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San Diego Weighs Whether to Continue Rail Expansion Plan

The San Diego region's extensive $160 billion rail expansion plan might be in jeopardy after more financially conservative future members in the region won their elections this past November.

UC San Diego Blue Line Trolley - use once only
The Mid-Coast Extension of the UC San Diego Blue Line Trolley crosses I-5 on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021 in San Diego, CA.
K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune
(TNS) — The San Diego region's large $160 billion rail expansion plan might be in jeopardy after more financially conservative future members won their November elections.

As part of an effort to cut down on car traffic, the expansive plan would build a transit connection to San Diego International Airport, fix rail tracks along Del Mar bluffs and kickstart a 200-mile commuter rail system.

Funding for the project would come from sales tax hikes, per-mile fees on drivers, and, potentially, money from the Biden administration's infrastructure plan.

Yet newly elected politicians or those likely to win, like Chula Vista's John McCann for mayor, oppose a new sales tax and said, "the reality is that people are still using their cars and will be for quite a while."

Proponents of the bill say having a robust rail transit system will allow San Diegans to live farther away and avoid sky-high rents and home prices, as well as reduce the possibility San Diego becomes a traffic nightmare like Los Angeles.

Q: Should the San Diego region continue with the $160B rail expansion plan?

Phil Blair, Manpower

NO: I think it is weighted too aggressively for fixed rail, like the trolley. It anticipates that San Diegans will be able to move farther out into the fringes of the county and will accept long computes, with many stops. Instead more attention should be given to a higher density neighborhood nearer to downtown where residents can clearly get to their destination faster on mass transit than by car. We also need to fairly charge electric car owners for their use of road infrastructure.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

YES:The future of transportation is an amalgamation of better land use decisions (encourage work/live projects, eliminating much commutation); deployment of the new technology of personal transportation (electric, autonomous vehicles); and functional mass transit. On this latter point, this means rapid mass transit. If the discussion continues as "son of trolley," forget it. There is no rider support for that. As to funding? This must be VMT fees to replace the gas tax.

Alan Gin, University of San Diego

YES: One of the most important elements of the plan is to extend the transit system to the airport. That would cut down on the traffic congestion in and out of the airport, which would be a big benefit to the economy. Another key part of the plan is the fixing of the rail tracks near Del Mar. Without that, San Diego could be cut off in terms of rail traffic, which would hurt the local economy.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates

NO:While a robust rail system sounds good, it will not take more than 2 to 3 percent of drivers out of their cars. San Diego is much like LA in that it is spread out. The trolley connects our universities to as many students, faculty and staff as possible. However, sales tax hikes, per-mile fees on drivers and counting on money from the Biden administration's infrastructure plan are all unappealing. Good riddance if $160B is in jeopardy.

Kirti Gupta, Qualcomm

YES:The $160B San Diego rail expansion is critical for our region's economic growth and quality of life. It enables commuters to have an option other than owning a car, paying for insurance and skyrocketing gas prices. Unlocking access to cheaper farther-away housing is also necessary for abating the long-in-the-making housing deficit. Some local funding sources are required to tap into the federal government's infrastructure bill and our region will be unwise to relinquish this opportunity.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

Not participating this week.

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth

NO: San Diego desperately needs better public transportation. However, I am unconvinced that the staggering $160B rail proposal is the answer. Commuter rail lines to the border, El Cajon, and along the I-805 plus added bus routes and airport people mover are unlikely to conveniently serve the suburban sprawl. For a fraction of the cost we could put thousands of self-driving, green buses on the road and generate clean energy for the rapid increase in electric vehicles.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

NO: California already has the highest taxes in the country. Most San Diegans are struggling with the cost of high inflation, rising mortgage rates and concerns about a potential recession, so a proposal to increase the sales tax seems a bit tone deaf and unlikely to get much support from taxpayers. I think the plan should proceed if it uses existing resources from the federal or state government, but I would not be in favor of more tax increases now.

Norm Miller, University of San Diego

NO:There is too much risk that fixed rail transit bets will become obsolete. It is important to make infrastructure improvements and tap the federal matching funds for moving rail away from the coastal cliffs. Beyond that, we should think hard about flexible and innovative transit solutions along existing expanded roadways. $160B is over $50,000 per person, which might soon be able to buy self-driving electric connectable vehicles that carry individuals or groups on exclusive and flexible path lanes that allow for much more customized and no-wait transit.

Jamie Moraga, Franklin Revere

NO:The $160B price tag is likely far greater than estimated. There's no funding for the current plan unless tax increases and per mile fees on drivers are implemented. For a public agency that is dependent on taxpayer funding, public trust is crucial. For several years SANDAG has been mired in internal issues, dishonesty, misuse of public funds, and questionable spending. TransNet is an example. The agency has lost trust to show they can effectively plan, fund, and execute for our region.

David Ely, San Diego State University

NO:Many components of the plan, such as building a transit connection to the airport and relocating the rail tracks off the Del Mar bluffs, should be pursued. But it is difficult to support the plan as proposed given its high estimated cost. And there is the risk that actual costs will prove to be even higher. Planners also need to account for the greater number of people who will work remotely in the future.

Ray Major, SANDAG

Not participating this week.

Caroline Freund, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

YES: The plan will reduce congestion and support sustainability. It should be financed from the infrastructure plan and per-mile user fees on cars. Drivers contribute to carbon emissions while benefiting from reduced congestion, so it makes sense to tax them. Tax collection should be postponed until new transport options exist. General sales taxes should be avoided as they will contribute to inflation and hurt low-income folks the most.

Haney Hong, San Diego County Taxpayers Assoc.

NO:Because most of that $160B comes from highly regressive taxes. Sales taxes and fuel taxes hurt our neighbors who are struggling to make ends meet. And until the board of the San Diego Association of Governments has honest conversations with each other and their constituents on how regressive or progressive ideas like vehicle miles traveled or congestion fees are, then we're going to keep financing transportation infrastructure while turning a blind eye to its disproportionate impact on the poor.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

NO:It is not that the rail expansion does not have merit or not needed but raising taxes and per milage fees on top of existing transportation costs already among the highest in the nation, especially at a time of advanced economic vulnerability and looming fiscal health weakness, seems ill-timed and ill-advised. Much like the state's high-speed rail project appeared worthwhile at the time, the reality of escalating costs and lack of execution has been disastrous.

Lynn Reaser, economist

NO:The system is unlikely to avoid the losses suffered by other rail lines around the country. It will still be a challenge to draw people out of their cars to use the rail lines and the rapid-speed feeder buses. Fixing the Del Mar section is a must to allow the north-south flow of traffic of goods and people, but the rest does not meet a cost-benefit test.

© 2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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