COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | CAROLYN CHASE
Cut To The Chase

Irrational planning on rails

Especially in tight financial times, you'd think elected officials would be clamoring for the best projects for the best price in a reasonable timeframe. But as noted in a prior column, "rational planning might seem a matter of common sense, but in reality it is very unusual. It is extremely rare for government politics to reflect the best thinking of the most educated minds. In almost all societies, the integrity of expert thinking is compromised by special interest and politics."

The politics at issue here are the politics of big-money and good-old-boyism involved in so-called light rail transit planning in our region. There's nothing really "light" about LRT, in terms of either the costs or time it takes to deliver.

Voters passed a half-cent sales tax in 1987 that was supposed to pay for the LRT extension called the "Mid-Coast," going from Old Town to a station near Balboa Avenue along I-5. But plans to build the segment have been delayed and costs have risen. Priorities were diverted to other projects. Calls to make good on promises to voters have led to concerns about the high costs and long lead times involved in both the installation and the ongoing operations of LRT, better known in San Diego as the trolley.

The fact that there is no effective transit service from the major regional job center in and around University City to and from downtown has gotten the attention of both citizens and businesses enduring massive traffic at peak periods in this corridor.

The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and City Council representative Scott Peters participated in discussions that led to the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) doing a study to compare LRT service with what's known as bus rapid transit, or BRT, service in this corridor. The promise of "trolleys on tires," providing faster service sooner with lower installation and operating costs and greater route flexibility, is very appealing. So those few paying attention to the esoterics of transit planning in San Diego were looking forward to the study with some enthusiasm, hoping that, finally, transit planning in San Diego was about to enter a new era of efficiency and more timely delivery of service.

But you'd never know it from the recommendation coming out of MTDB's report.

Even though BRT won easily on all the key issues -- money (capital and operating are both less), time (can deliver something much faster on the ground) and flexibility (can go more places you need to go with more frequent service if riders respond) -- the report still amazingly concluded that LRT was the still the best choice.

Even though the design of the study forced all the possible burdens they could think of on to the BRT and reduced them on the LRT, the report still showed that the LRT would cost $110 million more than the BRT.

The soonest LRT service could possibly get built to UTC/UCSD would be more than a decade. We are still four years away from even getting the flat, short segment from Old Town to Balboa built. Past history of cost adjustments and timelines gives little confidence that four years ever means four years.

A number of interests following this process thought this was an opportune moment to hire an independent technical analysis of this amazing study. A couple of folks recommended some firms with expertise and approached them, asking if they could do this kind of analysis. Yes, they said. But they also politely declined because, "we have friends at MTDB and we wouldn't want to be seen as being critical." To which we inquired, could they think of anyone else in town with the qualifications who would do the work? The answer, "No." So I pressed, "Are you telling me that I can't hire independent professional analysis in this town because it might be critical?" The answer was, "That's correct."

I thanked all involved for their candor as I contemplated this particular manifestation of good-old-boyism running rampant between agencies and contractor networks.

Interestingly enough, the midcoast LRT project recently lost its high ranking for federal funding. This is critical to chances of getting anything built, since all rail projects require massive federal and state tax dollars. Turns out the feds changed the ranking rules, asking agencies to consider lower-cost alternatives. Hopefully, the irony that a real BRT alternative for this corridor could make us more competitive for the necessary ranking is not lost on the MTDB Board.

Then there is the issue of "keeping faith with the voters" who voted for a project list containing a midcoast trolley to Balboa. So, in some electeds' minds, the voters should get a trolley there regardless of any other factors.

First, given that the line has not been built -- and will not be built for the costs and timelines promised in 1987 -- that promise is already broken. So the question should be: What are our best alternatives now? Second, the voters also voted for a process to amend the project list to allow for new information. The systems planned 20 years ago may not be appropriate for today.

Finally, how about this for keeping faith with everyone in the region impacted by these critical decisions? Voters, taxpayers (many of whom don't vote) and -- just as important, users and potential users of the system who are stuck with the flaws of regional transportation planning on a daily basis -- want the best service for the lowest cost in a reasonable period of time.

Isn't this what any board of directors should be demanding and holding its staff and consultants accountable for? Why aren't more of the board members demanding the best bang for the buck? The answers appear to be because "they love the trolley" and they are loyal to agency staff and existing contractors quite willing to lead them down another path. Emphatically, these are not rational reasons for ignoring the needs of everyone else, as well as their fiduciary duty.

The report will be presented to the MTDB Board on Feb. 27.

The meeting begins at 10 a.m. and public comment will be allowed at that time.


Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at carolyn.chase@sddt.com.

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