Citing the tremendous cost savings and greater accountability to the public, state Sen. Steve Peace hopes to make RITA a household name throughout San Diego.
RITA , the Regional Infrastructure Transportation Authority, as proposed by Peace, D-La Mesa, on Sept. 9 in Senate Bill 329 , is intended to create a clearinghouse of transportation solutions for San Diego County. RITA is intended to revamp what has been described as the county’s “dysfunctional, costly and inefficient system.”
RITA would oversee , and possibly replace , other groups doing transit planning. These include the San Diego Association of Governments, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, the North County Transit Development Board, the San Diego Unified Port District, and the San Diego Air Quality Management District.
Instead of several different agencies, which are run by people who are appointed and not elected, there would be a single entity with people who are all elected by the public.
There are two benefits to the consolidation, Peace said.
“The first is we’re going to eliminate a number of upper-management structures that are unnecessary,” he said. “The second is visibility. The simplest and most direct way to make all of these people accountable (is to) have them elected directly by the people.”
Also, replacing these agencies with a single entity will go a long way to increasing voter participation in the planning process, Peace said.
“None of the governing bodies are directly accountable to the public,” he said. “It’s tough enough for people to know who their elected officials are, let alone know who sits on the Metropolitan Transit Development Board or who sits on the Sandag board or even what Sandag is.”
The proposal has drawn some criticism , largely from the organizations that would come under RITA.
Debra Greenfield, general counsel for Sandag, expressed some of the problems the board has with Peace’s plan.
For one thing, such a sweeping change to government needs to be implemented slowly, over a long period of time, so citizens can scrutinize and comment on the plan, she said. But Peace had spoken of implementing RITA in less than a year.
Then there’s the loss of local control. Instead of local governments making land-use decisions, the state would invest that power in the new agency. So RITA becomes the sole player, Greenfield said.
To make things worse, not everyone would have a voice in RITA, she said.
“Sandag now represents all local government agencies,” Greenfield said. “This new RITA would only represent certain districts, and therefore all cities certainly would not be represented. (Sandag members) are concerned their city might not be represented at all on the RITA board.”
Another problem is RITA would not have land-use authority. Many board members think it would cause a communication breakdown, Greenfield said.
“There would be, in the judgment of many board members, a greater fragmentation or disconnect in the integration between land use and transportation,” Greenfield said. “You would have a separate entity dealing with transportation issues who had no land-use authority, and currently, the Sandag members, in their jurisdictions, have that land-use authority.”
Sandag members also say there is no demonstrated need for RITA, since there is no recognized overlap or duplication of services, Greenfield said.
Instead, Sandag is looking into what it can do to strengthen regional transportation. That would accomplish RITA’s stated goal without the downsides of that program.
At the MTDB, the board of directors is doing something similar. On Jan. 27, they looked at a draft of the RITA model and considered possible suggestions on how it should work. The suggestions will be incorporated in a letter to be sent to Peace, which the board will review when it meets Feb. 10.
Jack Limber, a lawyer for the MTDB, noted Peace’s legislation is not yet complete, and therefore the board does not yet have a position on RITA. However, the list of suggestions will serve as a template to judge the finished legislation against.
Steve Cushman, a San Diego Unified Port District commissioner, had not seen the proposed legislation yet, other than a brief overview Peace gave at a presentation. He did not have a position on RITA.
However, Cushman said he’s glad regional transportation is being discussed, since better regional planning benefits everyone, he said.
“I have commended Sen. Peace for bringing this discussion to the forefront. I am always excited when folks are talking about how we can do regional planning better. Because obviously, that’s our future,” Cushman said.
Cushman is looking forward to hearing from Peace, who might make a presentation to the port commissioners later this year, he said.
The port commission already has at least one ardent supporter for RITA.
David Malcolm, port commissioner from Chula Vista, said one central authority would be able to accomplish more than several independent organizations. Also, it would make government more accountable to its citizens.
“One doesn’t have to look very far to see that our infrastructure in San Diego is breaking down, and that Sandag has not addressed our transportation needs,” Malcolm said. “Also, Sandag has spent billions of dollars, the port spends billions of dollars, MTDB has spent billions of dollars, and, yet, none of those people were elected for those positions. So there’s no one that the voters can hold directly accountable to remove from office for not getting the job done.”
Malcolm cited increased freeway congestion as a sign Sandag and other groups have been falling down on the job. Also, San Diego still doesn’t have its so-called “Jobs Train” , a proposal to reopen an east-west rail connection that has fallen into disuse , despite the support of numerous politicians and decades of political wrangling.
“They have the money, they have the power and the planning authority, but they don’t do anything,” Malcolm said. “You can’t remove one person from Sandag, one person from the Port of San Diego, one person from MTDB, because they aren’t accountable.”
By contrast, RITA officials would be elected. That assures local residents would have some kind of power to remove officials who fail to produce, he said.
Duplication Of Services
Also, Malcolm disputed Greenfield’s contention there is no duplication of services.
“There’s a real estate department at the port, there’s a real estate department at MTDB, there’s a real estate department at Sandag. There’s three different executive directors,” he said.
A superagency like RITA would eliminate redundancies, and result in a significant cost savings to the taxpayer, Malcolm said.
Also, with 18 cities and the county jockeying for position, they all tend to look after their own needs rather than the needs of the region as a whole. The result has been a disaster, Malcolm said.
“San Diego used to be a wonderful place to live, and we’re seeing our infrastructure crumble before us,” he said. “We’re seeing our beaches being closed because of our infrastructure crumbling. This is not quality of life. These are not the things that San Diegans demand.”
Peace’s plan also has the support of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Scott Barnett, executive director of the taxpayer group, cited redundancy as a problem under the current system.
“There is overlap, duplication and inadequate implementation of transportation administration and planning efforts,” he said. “Focused attention should be given to improving what is currently a dysfunctional, costly and inefficient system.”
Barnett announced the taxpayer group would devote its resources to assisting Peace in his efforts to pass RITA.