COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | NATHAN FLETCHER

SANDAG passes up chance to show leadership on transit

San Diegans are looking for leaders who will move swiftly to get people back to work in good-paying jobs; leaders who will be bold in working to ensure we are passing on clean air and water to our children by moving smart public policy forward.

The San Diego Association of Governments has missed a golden opportunity to show leadership and position our region as a global model of innovation and sustainability.

Per state law, its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, adopted in 2011, was supposed to lay out a blueprint for how our region could develop housing, transportation and commercial areas in a manner that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

SANDAG could have rallied stakeholders behind a bold plan to invest aggressively in transit, both to provide good jobs and to promote transportation options that reduce carbon emissions.

Prioritizing investment in transit is the right thing to do for workers and the local economy. Leaders from all walks of life agree with the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, which recently passed a resolution urging SANDAG to aggressively swing its infrastructure dollars toward transit and away from building more freeways and roads.

Instead, SANDAG has doubled down on a plan that both the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal found violated state law for failing to properly mitigate climate-damaging emissions. Rather than building a plan for the 21st century, SANDAG has thrown good tax dollars after bad to appeal the case to the California Supreme Court.

SANDAG, which is responsible for regional land use and transportation planning, shouldn’t continue to fight for a backward-facing plan. Given California’s extended drought, local wildfire risk and the specter of sea level rise in our coastal regions, SANDAG should instead do all it can to curb regional contributions to climate change.

The California Supreme Court agreed to take up one narrow issue in the lawsuit over SANDAG’s 2011 plan. The court will decide whether regional planning agencies must analyze the consistency of their plans’ long-term emissions with the state’s ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; these goals are based on well-established climate science.

For years, SANDAG has been skirting the spirit, if not the letter, of state policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Under SANDAG’s 2011 plan, short-term emissions would initially drop but then ultimately spike by 2050. SANDAG does not dispute this disturbing emissions trajectory. In a notable reversal, SANDAG opted to analyze the consistency of its new, 2015 plan with state policy.

SANDAG’s lawsuit is both troubling and puzzling. Scientists are unambiguous about the global need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we hope to limit the worst effects of climate change.

The Superior Court judge who first heard the case in question, Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments, chided SANDAG for its “kick the can down the road” approach to curbing contributions to climate change.

Our local leaders imagine we have plenty of time to change our approach to planning, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Instead of front-loading investments in public transit, as Los Angeles has done, they continue to pursue a car-centric model.

The Legislature and multiple governors have been clear about the urgency of this issue. Gov. Jerry Brown recently brought California’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets in line with those of other nations. California now has until 2030 to cut emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels.

If these aggressive statewide targets are to be met, regional governments such as SANDAG should take all feasible actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Let’s hope the court joins the other two branches of government and sends an unambiguous message about climate change: We don’t have any more time to waste.


Fletcher is a former member of the California State Assembly and current professor of practice in political science at the University of California San Diego.

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6 UserComments
Nathanael 12:00am August 16, 2015

Excellent point, Mr. Fletcher. SANDAG should not be wasting taxpayer money fighting in court to push a plan which they've already admitted is in violation of state law. Why not just make a plan which complies with state law? It's not like it's *hard*!

Glenn Younger 12:00am August 13, 2015

The missing pieces in the transit argument are: 1) mass transit needs a level of denisity that we have in very few neighborhoods in the region to make it even partialy cost effective. 2) Transit requires major operating subsidies, even when working well. There is a reason that trolleys were discontinued; the cost to operate was more than the local agencies were able to pay. 3) The disruption to install transit in existing neighborhoods is just as bad as when I-5 and CA94 were installed. Retrofitting transit into existing neighborhoods has it's own set of problems. I like Transit, It is just the funding is a problem. As long as we are all prepared to reduuce the cost of some other service or sacred cow, or willing to pay more taxes, then it makes sense. It is about the money

MDSD 12:00am August 12, 2015

Powerful article. It really makes no sense for SANDAG to keep fighting this court case when the result is unsustainable carbon pollution and a failure to serve San Diegans' real transit needs. I hope at least a few SANDAG board members will be willing to publicly support a better alternative for San Diego. We need transit and smarter transportation to attract a younger workforce and top level employers and to make our city a world class livable city.

Angela Deegan 12:00am August 12, 2015

So frustrating that SANDAG keeps stalling on delivering a world class transit system for San Diego that can truly compete with driving. It would be so awesome to have great transit system here. It would really help San Diegans get the most out of their city. I'll bet it would also help decrease the incidence of people driving when they've had too much to drink. And it goes without saying that SANDAG as a planning agency should be doing its utmost to decrease carbon emissions considering San Diego's vulnerability to wildfires, drought and sea level rise resulting from climate change. To not aggressively address carbon emissions is highly irresponsible.

Mike Bullock 12:00am August 12, 2015

I have attended a lot of SANDAG meetings, where I have given a lot of 3-minute speeches. I am a retired satellite systems engineer and a guest lecturer at UCSD, on climate and transportation. Professor Nathan Fletcher's article is absolutely dead on. I wish everyone would read it and contact their SANDAG representative. SANDAG is coming down the home stretch on their 2015, Climate-Killing, Regional Transportation Plan. We need to beg them to please reconsider. They are scheduled to vote late this fall. By the way, the California Democratic Party approved a resolution in 2013 that Regional Transportation Plans and other long range plans should support climate stabilization. We all need to become realistic about our crisis. Thank you Nathan Fletcher!

Jerome 12:00am August 10, 2015

This is just sad. Once upon a time Mr. Fletcher was a holder of cogent and articulate points of view. But I guess no more. Sad.