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LEAD STORY–Quest Continues for Solving the Traffic Congestion, Pollution Puzzle



Answers May Be Found in Mass Transit, Employee Incentives

First, the good news. Traffic congestion and air pollution in San Diego is actually expected to ease up over the next 20 years , even as more cars come into the area.

But the bad news is some of these achievements are limited, and future trends may overwhelm all past gains.

Buoyed by these concerns, local planners are working on a number of transportation solutions , including mass transit, employee incentives and transit-oriented development.

San Diego County is expected to grow by 1 million residents and half a million jobs over the next 20 years. But this is happening at a time when San Diego is fast running out of land. With that many people coming here, they’ll all have to live somewhere, said Robert Reider, air quality planning supervisor with the County Air Pollution Control District.

If current building trends continue, San Diego’s low-density development will push new residents out into the extreme rural areas , far away from the jobs that they’ll need to get to. That means more cars on the road, which translates into more congestion and more air pollution, Reider said.

The situation in San Diego is analogous to what’s been happening in Los Angeles. In the past 20 years, that city’s population grew by 15 percent. But the amount of developed land grew by 300 percent, Reider said.

That will wreak havoc on several key transportation corridors. Highway 78, for example, remains heavily congested between Oceanside and Escondido , even though the freeway was recently widened to six lanes. Since there is heavy development on both sides of the highway, further widening is almost impossible, said Garry Bonelli, spokesman for the San Diego Association of Governments.

But in the next two decades, population and employment in the corridor will both go up by about 75 percent. That translates into an increase of more than 50 percent in traffic volume , from 150,000 to 200,000 vehicles per day by 2020, Bonelli said.

Other highways are similarly constrained. Interstate 8, for example, is in a valley, with heavy development on both sides. It, too, would be difficult to widen, Bonelli said.

Bonelli said that over the next 20 years, traffic congestion will actually be reduced. Sandag’s Regional Transportation Plan calls for $29 billion worth of improvements to roads, highways and mass transit which are expected to reduce the number of miles of congested freeway traffic from 77 to 29 by the year 2020.

I-8 is the perfect example. Once Highway 52 is extended to Highway 67, and once Highway 125 is constructed, this will connect routes 52, 94, 54 and 125. That will help take pressure off of I-8, Bonelli said.

But building more freeways cannot solve the problem by itself. Today’s cars are larger than ever, with a Ford Excursion taking up roughly the space of three Geo Metros. And since more commuters are choosing SUVs over compact cars, the same number of commuters are taking up more space on the freeway as they go to work, Reider said.

What’s more, adding new freeway lanes may actually increase congestion in the long run. Carolyn Chase, editor of the local magazine Earth Times, pointed to a 1998 study by the Texas Transportation Institute that looked into congestion in major metropolitan areas.

Metropolitan areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than cities that did not. Instead, highway construction often generates more traffic, raising congestion levels, she said.

Areas experiencing greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel and travel delays, Chase said.

“Adding more roads does not help. It only generates more and more driving, which in turn, gives you more and more traffic, and it’s expensive,” she said.

Reider agreed.

“We’re trying to address transportation policy that is not necessarily promoting paving more roads despite any environmental cost,” he said. “Putting down more pavement may just worsen the problem.”

Air quality is another problem. But the irony is that in the short term, the air quality in San Diego is actually expected to improve even as more cars are on the road.

Already, the air locally is the cleanest it’s ever been in the 40 years air quality statistics have been measured.

During 1999, the area was not out of compliance with the current federal standard for a single day and was out of compliance with the more stringent state standard only 27 days, Reider said. But 20 years ago, the federal standard was exceeded on 87 days and the state standard on 167 days, Reider said.

Reider attributes the improvement in air quality to federal mandates for cleaner cars, state mandates for cleaner-burning gasoline and other factors. As the trend continues, and as older, heavier-polluting cars disappear from the road, the air will actually improve or stay the same until 2020, Reider said.

But since automobiles emit 60 to 70 percent of the air pollution locally, and there will be more cars driving around, any improvement in air quality will only be incremental. After 2020, if current driving patterns continue, then the sheer amount of car traffic will overwhelm all past gains, and air pollution is destined to go up again, Reider said.

“What we’re faced with now is realizing that this improved air quality is not guaranteed forevermore,” he said.

– More Cars Means

More Parking Spaces

There are also other logistical nightmares, such as parking. San Diego’s 1 million new residents will bring 685,000 cars with them. Between jobs, retail and other services to handle the newcomers, these additional cars create a need for 3.5 million new parking spaces, said Alan Hoffman, consultant to the Metropolitan Transit Development Board.

