Will San Diego’s $160B rail expansion survive GOP election shake-up?

The San Diego region’s envisioned multibillion-dollar rail expansion — complete with miles of underground tunnels and state-of-the-art train stations — could be on a collision course with a harsh political reality.

The wildly expensive plan at roughly $160 billion still has no funding. It likely needs several voter-approved sales tax hikes totaling at least 1.5 cents. And players from across the political spectrum have rejected what’s arguably the blueprint’s lynchpin: Per-mile fees on drivers, known as road charges.

This story is for subscribers

We offer subscribers exclusive access to our best journalism.
Thank you for your support.

Now Republicans, opposing new levies to fund transit, appear to have recently won key local elections that could shift the balance of power at the government agency spearheading the proposal.

Specifically, projected victories in Chula Vista, National City and Escondido will likely give conservatives more power on the 21-member board of elected officials overseeing the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG. Republicans will also retain control of seats representing Carlsbad, Vista and Oceanside.

“I’m not for a sales tax again. I think it’s a regressive tax,” said conservative politician John McCann, who next year will likely replace progressive stalwart Mary Salas as the mayor of Chula Vista and its SANDAG representative. “The reality is that people are still using their cars and will be for quite a while.”

Chula Vista mayoral candidate John McCann does an interview during a watch party on Election Day.

Chula Vista Mayor-elect John McCann does an interview during a watch party on Election Day at the U.S. Grant Hotel on Nov. 8, 2022 in San Diego.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Cash up for grabs

The debate over whether to dramatically increase funding for San Diego’s long-range transportation and planning agency — which currently has an annual budget of roughly $1 billion — has profound implications for the region’s future.

If voters approve a new levy for transportation, it would put SANDAG in good standing to attract hundreds of millions of matching dollars from President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. If not, such an opportunity may never come again.

Democrats will likely retain a thin political majority on SANDAG’s board because of a weighted vote that gives elected officials from larger cities more influence. But that doesn’t guarantee that the electorate will support their ambitions to expand transit.

Labor and environmental groups couldn’t even gather enough signatures this year to qualify a half-cent sales tax for the November ballot. Now they’re now setting their sights on the 2024 elections.

Their top pitch to voters: building a transit connection to San Diego International Airport and relocating the rail tracks off the crumbling Del Mar bluffs. The money would also kickstart a proposed 200-mile commuter rail system stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to downtown San Diego, El Cajon and Oceanside.

“Our coalition is still committed to that,” said Gretchen Newsom, political director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 569. “We’ve retained the bulk of our campaign funds and are ready to go.”

A Coaster train headed southbound in 2019 along the crumbling cliffs in Del Mar.

A Coaster train headed southbound in 2019 along the crumbling cliffs in Del Mar.

(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

SANDAG officials have said the agency is grappling with something of a cash crunch as its only sales tax, Transnet, is expected to bring in just a fraction of the $39 billion initially projected through 2048, when it’s set to expire.

The region’s long-range transportation agency has stayed busy over last year, completing the Mid-Coast Trolley extension, signing a binational agreement with Mexico over the Otay Mesa East border crossing and securing funding to start the paperwork on moving the tracks in Del Mar.

However, officials have said they don’t currently have enough cash for new large capital projects, such as building the train stations and rail lines envisioned in SANDAG’s most recently drafted reginal transportation plan.

San Diego’s identity crisis

New tax money could effectively green light the transformation of huge swaths of the county by 2050 — something conservatives are deeply skeptical about.

Republicans and many affluent homeowners have spent the last decade fending off state and local efforts to transform sprawling auto-centric neighborhoods into dense, urban enclaves bustling with street life. Many residents enjoy the privacy afforded by single-family housing and have expressed little desire to hop on a train that could put them in close quarters with the region’s booming homeless population.

Meanwhile, Democrats and developers have argued that adding new apartment buildings near job centers is the best way to address the state’s ruthless cost of housing. They argue such construction is ultimately inevitable and will need to be serviced — as well as encouraged — by rail lines in order to avoid the type of mind-numbing traffic that’s engulfed Los Angeles, Dallas and other sprawling mega-regions that spent decades widening freeways.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata, who was hired in late 2018, is among the most strident believers in such urbanizing. However, he said he’s not interested in sticking around San Diego much longer if elected officials can’t rally around a common vision for expanding transit.

“I want to make sure the board, regardless if they’re Republican or Democrat, doesn’t spend every single meeting asking for me to be fired or fighting with each other,” he recently told the Union-Tribune. “I want to see civility and feel that we’re making a difference.”

While partisan grandstanding often consumes SANDAG’s board, much of the squabbling can be traced back to Ikhrata’s own audacious politics. Not only did he freeze a handful of long-promised freeway projects, but he’s also explicitly made limiting car travel the centerpiece of his now 4-year-old campaign.

