Political education

by Carolyn Chase


ince the last thing you can get in any formal institution is a good political education, I've pursued mine directly in the only real way possible, which is to say on the field of play. I've learned how to engage with the civic process and I've begun to understand how things get done in a big city and who does them.

A special interest of mine is how development and land use patterns are propagated. How can we absorb growth, maintain an increasing quality of life, and not degrade or destroy the environment? One key to the puzzle is transportation and the development and land use decisions made around transportation systems. Congestion is not accidental. It is built into the system by the way the region governs itself. When you start to meet the men who've built these systems over the last 25 years, things make complete sense. Our systems and the mindsets of those who design and run them are oriented toward roads plus growth. You can only go so far with that model until you run into problems.

Lately, a lot of attention has been given to the obvious fact that you can't put more cars though I-5 and I-15, even though developers are planning to build 35,000 more units east of Carmel Valley. There have been a variety of meetings to address the problems and find solutions.

At every single meeting, you see representatives of Caltrans giving presentations, sharing fancy maps, and basically promoting more roads. At every turn, Caltrans is there, literally with concrete proposals, if not solutions to congestion. But after attending a number of these forums and following some of the proposed developments, I began to wonder: where are the transit folks? Why aren't they here presenting their solutions and making sure that workable, funded transit systems are part of these projects? Why does all the project mitigation money go to Caltrans?

I had the chance to ask Tom Larwin, General Manager of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board. He was quite gracious is setting up a meeting with me, so I asked him. Caltrans is all over this, but you guys aren't even showing up. Where is the MTDB lobbyist? Do they even have a lobbyist?

It turns out, they have a contract with the City of San Diego for the part-time services of a land use planner and a traffic engineer. Oh. I thought. Then, in my generally effusive way, I went on to inform him that there was no way that anyone working at that level in the city with that title would be able to be an effective lobbyist with developers on their projects. They especially would not be able to get projects such as the upcoming Pardee proposal for 5,000 units in the North City Future Urbanizing Area (NCFUA) to seriously design for transit or fund it.

He asked me, had I spoken directly with Pardee? Yes. I had made offers in good faith - some directly to Mike Madigan, Senior Executive Vice President - but they had never followed-up. I had appeared with Mike on the radio a few months back on the state water planning process that he chairs, known as "Calfed." Afterward, I took the time to ask him, "Mike, could Pardee really be interested in building more multi-family or higher density projects and helping reduce urban sprawl?" Yes, most emphatically, he assured me he was. He stated: "We'd love to build multi-family! But you know we just can't do it with all the construction defect liability problems." While I had yet to uncover any case where the liability wasn't legitimate, I offered to be part of looking to see if there wasn't some middle ground we could create, and support reducing liability in exchange for support of reducing urban sprawl. He said, absolutely. I never heard another thing.

I had also been assured by a Pardee consultant that their NCFUA project would indeed be designed for transit and that they would be amenable to working on that. I never heard another thing about that either. The project design in the EIR is just another slightly better urban sprawl suburb, and there are no development agreements to support transit routes - just a lot of cash for Caltrans to do just enough roadwork so that traffic will only be backed up for 15 minutes waiting to get onto Highway 5.

As we moved on to other things, my political education progressed. Tom Larwin asked me, "Did you know that Mike Madigan, had helped to found MTDB?" Hmmm, I thought, I didn't. Mike served as the first general manager when MTDB was established , and when he also worked under Pete Wilson. Very interesting though, as organizational cultures are determined by the founders.

He went on to describe his commitment to transit: "I'm a civil engineer and I'm from Chicago and I support transit because every great city in the world has a great transportation system." I queried further. "Every great city that works, works for a number of reasons which includes a transportation network to be able to get between major activities. Transportation systems can be great without going everywhere - rapid transit doesn't work in every corridor - there are some places where it works well, some where it doesn't. "

What about the upcoming frenzy of projects in and around the NCFUA? MTDB has only requested that "the costs associated with right-of-way acquisition, design and construction of the proposed transit center will be borne by the project developer." How will that possibly translate into a sufficient level of service to have any impact on current and future gridlock? The answer is, it won't, it's just more of the same.

In closing, I learned another piece of the puzzle of local development patterns. He mentioned that he was a long time friend of Mike Madigan, and did I think that his speaking with Mike would be a help? Hmmm again. I assured him most certainly, I was sure that a call from him to Mike would be bound to "help." I would like to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. One thing I would suggest they discuss is why $60 million is proposed to go to Caltrans for projects in that area and nothing to MTDB. My guess is, though, they've discussed that before, perhaps 20-25 years ago, and they see no need to discuss it further.