San Diego’s Transportation Future

The federal economic stimulus package presents San Diego with an unprecedented opportunity to build much-needed infrastructure for the community. For example, just when we thought that enhancing public transit in our region was impossible, federal funds may soon be available. Yet, rather than use this opportunity to address this vital gap in our transportation system, the San Diego Association of Governments is considering spending the vast majority of federal funds (which could be as high as $10 billion) on new highway projects.

SANDAG’s approach couldn’t be more misguided. History teaches that it is simply impossible to build our way out of highway congestion. Further, new highway construction rests on the false premise that our land and energy supplies are inexhaustible. In fact, this nation’s over-dependence on the automobile ravages our natural resources, creates unlivable cities and plays a huge role in our looming climate change crisis.

The transportation sector is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, accounting for about 40 percent of these emissions. Just last year, the California attorney general weighed in on SANDAG’s massive road-building program, stating that it “will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions at the same time that the state has mandated reducing those emissions significantly.” We will be unable to slow down global warming, much less stop it, unless we can reduce the public’s reliance on the automobile.

Four months ago, everyone was talking about the skyrocketing price of gas. Today, this has almost become a non-issue. President-elect Barack Obama calls it our pattern of “shock and trance.” Fuel costs soar, and Americans are in shock; fuel costs decline, and we fall back into our trance, lulled into a false sense of economic security. Yet, we all know that it is just a matter of time until gas prices rise again. And, next to housing, transportation is the second-highest household cost for most Americans.

For all these reasons, investing in public transit makes sound economic sense for San Diego and its residents. In fact, Americans are clamoring for alternatives to the automobile and demanding that we decrease our dependence on foreign oil. According to Reconnecting America, Americans took more than 10 billion trips on transit in 2007, saving 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline – the equivalent of a supertanker leaving the Middle East every 11 days.

SANDAG should listen to the county’s residents, who have made clear that the agency’s outdated approach to the region’s transportation is not working. When surveyed in 2000, an overwhelming majority of the community said they wanted an efficient, effective transit system and affordable homes. When they were surveyed again in 2006, 60 percent of residents had considered leaving San Diego due to the high cost of housing and endless commutes. Ignoring these signals, our elected leaders and developers have given San Diego residents what they do not want and do not need – and all at a staggering economic and environmental cost.

It is time for San Diego to follow in the footsteps of other U.S cities that are choosing to build in a sustainable manner. Portland learned, more than 30 years ago, that it was impractical to build enough roads to satisfy drivers’ demands – and, more important, that attempting to do so would cause major impacts to the community and the environment. Consequently, no major new highways have been built in Portland for 25 years.

Portland is thus the poster child for how investment in transit infrastructure results in sustainable communities. Tellingly, while America’s No. 1 “green” city has some of the nation’s highest transit ridership, it also has some of the lowest foreclosure rates, lowest home devaluation and most affordable homes in the country.

The evidence is clear. Cities such as Portland prove that public transportation creates more livable communities with fewer environmental impacts. Interconnected transit networks provide better access to population centers, intercity rail, bus stations and airports. By enhancing transit networks, we can leverage the benefits of new transit investment and foster sustainable development, including affordable housing.

These transit networks also will effectively address climate change, high fuel prices and congestion, enabling us to shift to a greener economy. San Diego’s tragedy is in not planning ahead to meet a changing world.

The economic stimulus package is San Diego’s greatest opportunity for change in many years. Accordingly, we must ask ourselves certain fundamental questions: Do we invest in and plan for a sustainable future, or do we continue the mistakes of the past? Do we respond to the needs of the community by investing in transit, or do we simply build new freeways leading to poorly planned developments? Forward-thinking cities such as Portland show us the way. America’s cities and natural resources are its greatest assets, and this country’s national security lies in their sustainable use for the future.

-Duncan McFetridge

This article originally appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune, December 19th 2008.

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