From the Editor

Tired of traffic? Tired of taxes? Be wary of more of the same

by Carolyn Chase

want to see ads for traffic! Yes indeedy. This morning this traffic is brought to you by... well, there's the rub. Who does bring us traffic?

    It turns out there's a ponderous agency named the San Diego Association of Governments. They prefer, you can understand why, to be called SANDAG. They are responsible for the Regional Transportation Plan. Traffic in this region is indeed brought to you by SANDAG.

    Traffic congestion is one of the premier “quality-of-life” issues for our region and every City in it - as well as being key to our economic, public health and indeed, sanity in our region. More and more people spend more and more time trapped in traffic. We face greater difficulty in balancing work and family responsibilities, and a sick and overly expensive transportation system is a real threat to our economic and environmental health.

    The environmental impacts of transportation are huge. Air quality, water quality, habitat fragmentation, degradation, sprawl, and traffic congestion are all on the list. The domination of our patterns of growth by the car, and the reduction of something as basic as children walking or riding their bikes to school, is contributing to the huge rise in childhood and adult obesity.

    Road rage is on the rise. The options for getting out of traffic are severely limited by our welfare approach to transit planning and operations. With the coming major increase in our senior population, more and more people are going to be unable to drive, and will be left stranded and isolated if we don't change the way land use and transportation systems are planned and funded.

    I got involved with the massive multi-billion dollar Byzantine transportation planning and funding quagmire because I got tired of getting stuck in the traffic at the bottom of my hill. You see I live pretty close to I-5 but when I come down my hill, I get stuck in traffic backing up into my neighborhood behind ramp meters installed by Caltrans on the I-5 entrances - whether or not the freeway was backed-up or not. I wasn't even usually trying to get onto the freeway; I was getting blocked in traffic trying to get to my local grocery store.

    This seemed ridiculous to me and I'm a curious person so I decided to try and figure out what was going on that this should happen. I had never heard of SANDAG, but after some inquiries I managed to get on to their mailing list and find out there was something called the Regional Transportation Plan and that they were the funnel for billions of transportation taxes and the planning effort that modeled traffic in the region in an attempt to match transportation capacity to demand.

    Unfortunately, I came to find out that they don't really model the traffic I was stuck in each morning. Hmmmmm. I thought, computer modeling is important and useful, but it's also very easily manipulated and has clear, identifiable limits. But this made me wonder more: if traffic as significant as this isn't being modeled or properly planned for, what else isn't being accounted for in this complex, multi-billion dollar system?

    I've come to understand that traffic is no accident. Yes folks, we are planning for more traffic. And more taxes and more traffic and more taxes and more traffic. This is a phenomenon I've discovered that is best described as the taxing-traffic-treadmill. More taxes give you more traffic, needing more taxes that gets you more traffic. You get the idea.

    We pay for the “pleasure” of being trapped in traffic with no way out and it's being planned that way. Not so much intentionally, but by a combination of factors that push to keep the money flowing to projects without a real check and balance and accountability system to sort out whether the projects are really delivering on what the planning and forecasts have planned and forecast. One thing we do know is that the cost increases and overruns are into the billions and the traffic keeps getting worse.

    I do not believe that we can conclude that Regional Transportation Planning has been effective in balancing growth vs capacity for the past 20 years. There are several reasons why - they are complex, interrelated and difficult to change.

    First, the SANDAG Governance structure does not match its mission. While the mission of SANDAG is to plan for regional transportation needs, their Board of Directors is made of locally elected politicians who, by definition, do not represent regional interests.

    Second, there is a complete disconnect between transportation planning and land use decisions.

    Third, the transit agencies have been run as providing a welfare service of last resort for those who cannot afford a car, or who are disabled, or who do not drive for any number of reasons. They are referred to as “captive riders” or “transit dependent” and there is a strong ideology that the services should be limited.

    Transit has not been designed as the critical infrastructure that will make a difference to our mobility and economy. Efforts to do so have met with mixed results. SANDAG will make great claims that they are increasing transit support. But when you look at the details, they are not doing the right route planning or making the best infrastructure and service changes that will make transit competitive with the car. The billions that have been spent - and are proposed to be spent on additional Light Rail investments - have not been appropriately scrutinized against fair alternatives.

    Fourth is a multi-billion dollar key. For the past 20 years, existing residents have paid a half-cent sales tax for regional transportation improvements. Yet these funds fall far short of what is needed to keep up with the demands of new development. Why? Development projects have never been required to pay their fair share.

    New developments in our region typically pay nothing toward regional transportation. There is currently no mechanism to insure that there will be adequate transportation funding or facilities to serve new commuters. New development has a free-ride - while we are all paying. The result is the traffic jams we see today. We are left without a well-designed transit network that could allow a substantial number of commuters to escape that traffic and thereby balance the congestion that is endemic to major metropolitan areas. Without such infrastructure, traffic can only continue to rise.

    In 1999, SANDAG estimated that development fees could be legally set at levels to raise revenue of $11.35 billion over the next 20 years or so to pay the full cost of the regional transportation facilities needed to accommodate increased traffic attributable to new development. To compare, a proposed half-cent sales tax extension is estimated to bring in only $9.5 billion over 30 years.

    Please also note that development impact fees are capped by State law and must have a nexus to any project. New developments would only be required to pay for the facilities that will be required to serve the new development.

    So all we're asking is that developments pay their fair share - and only their fair share.

    We are requesting that each city direct their SANDAG representative to only support a sales tax increase that includes establishment of each development's fair share Development Impact Fee for regional transportation including transit. The current proposal sets a token fee of $2,000 per unit, while past SANDAG analysis suggests that the real fair share of new development would be higher - in the range of $7,000 - $55,000 dollars. What it should be is simply and justly - their fair share.

    It is also unfair to add this only to housing units. You can be retired or work at home and generate no trips on the regional freeway/highway or transit infrastructure. What generates trips? Jobs. Commercial/industrial lands always generate some number of trips. Planners indeed study and publish the number of “Average Daily Trips” for varying housing and job generating developments. The fees should fairly be based upon that and the policies in SANDAG's own “Regional Facilities Financing Element.” But the SANDAG proposal explicitly excludes applying the appropriate impact fees to commercial/industrial developments. This is simply wrong.

    We are calling upon SANDAG to update their study with respect to determining the Fair Share Costs for all developments and to include support for this concept as a condition for any TransNet sales-tax extension measure.

    Carolyn is Chair of the Political Committee of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club. She delivered a version of this speech to the Oceanside Transportation Summit in early March 2004. Since then, the SANDAG Board of Directors declined to propose appropriate fair share Development Impact Fees. Instead, they are moving ahead with their proposal for only the $2,000 token amount on housing that was negotiated in private meetings with the same development interests that they expect to fund their campaign to increase the TransNet sales tax on the public.

    Rather than turn to considering fair share fees, the Board decided to increase the period of TransNet pubic taxation from 30 years to 40. They are proposing to put this tax extension on the November ballot.

    To be a part of the effort to demand they require developments to pay their fair shares, and that the system be well planned, please send an email to Carolyn at cdchase @sdearthtimes or call her at 858-272-0347.

    Write to SANDAG directly via their website at or to 401 B Street Suite 800 San Diego CA 92101.