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SANDAG Leadership Goals and Obstacles

By Climate Writer, Marilyn Bruno with insights from Steve Gelb and Bee Mittermiller of SD350’s Transportation Team

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is the region’s main transportation and planning agency.  Recent turnover of the leadership at SANDAG gives rise to both reflection and excitement.  Reflection on the legacy of Hasan Ikhrata, who held the Chief Executive Officer position from 2018 to year-end 2023, and excitement about the SANDAG Board of Directors (made up of representatives from the 18 municipalities in the county and from the county at large) unanimously appointed Colleen Clementson, former Deputy CEO of SANDAG, as its new interim-CEO.

The recent decision by Mr. Ikhrata to step down as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of SANDAG led the community of stakeholders to acknowledge the remarkable series of initiatives that he launched during his tenure. Since joining SANDAG in 2018, Mr. Ikhrata’s first focus was to reinvigorate the agency by working with the Southern California Association of Governors and the Los Angeles County Transportation Authority to raise significant funding to implement road improvements promised by his predecessors.  He received an extension from the State for the 2020 Regional Plan and gained support of the SANDAG Board to refocus the priorities on “5 Big Moves:” inter-reliant strategies to improve life in the region through creation of a comprehensive, connected transportation system. These initiatives shifted SANDAG’s focus from auto-centric to multi-modal transportation planning to service the entire community while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution. The Active Transportation Planning and “complete streets” programs included the creation of accessible alternatives for people to get around: trails for walking and hiking, lanes for bikes and scooters, and “all class” public transportation. 

Despite bringing in over $1 billion to San Diego and getting his Regional Plan passed in 2020, Mr. Ikhrata and his proactive staff faced bumps along the way.  SANDAG projects had been supported by Gas Tax funding for decades, so finding new sources of revenue was critical to offset the losses from the transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids.  SANDAG’s 2021 Transportation Plan proposed a “Road User Charge” to start in 2023 to offset the Gas Tax shortfall and to incentivize people to save money and Greenhouse gasses by taking advantage of the improved “all class” public transportation system.  The Road Tax had been successfully implemented in other states and also complied with the California Air Resources Board (CARB)’s goal of reducing miles traveled by 25% buy 2030.

However, the political pushback to this “mileage tax” proposal was too strong, particularly by conservative popular opposition, against any agency authorizing a tax. In 2022, the SANDAG Board determined that the Road User Charge should be eliminated from the Regional Plan “in perpetuity” (technically, through 2050).  A revised Regional Plan was submitted to CARB with less ambitious goals and projects that barely qualify for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) approval under California’s new climate change legislation, Senate Bill 375.  SB 375 directs the California Air Resources Board to set regional targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The new law establishes a “bottom up” approach to ensure that cities and counties are involved in the development of regional plans to achieve those targets.). Additionally confronted with minor toll road billing errors and accounting missteps, Mr. Ikhrata stepped down.

So it is up to Ms. Clementson to navigate the obstacles and avoid the pitfalls moving forward.  She is perfectly qualified to take over the role of interim-CEO seamlessly, as she has had 20 years of hands-on experience in the job: former Principal Regional Planner with SANDAG focusing on better connecting local land use plans with regional transportation investments. Her work included oversight and implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Plan, the Blueprint plan for the San Diego region which is based upon smart growth and sustainable development principles. In this role she oversees a number of programs including the SANDAG Active Transportation Planning and the $280 million Smart Growth Incentive Program.  She led efforts to complete the Sustainable Communities Strategy, in accordance with CA Senate Bill 375, for the SANDAG 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, adopted by the SANDAG Board of Directors in October 2011. 

The excitement regarding her appointment to the interim-CEO position is heightened by news that the fundraising pressure will be taken away from SANDAG and left to the people.  The Environmental Health Coalition, transit riders and community activists garnered the required number of votes to qualify a “transit first” measure to be put on the November 5, 2024 ballot.  The “Measure to Fund San Diego County Transportation, Infrastructure and Safety Projects” proposes increasing the San Diego sales tax (currently 7.25%) half-a-cent to 7.75% and requires a majority of the popular vote to pass.  A citizen’s committee will oversee the spending of the millions of dollars that are expected to be raised for much-needed rail, bus and road improvements (including rail connection to the San Diego airport, improving bridges, sidewalks, roads, bike lanes) and for improving public transit services. 

Environmental and labor groups support the measure, citing that 70% of jobs in San Diego are not reachable by public transit and that voters had already approved a one cent sales tax hike (to 8.75%) in National City, Chula Vista, Del Mar, Solana Beach, and Imperial Beach.  However, groups such as Reform California oppose the measure, citing inflation.  

If the measure does not pass, Ms. Clementson and SANDAG are of course in trouble unless they can find new sources of funding – as are the citizens of the City of San Diego, our planet’s ozone layer and air pollution levels.