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California and the West

Traffic Becomes No. 1 Issue in San Diego

Cities: Candidates for office vow to work on problem as residents' frustration grows.


SAN DIEGO — After decades of feeling smugly separate from the rest of Southern California, residents of San Diego County have joined the ranks of those who complain daily about traffic congestion.

And election season 2000 will go down in history as the year when traffic became the top issue for voters.

Candidates for municipal, county and even legislative office are citing the county's clogged freeways and surface roads during peak traffic hours as their top reason for seeking election.

"I'm running for mayor [because] traffic and growth are out of control," said Superior Court Judge Dick Murphy.

"It's a parking lot out there now," said Councilman George Stevens, another mayoral hopeful.

"We're all spending countless hours stuck in mind-boggling traffic, with no relief in sight," said Mark Wyland, a candidate for state Assembly.

Solana Beach Councilwoman Marion Dodson, a candidate for the county Board of Supervisors, has made traffic her central campaign theme, with four television commercials, all decrying the jams and slowdowns that are a daily fact of life.

In one of the ads, Dodson is sitting in her car on Interstate 5 at rush hour, not moving an inch. "Traffic is so bad that I can tape this television commercial while I'm stuck in it. Now that's enough!" Dodson tells the camera.

Dodson accuses incumbent Pam Slater of making traffic worse by helping residents block the construction of surface streets while simultaneously approving major new subdivisions.

In turn, Slater says that it is she who got $17.5 million from developers to build roads, and she enjoys the support of the traffic-fighting Sierra Club and community groups.

In general, traffic seems to be a good issue for challengers.

"Incumbents are trapped when it comes to traffic," said San Diego political consultant Bob Glaser. "If you're talking traffic, one solution is more roads to take the burden off freeways. But if you build roads, you become 'despoilers of nature.' "

A survey by the San Diego Assn. of Governments found that traffic has vaulted ahead of crime as the public's top concern. With predictions that traffic will increase 83% in San Diego County in the next two decades, San Diego is scrambling to avoid gridlock along the 687 miles of concrete that are covered by the Congestion Management Program.

San Diegans may hate traffic congestion but they also hate having roads built through their communities, particularly in canyons and open space.

Blocking roads from being built through neighborhoods is a highly developed art in San Diego County. The result is that even small trips often require travel on freeways.

"Driving Interstate 15 every morning and night is like being held hostage twice a day," said Bill Welterson, who commutes from Escondido to his job in downtown San Diego. "This is the stuff I moved from Los Angeles to get away from."

San Diego in recent years has begun to appear prominently on a list of infamy put out annually by the Texas Transportation Institute, affiliated with Texas A&M University, of the most congested regions in the country.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area--combining Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties--has been at the top of the list for 15 years, based on a formula involving the number of impacted miles, amount of time lost and amount of frustration experienced by motorists.

San Diego is now tied for ninth place. This is considerably at odds with San Diego's image of itself as America's Finest City.

"Los Angelesization has arrived," said Steven Erie, political science professor and infrastructure expert at UC San Diego. "This is a problem that is going to be with us a long time. Infrastructure always plays catch-up."

Traffic may be standing still, but traffic planning is not. Faced with San Diego's increasing traffic, Caltrans has used techniques that are standard throughout Southern California: commuter lanes, onramp metering and adding lanes.

In her State of the City address in January, termed-out Mayor Susan Golding suggested it was time for San Diego to think boldly and consider an underground rail system along the lines of Hong Kong's. "What are we waiting for?" she asked.

Mindful of the controversy that the subway project has caused in Los Angeles, the candidates to succeed Golding have stuck with more modest ideas, including increased car-pooling, staggered work hours and additional buses and trolley cars.

Former San Diego city planner Michael Stepner says traffic solutions that emphasize building more roads and adding lanes to freeways have it all wrong.

"We've got to stop building communities that are so spread out that you've got to drive everywhere," Stepner said. "Widening streets to ease traffic congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to solve obesity. The relief is only temporary."

City Council candidate Lisa Ross calls alleviating traffic congestion "the toughest job of the next mayor and City Council. There's no sound-bite answer. It's got to be a lengthy and complex solution."

Until relief arrives, professor Erie has a suggestion to assist San Diegans: driver education classes taught by veteran drivers from Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire.

"San Diego has finally joined Southern California," Erie said. "We better get used to it."

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