San Diego Metropolitan Transit System trolley cars pull into the 12th and Imperial station in Downtown San Diego in 2020.

San Diego Metropolitan Transit System trolley cars pull into the 12th and Imperial station in downtown San Diego on Aug. 6, 2020.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As former head of the Southern California Association of Governments, the Jordan-born transit expert has spent his tenure in San Diego stumping not only for a massive rail expansion but per-mile fees on drivers and fluctuating highway tolls to discourage rush-hour gridlock.

“If you want the transportation system to work for the people, whether you drive or take the bus or walk or bike, you have to price the system right,” he said.

That position — while widely embraced by academics and other transportation experts around the globe — hasn’t won Ikhrata many friends in San Diego. In fact, the call for such road charges has put him at odds with not only conservatives but local Democrats who fear political blowback from the somewhat controversial idea.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, arguably the most influential member of SANDAG’s board, has repeatedly called for and voted to remove the per-mile fees from the agency’s transportation plan. Ikhrata said he’s waiting for the state to sign off on such a revision before redrafting his blueprint.

Gloria declined multiple interview requests for this story.

While self-proclaimed progressive politicians have distanced themselves from road charges, it’s not clear what role the proposal played in recent local elections.

Republicans who campaigned against the notion of charging drivers a per-mile fee and won include incoming Carlsbad Councilmember Melanie Burkholder, county Supervisor Jim Desmond and McCann of Chula Vista. But many also lost, such as La Mesa mayoral candidate Kristine Alessio and candidate for supervisor Amy Reichert.

At the same time, Democrat and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who along with Gloria has rejected per-mile fees, secured a seat in the state Senate.

Regardless of its true political impact, the issue has been widely seen as red meat for the Republican base. Although, the same could be said for nearly any proposed fee increase.

“The mileage tax is something that the left-wing politicians have wanted for years, and they still want it secretly,” said Carl DeMaio, a conservative talk radio host and political activist. “I think there is no choice but to fire Hasan Ikhrata. Given the change in leadership at SANDAG, we’re pulling together an effort to seek his removal for incompetence and dereliction of duty.”

Looking northbound on Interstate 15 from Miramar Road is signage displaying rates for toll-paying customers on Express Lanes.

Looking northbound on Interstate 15 from Miramar Road is signage displaying rates for toll-paying customers on Express Lanes designed by the San Diego Association of Governments on Dec. 8, 2021.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Shifting car culture

Outside of San Diego, the idea of charging drivers for every mile traveled appears to be picking up steam.

Last year’s federal infrastructure law quietly directed the Transportation Department to test the idea, while Oregon, Utah and most recently Virginia all have such programs in various stages of development.

California has a pilot program aimed at ironing out some of the big questions, such as how to track drivers and whether to continue charging vehicles that cross state lines. The state has considered using everything from transponders to routine odometer readings to monitor its roughly 26 million vehicles registered.

The idea is to replace fuel taxes as more people drive electric and highly fuel-efficient cars. Government coffers dedicated to road maintenance have been dwindling across the nation in recent years, and a sense of urgency has started to set in, according to experts.

“It’s an issue we have a lot of bipartisan support for in Washington,” said Barb Rohde, executive director of the national nonprofit Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance, which represents local governments and municipal planning organizations.

Still, SANDAG is somewhat unique in how far out in front of the issue it’s gotten. An earlier draft of its $160 billion long-range plan called for collecting road charges as early as 2025, but planners ultimately decided to push that back to 2030 to align with an expected launch date for the state’s mileage tax.

Many regional governments are now exploring ways to piggyback on the state’s eventual rollout, but none have been as explicit as in San Diego, said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“SANDAG made it much more real and concrete for voters than any discussion thus far has done in California,” he said. “Building a road-charge program, full stop, into a transportation package, it’s pretty ambitious.”

One reason for that ambition is a good faith effort by Ikhrata to meet state-mandated benchmarks for curbing greenhouse emissions from passenger vehicles. California’s transportation sector remains a stubbornly large part of its carbon footprint — nearly 40 percent.

To the state’s chagrin, regional governments are having a hard time getting people to drive less. Experts have said for decades that the best, perhaps only tool to keep people out of their cars is dynamic tolling that increases during peak travel times.

“If you design the road-user charge correctly, some of the biggest beneficiaries will be drivers,” said Manville. “It will actually make the experience of driving in rush hour much better in ways that public transportation or expanding the freeway won’t.”

The San Diego region is at a crossroads: Embrace a more urban future or cling to its provincial past. However, experts warn, if cities continue to grow upward without a significant overhaul of the transportation system, commuters should brace themselves for some serious traffic jams.