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Highway 56 stakeholders join transit debate

REGION — A new proposal in the works by the San Diego Association of Governments has spawned a fierce debate over the future of regional transit in North County.

That debate has mostly centered around the use of SANDAG dollars to bolster mass transit under its new “5 Big Moves” proposal. That has been juxtaposed with highway expansions and improvements now part of a list under the banner of a 2004 ballot initiative, Proposition A, which extended a half-cent sales tax to go into the TransNet fund through 2048.

Yet, while the traffic-packed 78 — which runs in North County from Oceanside in the west to Escondido in the east — has gobbled up “5 Big Moves” headlines, another key, crowded North County east-to-west highway corridor has gotten less discussion so far.

That highway, State Route 56 — which runs from Del Mar and Carmel Valley in the west to Rancho Peñasquitos in the east — could potentially be impacted not only by the SANDAG proposal, but by another currently being floated by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Center (MTS).

Calling itself Elevate SD 2020, the MTS proposal could potentially put another half-cent sales tax on the ballot as a referendum for the November 2020 election as a means to raise money to beef up public transit. MTS is currently holding community meetings across the city of San Diego on Elevate SD 2020, including one on June 11 at the Carmel Valley Community Center and another on the other end of the 56 at the Poway Library on June 26.

Like the “5 Big Moves,” MTS says it supports the ballot initiative on the grounds of meeting state-mandated Climate Action Plan goals.

“L.A. has $0.02 for transit. We have half a cent that SANDAG manages, but we have half a cent of half a cent, or one-eighth of a cent to deal with transit” due to all of the other menu items such as road expansion that TransNet dollars fund, explained Georgette Gomez. Gomez serves as the chair of MTS, as well as president of the San Diego City Council representing District 9.

“In the city of San Diego, one of the areas that is the highest contributor to our climate impacts are vehicles,” said Gomez. “And the city has created goals and we are supposed to be shifting how people move. The way I see it, in order for us to do that, we need a real choice on transit to at least give them the option.”

Critics of the “5 Big Moves,” still in its planning phase, say that voters living along roads such as State Route 78 and State Route 56 should receive improvements before SANDAG spends any additional cash on mass transit projects.

One of the most fierce critics of the “5 Big Moves” has been San Diego County District 3 Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, a Republican up for re-election in 2020, who has called for the organization for which she also sits on the board to carry out its promises it made to voters.

“San Diegans have lost faith in SANDAG. They can’t be trusted to follow through with their promises to voters,” Gaspar said at a May 6 press conference addressing the plan. “In 2004, 67% of voters said they were collectively willing to take on a higher tax burden for the next 40 years in exchange for much needed highway improvements. Fast forward to 2019, SANDAG has a new idea on how they want to spend that money.”

Republican City Councilman Chris Cate — who represents a chunk of the 56 corridor in Sorrento Valley for District 6 — said activist Sonya Solinsky, who sits on the Carmel Valley Planning Board’s Public Transit Subcommittee, has sparked dialogue in the area on public transit. Solinsky has also created a group called Reinstating Transit to North West San Diego.

Solinsky’s plan would be a pilot busing program along the 56 corridor to connect to the new Mid-Coast Corridor trolley line currently under construction in the University Town Center (UTC) area of San Diego.

“So the idea would be to have these routes that offset and come off the Mid-Coast into some of these workforce areas along the 56 corridor,” said Cate. “And her proposal, thus, is to have MTS fund this pilot proposal beginning in 2021 to see whether or not there is that demand once the Mid-Coast comes online.”

Cate said he would not support a SANDAG or MTS proposal if it only focused on transit. But he does support more public transit options in an area, the west side of the 56, which currently has none.

“I think any proposal that is reviewed by SANDAG as a whole needs to include some of these projects that have been promised that are of critical importance to these neighborhoods,” stated Cate. “I mean, whether it’s the 78, the 56, the 52, the 67, these are I think pretty priority projects that have been on the books for some time now.”

Ultimately, said Cate, he does not think one — highway expansion — comes “at the expense of the other.” And so he has written a letter supporting Solinsky’s efforts, published on May 8 and provided to The Coast News.

“We are interested in having some kind of pilot program to see how it would do,” said Cate. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Solinsky has published a survey and taken it and her proposal on a road-show of sorts, attempting to garner support from city of San Diego Community Planning Boards across the 56 corridor.

Some of them, such as the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board, have taken her up on the offer by writing her a letter of support. Others, such as the Rancho Peñasquitos Planning Board, have viewed her the plan with greater skepticism, opting instead to pave their own path on the issue of public transit advocacy.

“It’s definitely a politically driven ideal, lots of mass transportation and removing cars on the road,” said Geoffrey Patrick, a member of the Rancho Peñasquitos Planning, which chose not to write a letter in support of the Solinsky proposal. “When it comes to things like that, I don’t really think it has a place in the Community Planning Board. We’re more like a jury. You hear the evidence of a plan, a building plan or something like that, and the community can voice their opinion.”

Mark Kersey, an independent who represents District 5 on the east end of the 56 corridor which includes Rancho Peñasquitos, carefully couched his words as applied to the Solinsky proposal in an emailed statement.

“In May and June of this year, the Rancho Peñasquitos Planning Board agenda included items regarding the Carmel Valley transit subcommittee,” said Nikki Matosian, a spokeswoman for Kersey, who is considering a run for mayor of San Diego. “After discussion, the planning board did not approve signing onto a letter with Carmel Valley transit subcommittee but expressed support for gathering more data and ensuring the feedback of Rancho Peñasquitos residents were included in the survey. Councilman Mark Kersey has met with Sonya Solinsky of the Carmel Valley Planning Group Transit subcommittee and continues to receive updates about her efforts.”

Gaspar, much of whose District 3 sits within the 56 corridor, echoed Cate in saying she does not believe in an either-or approach. But she remained steadfast in pointing back to Proposition A.

“I am in favor of providing a balanced transportation plan for our region,” said Gaspar via email. “This balance should include meeting GHG reductions required by the State, improving mass transit options, incorporating environmental protections, and funding much needed highway and road improvements. I believe SANDAG can meet our GHG reduction targets and keep the promises it made to voters.”