Those 3.5 million new parking spaces would take up 37 square miles of land , an area roughly equal to all of San Diego Bay, Mission Bay, the city of La Mesa and a two-story deck over Balboa Park, Hoffman said.

The problem is that San Diego is stretched to the limit in terms of what automobiles can do, Reider said.

So planners are working on several methods of moving people that don’t revolve around automobiles. One such project, extending San Diego’s trolley along the I-8 corridor, from Qualcomm Stadium to Grossmont Center, is expected to begin construction this year and open in 2004, said Bill Lorenz, director of engineering and construction for the Metropolitan Transit Development Board.

Once built, the trolley extension would attract about 10,800 additional riders by the year 2015 , most of them rush-hour commuters who would otherwise be using the interstate, Lorenz said.

Since the average lane of freeway can handle about 2,000 cars an hour, the trolley effects a capacity improvement on I-8 roughly equal to adding five lanes of freeway, he said.

– Trolley Line Set

For Highway 78

Likewise, another trolley line will be built adjacent to the heavily congested Highway 78 corridor, with construction scheduled to begin in 2001. After the project opens in 2004, it is expected to attract 15,200 daily riders, said Phyllis Hall, spokeswoman for the North County Transit District.

Still another possibility for San Diego’s future is transit-oriented development (TOD). By planning development around currently existing and future mass-transit hubs, this will help reduce dependency on the automobile.

“Many civic and community leaders are turning to TODs as a way to slow urban sprawl, reduce demand for more freeways and roads, make transit more efficient and enliven communities,” stated a fact sheet released by the MTDB.

One such example is a proposed joint development of 5.27 acres next to the Morena/Linda Vista trolley station. The mixed-use development is designed to include up to 126 apartments, about 25,000 square feet of commercial space and more than 200 parking spaces for trolley patrons, the MTDB stated.

Another is the National City Adult Education Center, a school adjacent to the 24th Street trolley stop. The school serves 3,000 students and faculty a day, while 8,600 people embark or disembark at the trolley stop daily.

– Employers Encourage

Use Of Mass Transit

Some local employers, meanwhile, are also working to encourage the use of mass transit, with a subsidy given to employees to use public transportation. Businesses can give employees an allowance of up to $65 a month for alternative transportation, while the companies get a tax break for it.

Union Bank is one such company. The bank gives a tax-free subsidy of up to $60 a month to employees who either vanpool or use public transit, said Lorrie Ball, vice president and manager of employee relations.

The program was enacted a few years ago, from a time when San Diego was not meeting clean-air standards. The local Air Pollution Control District had mandated that Downtown employers come up with environmentally friendly solutions, she said.

The mandates have since been lifted, but Union Bank has continued the transit program. Ball estimates that out of about 250 employees who work Downtown, 80 to 100 use some form of alternative transportation. Employees at other branches also use the system, although Ball did not have an exact figure.

– Coordinating

Green Technologies

Yet another program seeks to reduce air pollution by mandating cleaner fuel. The California Air Resources Board is working with mass transit operators throughout the state as they invest in green technologies , either a cleaner version of diesel, alternative fuel buses or even electric vehicles.

Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said this pilot program is an ideal way to test alternative technology since transit buses all return to a central location for refueling, and highly detailed records are kept on the vehicles.

Based on what CARB finds out from its pilot program, it may apply the new technology to other diesel users, such as construction equipment, farm equipment, delivery trucks and tractor trailers, Martin said.

Ultimately, CARB’s program could pave the way for an alternative to gasoline. Martin noted that there already is an alphabet soup of other possible fuel sources for automobiles , E85, M85, CNG, LNG and many others , all waiting in the wings.

Ironically, another incentive for alternative fuel is coming from the oil industry itself. San Diego is continuing to reel from the recent jumps in the price of gasoline.

The average price for a gallon of gas is hovering at around $1.71 locally, but as of last week, one San Diego station had pushed the price of self-serve regular unleaded as high as $1.99, said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network.

– County Gas Prices

Appear To Be Climbing

Conceivably, prices at some pumps could break the $2 mark later this week, while the average price all across the county could hit $2 by mid-April, Shames said.

High gasoline prices can have a devastating effect on the business economy, Shames said.

“It goes from the basic costs of employees being able to get to the job, so there’s upward pressure on wages,” he said. “There are a number of businesses, especially now, that are more and more dependent on transportation , delivery services, airlines, taxis; those kind of things that have an impact on business. And then you have the cost of energy.”

Shames believes the uncertainty over gas prices could encourage investment in alternative fuels. High prices may also wean drivers off SUVs and other gas guzzlers, in favor of economy cars.

But in the short term, gas prices will run high , and stay that way for the next five to 10 years, he said.

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