Politics Report: What Kind of Vision? Bold!

Hasan Ikhrata is the new executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Hasan Ikhrata, director of the San Diego Association of Governments, and his staff unveiled their big plan for the future of transportation in the region Friday morning, and it has brought to the surface a political divide that was likely to open up eventually.

Ikhrata says transit will be as fast and convenient as driving from anywhere to anywhere in the county because of a new network of trains – some underground, and some above ground – that travel much faster than existing light-rail system.

“I’m not proposing any light-rail or bus,” Ikhrata told VOSD after the meeting.

Ikhrata acknowledged that passing and funding a plan reflecting his vision would not be easy, but he challenged the board to take it on.

“I believe in your leadership,” he said. “I believe you’re going to rise to the occasion … it’s going to be difficult, but I have faith in you.”

But right away, politicians from North County and East County made it clear they won’t support anything that doesn’t include the freeway expansions promised in TransNet, the sales tax voters extended in 2004. The program has come in wildly short of projections for revenue and doesn’t have the money to complete all the projects it promised.

County Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristen Gaspar put out a memo Friday asking their three colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to formally oppose any SANDAG plan that excludes the 14 unfinished highway projects that were in TransNet. Ikhrata said those projects are now off the table.

Their opposition was echoed to varying extents by comments from Santee Mayor John Minto, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, Vista Councilwoman Amanda Rigby, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, Oceanside Deputy Mayor Jack Feller and El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells.

Desmond said the plan wouldn’t pass with voters in North County or East County because it’ll be seen as a bait-and-switch after TransNet’s promises weren’t kept.

“I like the vision – I’d like to see it happen,” he said. “But we need a parallel path to keep promises made to voters.”

But Ikhrata’s new vision for SANDAG got enthusiastic support, too. Officials from the South Bay and the region’s urban core praised it as an overdue fix to one of the region’s biggest problems and a boon to its climate and economic development goals.

“My first question is, where do I sign up?” said San Diego Council President Georgette Gómez. “This is why we were elected.”

Keep in mind: Ikhrata doesn’t need every vote. After AB 805 reformed the agency, he can get a new transportation plan approved as long as he has the votes from the city of San Diego and two other cities. Based on the comments Friday, he’ll have that.

One takeaway: In the past, SANDAG’s board was rarely the place for disagreement. Its board usually voted in lockstep no matter what complaints constituents or interest groups had.

Elected officials from different parties, and different parts of the region and coming from cities of differing sizes and socioeconomic breakdowns, it turns out, also have different priorities.

Now, SANDAG has become a place where that uncontroversial fact is on display.

How Ikhrata Wants to Amend TransNet: TransNet included a number of promises to voters if they approved a half-cent sales tax. It also included a means for two-thirds of SANDAG’s board to amend the measure if the need arose.

Ikhrata is looking to do just that.

After the meeting, Ikhrata told me he would be putting a motion to amend TransNet in front of the board within the next few months.

That amendment would not only wipe out the 15 TransNet projects that the agency hasn’t started construction on yet, which Ikhrata had already told the board back in February was coming.

SANDAG doesn’t have enough money to finish those projects, but it does have some money.

Ikhrata’s proposed TransNet amendment, he said, will include allocating $300 million – enough to cover the costs of the South Bay Rapid, Mid-City Rapid, SuperLoop Rapid bus projects and the Centerline bus stations on I-15 with room to spare.

But he doesn’t want to spend that on any specific, existing projects. Rather, he wants to start doing the environmental and planning work necessary to get the projects included in his new vision ready to go. Then, MTS through the ballot measure it’s pursuing, or SANDAG through a future ballot measure, could try to come up with enough funding to actually build those projects to start implementing the new vision.

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Jim Desmond at the US Grant Hotel on Election Night. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

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