COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TONI ATKINS

Pave paradise?

Call it a coincidence. Last month, I read that Joni Mitchell's new album includes a reprise of "Big Yellow Taxi," the well-known 1970 song that laments the paving of paradise. The same morning, I read Vincent Vasquez' op-ed in The Daily Transcript ("Innovating our way out of 21st-century traffic") that calls for our region to embrace even more "asphalt economic" policies. A lot has changed since Joni penned her anthem 37 years ago, but her lyrics have not lost any relevance.

In addition to being a councilmember for the city of San Diego, I am a member of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) board of directors. MTS runs the San Diego Trolley and more the 90 buses routes. Our system will take advantage of the new managed lanes on Interstate 15 and run Bus Rapid Transit Services on it. We have plans to run BRT on freeway shoulders in South Bay. We have similar shoulder services on state Route 52. Just as roads are good for single occupant autos, so are they good for buses, which each carry 40, 50, even 60 people at a time. MTS supports the building and maintenance of roads, but only to the extent that the investment in that infrastructure doesn't strip our ability to provide efficient and needed public transportation.

Every day, MTS moves more than a quarter of a million people. Even the most passionate advocates of the asphalt economy would agree that this region would suffer greatly if all those MTS riders joined the number of solo drivers slogging to work.

While Vasquez advocates infrastructure that encourages single-occupant driving, he ignores the human and environmental realities of our region. Tens of thousands of people do not own cars in San Diego. Many of our seniors -- a large and growing demographic -- choose not to drive. Thousands of students are embracing the notion that public transportation is a viable alternative to driving and parking. Sports fans help MTS set ridership records for special events. More and more people who have a choice are opting for public transportation. The disabled community depends on MTS. During the past year, MTS generated a record 86 million trips.

Public transportation utilization also reduces our region's negative impact on the environment. A recent study shows that a household's carbon footprint can be reduced significantly if one driver switches to public transportation. In San Diego, where MTS operates an all-electric trolley and a rapidly modernizing fleet of buses that run on clean and efficient compressed natural gas, the positive impact on the environment can be even greater.

MTS was recently forced to implement cuts in services and increases in fares to balance its budget. The budget deficit is caused by reduced sales tax revenues and the state of California's reallocation of more than $1.26 billion of dedicated transit dollars to pay for other services. Also contributing to MTS' ongoing revenue shortfall is our region's relative lack of commitment to public transportation. Yes, we passed Transnet II, a half-cent sales tax. But that half cent is split evenly between freeways, highways and public transportation, meaning only 1/6th of a cent of Transnet II sales tax goes to public transportation.

In transit rich areas of California, up to a full cent of sales tax goes to public transportation. A greater investment in public transportation would allow MTS to fully realize a system that works for many more people.

I have sat through many heart-breaking public hearings listening to people who have lost public transportation services upon which they depend. Vasquez contends in his op-ed that "market based solutions" and "congestion insurance" and "value pricing" for solo drivers is the way of the future. Unfortunately, his solution does nothing to "expand individual choice" for people who need to use public transportation.

To the contrary, our region's on-going emphasis on paving paradise is putting the future of public transportation at risk. As Joni says:

"Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got

Till it's gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot."


Atkins is a San Diego City Councilmember and a member of the Metropolitan Transit System Board of Directors.

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