Road to ruin

by Carolyn Chase


In the past two weeks, more than 150 citizens on two occasions have packed weekday, daytime public hearings on the future of our Regional Transportation Plan. A multi-billion dollar, 20-year regional public policy plan, the RTP covers highways, major streets, buses, the trolley, rail transportation, bicycles, and airport service - virtually every way people and products can move in the San Diego region.

In a classic understatement, the SANDAG website notes, "the RTP greatly influences how we travel around the region."

The recent hearings on some of its most controversial elements - one at SANDAG, another at the City of San Diego - addressed proposals to put new north-south roads in north county and across San Dieguito River Park and Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. Also on the north county agenda at SANDAG were proposals to double-track heavy rail along sensitive coastal bluffs and widen I-5 to 14-16 lanes in most areas. The public testimony has been impassioned and at times, brilliant.

Lisa Ross, long time Carmel Valley activist, summed up community feelings about roads through parklands and habitat areas: "Carmel Valley would benefit from these roads. And sure, we have to travel around the Preserve. We've just gotten used to it. Yeah, we hate traffic, but you know what? You're not going to take away the treasures that we do have."

Landowner representative Craig Benedetto, discussing "the son or ghost of 680" proposed to cross San Dieguito River Park, "This alignment crosses a number of important habitat areas. Some of my environmental colleagues may be amazed at what I'm saying, but I worked on the MSCP (Multiple Species Conservation Plan) too, and I support it. This road would destroy the MSCP. This alignment is unmitigable."

Steve Perkins of Encinitas noted, "The premise of this idea is totally wrong. Their reason is that providing additional parallel roads and streets will give reductions in traffic. But we all know that is wrong. We've done this forever! You can't put in enough roads to alleviate the automobile problem. You have to stop roads from going in and the pressure will push the people into other modes. If you keep relieving the pressure, you'll never get us there. So stop putting in the roads and rapid transit will start working."

Shiela Cameron, recently deposed Mayor of Encinitas speaking as a private citizen said, "First and foremost we should be pursuing alternatives and stop laying down asphalt and concrete. I know it costs a lot of money but we're just kidding ourselves if we don't go for alternatives."

Bob Lewis, former Chair of Torrey Pines Community Planning Board stated, "The widening of I-5 will only bring more traffic, more noise, more pollution, more runoff, more parking problems."

Dave Druker, Del Mar City Council representative to SANDAG observed: "We've got to provide alternatives for people. Otherwise, people have to stick in their cars. Our choices are: 1. mass transit, 2. carpool, 3. stuck in traffic. I don't believe we're really solving any problems with this widening approach. With this, twenty years from now we'll be in the same spot, trying to figure out how to get people onto transit and into carpools. Eventually, it's a total waste of money. We would rather see it put it into mass transit, HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle lanes) and other incentives."

But SANDAG and other agencies through the RTP are pursuing a public policy of double-tracking the coastal heavy rail corridor and widening of I-5. Even though significant resistance to these plans is expressed at every public meeting, our infrastructure development agencies do not substantially alter their course of simply promoting more of the same kinds of systems that have already failed to keep pace.

John Parrish observed, "North County needs a reliable railroad link with downtown SD and it requires more than a double tracking mentality. It needs a system that works properly. I'm getting tired of hearing mass transit being dismissed here. This is ridiculous. Other cities and countries make mass transit work and move huge numbers of people by train or bus. These people claim we can't have mass transit that works. Are they saying we're not as good? It's nonsense. It's an insult. We have to have the will, leadership and vision. You have to provide systems that meet people's needs. Trains every 20 minutes don't cut it."

Though opposing the roads through the preserves, Harry Mathis defended the status quo incrementalist approach to growth: "I don't think anyone likes the idea of widening, but it's sort of a head-in-the-sand approach to say not to do it. I've found that the strongest supporters of mass transit are the drivers who want others to take transit. It would not be responsible for us to leave it as is and make it so bad that people will change their lifestyles. There is a constituency out there that depends on a free flow of traffic."

But this plan as currently proposed is not going to get us anywhere near a free flow of traffic! When we will truly understand that the way to get a free flow of traffic is to provide incentives and alternatives so that people do not have to drive as much and at the same times of day? And to start building communities and setting job and school and event schedules so that we don't have to?

Furthermore, it could quite possibly be cheaper to reduce traffic by something as creative as paying drivers not to drive at peak times than to keep pursuing the economically, environmentally and socially expensive "wider-is-always-better" approach. Wider is not always better.

Meanwhile, it can't be good public policy to hide the facts. In current proposals, systems will not provide sufficient levels of service to either significantly relieve congestion or so that people can get out of their cars. Yet the public is expected to joyfully jump at tax increases to pay for it.

Our transportation planning approach seems locked into vicious circles: spending money for insufficient levels of service and keeping people flooding onto freeways that we can never widen wide enough to keep pace with growth. If one form of madness is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result, then our approach to regional transportation and land use could be certifiable.

Michael Winn, a Del Mar resident who serves on the city's RailwayAdvisory Committee, has followed these issues closely and has learned, "This region is being effectively denied a workable public transit system because we'd have to admit that the coastal heavy rail corridor can't carry the level of service required either for substantial local public transit or forecast increases in inter-city and freight service. An immediate effect is that we have no other choice but to widen I-5 beyond comprehension and to forego - instead of pursue - the development of a meaningful system of public transit in North County."

Will the RTP be our chance to break out of the "keep paving paradise" paradigm? Will it analyze competitive approaches to bringing cleaner, quieter and less disruptive technologies to bear? Will it require systems that provide necessary levels of services to meet people's needs? Will it respect the limits around dedicated parklands and habitat preserves?

Failure to accurately address these issues, for whatever reasons, lends support to Steve Peace's AB329 proposal to change the way transportation decisions are governed.

The SANDAG Board will be taking public testimony and deliberating issues concerning the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) on Friday November 19th at 8:30am at their offices at 410 B Street near the trolley station at 5 and C.

Now is the time, as the RTP Environmental Impact Report is being prepared, to offer SANDAG your suggestions on how to improve our mobility networks. From now until January 3, 2000, you can offer your ideas on what should be done with highways, roads, transit, airport service, development patterns, financing, or virtually any other transportation-related topic. Comments can also be emailed to