When you ask the people of San Diego what they want in a transportation system, the answer is usually balance. In a 2009 survey [PDF] by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 75 percent of San Diego residents thought the region should complement its existing highway system by expanding the transit network and implementing programs like congestion pricing. The feeling is more than an abstraction: In 1987 San Diego voters approved a half cent sales tax to finance long-term transportation improvements, with a third of that money dedicated to transit, and when the tax came up for extension in 2004, two-thirds of voters agreed to support it for another 40 years [PDF].

In late October, metro San Diego leaders adopted a long-term transportation plan that seemed to reflect this balanced mission. The 2050 Regional Transportation Plan is the result of years of effort by the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, a coalition of local leaders entrusted with crafting the region’s transport policies. SANDAG’s ambitious, $214 billion plan boasted an “integrated, multimodal transportation system by mid-century.” About a third of the plan’s funding in its first decade will go toward transit projects, with that share rising to 57 percent in the final 10 years of the plan. To some the plan felt too focused on mass transit at the expense of highways, including the editors of the North County Times of San Diego, who “disagreed heartily” with it on those grounds.

Not everyone sees a balanced transportation network in the plan’s details. Instead some see a highway-heavy blueprint that fails to embrace the tenets of smart growth or to address the problems of climate change. Two environmental groups have sued SANDAG in the hopes it will reconsider the plan. In a joint lawsuit [PDF] filed in late November, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity claim that the 2050 plan “will inevitably spur sprawling growth throughout the region.” Meanwhile the state Attorney General considers the plan “inconsistent” with California’s environmental goals, according to a letter issued to SANDAG from that office [PDF].

These critics charge that the 2050 Regional Transportation is front-loaded with highway projects and defers major transit efforts until the later years. By that time, they fear, the San Diego region will be locked into an auto-centric transportation network that encourages unsustainable types of development and ignores the transportation needs of its cities. According to SANDAG’s own estimates, both greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle-miles traveled increase toward the end of the plan, they point out.

“What the San Diego plan really does is, instead of shifting toward transit and reducing vehicle miles traveled, it continues dependence on freeway expansion — envisioning sprawl type development, extending further out into hinterlands,” says Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “When you increase freeway access you make it easier for development to continue moving further and further and further out from urban cores, moving further away from transit corridors.”

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Without question the San Diego 2050 plan makes room for transit projects. Of the estimated $214 billion in spending outlined by the plan (in year-end dollars), nearly $107 billion is dedicated to public transportation. Meanwhile the regional highway network receives just $49 billion, while local roads get $37 billion, with land use and other efforts making up the difference. Compared with previous regional plans, the area “that expanded the most would be our transit plan,” says Charles “Muggs” Stoll, director of land use and transportation planning at SANDAG.

The transit project list itself is substantial. The plan provides money to double-track the COASTER, San Diego’s commuter rail, as well as the SPRINTER, its light rail system. It allocates funding to both improve and expand the San Diego Trolley system, including a new line stretching from San Diego State University to the downtown area. It emphasizes bus-rapid transit and other bus-related services, including transit-signal priority at intersections. It sets aside $700 million to upgrade pedestrian passages to transit facilities, and will implement the $419 million, 500-some mile San Diego Regional Bicycle Plan [PDF].

The upshot of these efforts, according to SANDAG’s 2050 plan, will be compact, transit-oriented urban development. Whereas some 45 percent of all people in the region live within a half mile of transit right now, that figure will rise to 64 percent by 2050. To accommodate the population growth in urban areas, the plan forecasts a “dramatic” rise in dense housing, particularly for areas with more than 20 dwelling units per acre. All told, the system is designed to give San Diego residents “alternatives to driving alone.”

“For well over a decade our region’s been moving toward more development in the already urbanized areas,” says Stoll. “Because of that, probably over a decade ago we started focusing on moving away from investing in the highways that reach out into those more rural areas of the county and focusing more of the investments in the existing urbanized areas. In this plan, which goes out 40 years … we definitely continue that.”

The source of the contention is not so much which transit investments are made but when they get implemented. Critics of the plan contend that too many major transit projects are deferred toward the middle and end of the timeline: double-tracking of the SPRINTER, for instance, is delayed until 2030, as are 11 of the 13 trolley projects. Even the first decade of the plan is misleading in the eyes of critics. Though funding is relatively even — $10.3 billion for transit to $9.7 billion to highways — only a couple big rail projects are scheduled (amid a cluster of bus upgrades). Meanwhile the plan calls for multiple highway widening efforts over that same span: new lanes on Interstates 5, 15, and 805; expansions of a number of state routes; and an all new corridor in the two-mile toll highway State Route 11.

This early disparity in project focus, if not spending, will perpetuate an automobile culture and encourage sprawling land use practices, says Duncan McFetridge, executive director of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. (That’s Cleveland as in Grover Cleveland, the president who established nature reserves in Southern California, not Cleveland, Ohio.) As evidence of this eventual trend, he points to the plan’s estimates for vehicle miles traveled. Although car mileage drops 12 percent from recent totals by 2020, it actually gets a bit worse over the long-term life of the plan — bumping up to a total 7 percent decline by 2050. Waiting to pursue transit projects also increases the chance that funding for those efforts will fall through.

“The metro area that we’ve established has a prime need for transit infrastructure, and the polls show that people want transit for the metro area,” McFetridge says. “People want transit. Why would you promote freeways that are obviously not going to serve the metro urban area?”

