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Election shake-up in San Diego bodes well for envisioned $177 billion rail expansion

With a high-speed rail proposal headed for a ballot-box showdown, some Republicans vow to block the needed tax hike.

By Joshua Emerson Smith, The San Diego Union Tribune December. 12, 2020

Just a few years ago, a $177 billion plan to dramatically expand rail and bus service throughout the San Diego region would have summoned skeptical chuckles from the area’s top political leadership, long dominated by business-friendly Republicans. However, following November’s election, such an ambitious vision now appears to be gaining steam — rolling toward perhaps its most daunting test, the ballot box.

Getting people out of greenhouse-gas-spewing cars and onto electrified transit systems will almost certainly be a top priority for the region in coming years. Environmentally minded Democrats now control the city of San Diego as well as the county Board of Supervisors for the first time in modern history — led by Mayor Todd Gloria and Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.

Likewise, conservative politicians hoping to funnel limited public dollars into highway expansions, often to accommodate far-flung housing developments, will likely be spinning their wheels for the foreseeable future.

Given recent political changes, “advancing a more aggressive green agenda for the region, from developing mass transit to increasing urban densities and slowing outward sprawl, will be much more doable,” said Carl Luna, longtime local government observer and professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College.

Still, voters must agree to fund the transit blueprint with a hefty, new sales tax — potentially as soon as 2022 — before regional planning officials can start laying track or building expensive new train stations.

The just-concluded election showed that while California voters overwhelmingly lean blue, they drew the line at some of the most ambitious policy proposals of progressives, rejecting ballot measures that would have expanded rent control or scaled back Proposition 13.

While Republicans have recently lost much of their political power in San Diego, conservative crusaders believe that with the aid of talk radio and social media they can block such a tax measure, especially one that requires two-thirds voter approval.

They point out that El Cajon, Vista, San Marcos and Oceanside all retained their Republican majorities in the recent election.

“This is a war on cars and trucks, and it’s based on the fantasy that suddenly people in low-density areas, including suburban areas, are going to get on a bus to a train to another bus to eventually get to work,” said Ron Nehring, a Republican political strategist and former chair of the San Diego as well as California GOP. “Why would anyone in East County vote for this?”

SANDAG overhaul

San Diego’s politics around transportation had already started shifting in 2018 when elected officials voted to hire Hasan Ikhrata as the region’s top transportation and planning expert.

The 21-member board of the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, knew that Ikhrata would likely pursue a progressive agenda when it lured him away from a similar agency in Los Angeles, the Southern California Association of Governments.

However, even many Democrats on the SANDAG board were somewhat startled, if also pleased, to find out just how aggressively he’d push for a massive expansion of public transit.

In August, Ikhrata and his team unveiled a 30-year, $177 billion blueprint for building roughly 350 miles of new high-speed rail, including underground tunnels, and a massive San Diego Grand Central in the Midway District.

Ikhrata said the recent elections have set the stage for his dream to become reality.

“We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us right now,” he said. “Working with the incoming Biden administration, I have no doubt we will be able to implement SANDAG’s bold vision.”

On the local level, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear was recently appointed chairwoman of the SANDAG board, replacing Republican Poway Mayor Steve Vaus. The position comes with a significant amount of power for the Democratic politician.

“It was exciting to get Hasan on board and be presented with new ideas that went in a direction that’s much more visionary,” she said. “I feel hopeful and encouraged and excited about the possibilities.”

At the same time, Republican Kristin Gaspar lost her re-election bid for supervisor to Democrat Terra Lawson-Remer. Gaspar, along with Supervisor Jim Desmond, have led the opposition to Ikhrata’s plan on SANDAG’s board.

With a 3-2 majority on the Board of Supervisors, Democrats will decide in January which two members will sit on the SANDAG board going forward. However, a provision that requires one of the appointees to represent a largely rural district means that Republicans will get one of the two seats, either Desmond or incoming Supervisor and former state Sen. Joel Anderson.

These changes represent an abrupt U-turn for SANDAG, which built out the trolley system but had in recent years focused on expanding freeways with carpool and bus lanes.

Environmental groups repeatedly dragged the previous incarnation of SANDAG into court, arguing that the agency was shortchanging transit and shirking state mandates to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks.

In 2016, green groups and some members of organized labor joined conservative Republicans to oppose a 40-year, $18 billion tax measure put forth by SANDAG’s top brass. The proposal drew 58 percent voter approval but fell short of the needed two-thirds threshold for such a tax increase.

Today, those same green groups are so supportive of SANDAG’s new vision that they have started exploring the possibility of spearheading a citizens tax initiative because it would only require a straight majority vote of the public to raise taxes.

“Right now, they’re just preliminary conversations from transit advocates,” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign. “SANDAG has unveiled a really ambitious proposal around world-class transit, and we want to get ready.”

Not everyone is as optimistic. Former Republican Supervisor Ron Roberts — who as chair of SANDAG teamed with then-City Councilman Gloria to champion the failed ballot measure — said he’s concerned about the agency’s new trajectory.

He said he’s skeptical that Ikhrata’s vision can win at the ballot box and believes it could end up delaying much needed transportation improvements to highways and transit.

“I’m concerned about the dream being beyond reach,” he said. “Ultimately, you’re going to have to confront reality. I don’t care what the political environment is.”

The pitch

The general concept behind SANDAG’s proposal is one shared by many Democrats across the state.

They say building up, not out, and connecting people with clean, electric trains is the only way to grow without wreaking further havoc on the environment. Commercial storefronts, apartment living and boisterous street life, they say, will thrive as metropolitan areas become denser.

Opponents argue that residents have and will continue to reject such urbanization. They point to continued high demand for single-family homes and long-held skepticism around riding mass transit.

At the same time, they also argue that while many homeowners agree with such policies in theory, support falls off when proposed developments threaten to obscure oceanfront views or clog neighborhood streets.

“There’s nothing to suggest that residents of coastal cities are going to suddenly support building 30- and 40-story high-rises along the coast,” said Nehring, the political consultant. “That is a fantasy. Without that density, you cannot support a rail system of that type.”

Rather, conservatives have called for a continued expansion of highways and single-family homes. However, that approach often faces its own set of obstacles, namely lawsuits by powerful environmental groups.

Before the pandemic upended life across the globe, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System was exploring its own tax measure for the 2020 election. Rather than a grand vision, the $24 billion plan focused on near-term improvements, such as beefing up bus and trolley service.

MTS polling found that its plan had enough support to win but only by a razor-thin margin, with 67 percent of people saying they would either “definitely” or “probably” vote for it. Many supporters feared that even a modest opposition campaign would sink the effort.

The MTS campaign also created a rift with SANDAG officials, who feared voters were unlikely to approve back-to-back measures for transit.

Since then, Supervisor Fletcher has taken over as the chair of the MTS board and tried to mend relationships. He said he strongly supports SANDAG’s vision but hopes it will ultimately include many of the more immediate upgrades already explored by the transit operator.

As for getting it over the finish line, he said he’s cautiously optimistic.

“Things are lining up to put us in a strong position, but there’s a lot of work that has to be done engaging the public,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that has to go into building a coalition.”

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