“In order for transit to work, we need a complete network, meaning the transit system needs to be served with feeder lines, including bus routes, bicycle access, etc., so that major transit destinations are serviced thoroughly,” Shu says.

This, Shu and others hope, would negate the need for extensive freeway expansion.

“We want transit first for a variety of reasons,” Shu says, pointing not only to health benefits but also to an economic argument.

“For each dollar one spends on gasoline, 85 cents leaves the community because we don’t produce gasoline in the community. But for each dollar spent on transit, 85 cents stays in the community because it pays for the bus driver or the operator of the train or maintenance. For economic reasons, it just doesn’t make sense to continue exporting transportation funding away from the San Diego region.”

Charles “Muggs” Stoll, the San Diego Association of Governments’ director of land use and transportation planning, says that the Global Warming Solutions Act is “not a legal requirement.” He admits that under the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan the total miles traveled and air pollution will increase.

But San Diego’s population will also increase. Stoll explains that state guidelines establish emissions-reduction targets that are per capita. “Our plan does achieve those targets,” he says.

“The plan and its environmental impact report under [the environmental quality act] included exhaustive analysis of air-quality impacts of the plan,” Stoll continues. “Impacts were fully disclosed in that [environmental impact report]. That’s our belief.”

Stoll says that spending on public transit comes in later years because that’s when revenues are projected to rise. He admits that during the first decade the plan allocates only 36 percent of its spending to public transit projects and that the allocation rises to 57 percent after 2040, but he says it’s not feasible to complete all of the proposed public-transit projects in the first decade.

“It’s absolutely unreasonable to assume that 50 years’ worth of funding would be available in 10 years,” says Stoll.

Although the parties bringing the lawsuit hope for an amicable resolution, Shu says they are prepared for a protracted legal battle. “I don’t think any of us wanted to sue [the San Diego Association of Governments]. Nor do we want any slowdown in progress. We did everything we could — the attorney general’s office wrote several briefs prior to the adoption of this plan.” He adds, “There’s nothing to prevent [the association] from changing the path that they’ve chosen.” ■

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CA has every give away program you can think of and as long as have that happening more and more people will come here and the pollution will just worst.

Ya. Just worst, it will get. Worster and worster.

There are many levels of irony in this story. SANDAG is fairly in thrall of the developers, and if they get their way there will be vastly more housing on the urban-rural interface (the area where the brush fires turn into neighborhood fires.) As the population of the county grows, that is, allowed to grow, housing choices will be a major issue, and it is sure that far suburbs will expand. There is no other way of getting from those suburbs to the jobs than by car, in most cases. So, growth equals more cars.

Sure, public transportation or mass transportation are great things, but they're a help only to those who can use them. The way that this county developed, a minority of commuters will be able to use the transit system.

If you object to all this growth and to the disruption it brings, vote for the no-growth politicians. Uhh, where are they? Kinda hard to find any no-growth pols? That's cause they vote the way they are paid to vote.

IMHO the real solution to San Diego's growth problem is density, but it requires reconsidering the only two-letter word that we treat like a four letter word: the word UP. San Diego's fetishistic attachment to a 30 foot height limit is a huge problem. It prevents the development of really workable walkable neighborhoods - we just don't have the density in most parts of the city to support the neighborhood businesses that make those neighborhoods work in other cities.

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