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The Cleveland Foundation believes SANDAG’s decision to pursue highway expansion projects rests in part on “fatally flawed,” “useless” modeling of San Diego transit ridership. According to a March 2011 report [PDF] commissioned by the foundation, prepared by the consulting firm Smart Mobility, SANDAG predicts that just 4 percent of “high” income residents — those making more than $60,000 a year — will commute by transit in 2050. That figure fails to consider that ridership levels tend to increase with system quality; after all, in San Francisco, nearly 30 percent of “high” income residents commute by transit.

SANDAG’s plan may also be influenced by a false assumption made about land use developments, according to the Smart Mobility report. Whereas most transportation experts recognize that transit and highway investments create different types of land use, SANDAG modeling suggests the region’s 2050 development will look pretty much the same “regardless of whether the region chooses to invest in highways or transit,” the analysis concludes. “This assumption belies common sense and is simply wrong.”

“This is an outrageous planning failure,” says McFetridge. “We’d like to see the outcome [of the lawsuit] as a proper analysis that would require building and funding transit-first — but the [SANDAG] document has to be done properly in the first place.”

As an alternative, the Cleveland Foundation proposes what it calls a 50-10 Transit Plan. The idea is to pack transit investment into the first ten years and to halt new freeway construction (aside from safety improvements) until the transit system is fully operational. That would make transit competitive with auto travel in and around the urban core, and lead to dense, transit-oriented development, according to the plan. The result will be shorter commuters, lower vehicle miles traveled, and less congestion for everyone, it says. “To delay implementing a transit-first policy is tantamount to not acting at all,” the 50-10 plan concludes.

“We tend to think of these freeway projects as normal and necessary, and I think we just haven’t seen the kind of real investment in transit that will really change the paradigm,” says Bundy, the attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, the foundation’s partner in the lawsuit. “Now we’re trying to add transit back into cities that were really just planning around the car. It’s very hard to deal with reversing that infrastructure once you get it in place.”

The realities of securing federal transit funding make a 50-10 plan implausible, counters Stoll. For one thing, the Department of Transportation doles out highway and transit money through two separate administrations; passing up highway dollars wouldn’t increase transit funding, it would leave free money for San Diego on the table, he says. (In early December both the Federal Highway and the Federal Transit administrations completed a satisfactory review of the SANDAG 2050 plan.)

In addition, says Stoll, it’s important to understand that very few of SANDAG’s road projects will result in traditional highway expansion. On the contrary, most of the regional road work will lay the foundation for transit improvements by creating a system of “managed lanes” — free-flowing, “flexible” lanes that can be used interchangeably for bus-rapid transit, high-occupancy vehicles, or congestion pricing efforts like high-occupancy tolls. Without those improvements, the transit options in those corridors won’t be competitive with car travel, says Stoll, so calling them “highway expansion” projects is misleading.

“I think some of the folks saying that would prefer that zero dollars be spent on highways and all dollars be spent on transit,” he says.

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With the adoption of the 2050 plan, San Diego became the first major metro area in California to comply with the state’s new climate change law. That law, known as S.B. 375, requires long-term transportation plans to meet targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. San Diego’s plan estimated emissions reductions of 13 percent by 2020 and 14 percent by 2035 — meeting the respective goals of 7 and 13 percent established by the California Air Resources Board [PDF]. But by 2050, according to SANDAG’s estimates, emissions reductions will be just 10 percent below current levels under the plan. That amounts to a relative rise in carbon pollution over the years.

“It sort of looks like exactly the opposite of what S.B. 375 was supposed to do,” says Bundy. “That really indicates that there’s something seriously wrong with this plan. It’s not actually going to achieve the long-term reductions that people were hoping to see come out of S.B. 375, and that are really necessary for California to do its part in heading off the worst impacts of climate change.”

While the 2050 emissions figure isn’t legally mandated like the S.B. 375 targets for 2020 and 2035, it runs counter to an executive order passed when Governor Arnold  Schwarzenegger was in office a few years back, which recommended 2050 emissions levels that were 80 percent below 1990 levels. That led state Attorney General Kamala Harris to draft a letter to SANDAG in September expressing disappointment with the 2050 plan. “[T]he suite of strategies relied on by SANDAG, which include a heavy reliance on roadway expansion projects, does not deliver GHG [greenhouse gas] reductions that are sustainable in the long term,” Harris’s office wrote.

SANDAG explains the emissions rise, in part, as the result of transit investments made during the early years of the plan. It also points out that the targets established by the Air Resources Board date to 2005, when driving and emissions levels were higher than they were during the recession. That made it easier to beat the target in the short-term but harder as the economy improves “and more residents are driving to jobs,” in the words of the SANDAG plan. Last, SANDAG assumes that toward the end of the plan urban areas will reach peak development, and settlement will naturally leak out toward remote areas accessible primarily by car.

For the time being, the regional 2050 plan will proceed on schedule, even as the lawsuit does the same. Both environmental groups would be happy with a revised plan that emphasizes transit first and pushes hard for emissions to decline consistently throughout the duration of the plan. Stoll says SANDAG isn’t about to back down from what it feels is a plan that will benefit residents of San Diego county for years to come.

“We believe it’s a very good and balanced plan for our region,” he says. “So to the extent that somebody wants to challenge it, we’re prepared to defend it.”