SANDAG’s ‘Grand Central Station’: Spending Public Money Without the Public’s Say

by on April 23, 2021 · 12 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

SANDAG Presentation at Midway Planning Meeting Raises Questions

By Geoff Page

Presentations by SANDAG on the “Grand Central Station” project and the Climate Action Campaign were the items of interest at the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group’s monthly meeting Wednesday, April 21.


The SANDAG presentation was not on the agenda and came more as a Government Office Report on the agenda. Representative Jack Christensen spoke for SANDAG.  Explained that a “Notice of Preparation” had been published. This is a notice of an environmental review for a “central mobility hub.”

There is an excellent article in the  April 21 Union Tribune by Jennifer Van Grove and Lori Weisberg titled “San Diego’s ‘Grand Central Station’ moving forward.” In the article is a telling quotation from the man who heads SANDAG.

“(The NOP) is the start of no point of return,” said SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata. “We’re serious about this. … We’re not just making political statements.”

The start of the point of no return? This begs the questions, who is controlling what SANDAG is doing, who is paying for all this, and how will this project be funded? Ikhrata had an answer according to the UT article.

“As in many projects, local money has to be on the table and we have no local funding, except for $50 million (previously approved),” Ikhrata said. “We need to go to the voters for the rest … If we don’t start a process like this we won’t ever do anything. This is expensive, absolutely, but it is worth every penny.”

It is worth every penny to Ikhrata, but what about the public? A lot of money has been spent and is being spent pursuing this idea of Grand Central Station – public money. Whether or not this is something the public wants has never been put to a vote.

What Ikhrata does want a vote on, according to the UT article, is a full-cent increase of the regional sales tax to finance a $170 billion long-term regional transportation plan that includes the airport transit project.

SANDAG appears to be engaging in what is called a Public-Private Partnership, or PPP, 3P, or P3 for short, with the Navy.  This has become a popular way for public agencies to get new facilities for themselves for “free” on a public property. It is not free of course, in exchange for the free facilities, the bulk of a property is turned over to a developer to use as they wish.

The curiosity of the SANDAG deal is that there is no “private” in the deal as both the Navy and SANDAG are public entities.  SANDAG has no money to build anything for the Navy or to develop the remaining land.  SANDAG, it seems, is setting itself up as the middleman for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Christensen was there to explain where SANDAG is in the process already underway. SANDAG is taking public comments now.

“Members of the public have until May 28 to provide input on what the agency should study in its report.”

Here is where to go:

One question should be, instead of what the agency should study, is why SANDAG is going forward with spending money on a project the public has had no say on?

One of SANDAG’s claims is that a people mover running underground from the proposed Grand Central Station could reduce airport traffic by 30% with a ridership of up to 40,000 passengers a day.

In conversations with others knowledgeable about airports and public transportation, the figure of 40,000 people riding the new underground system daily was considered unrealistic in the extreme.

The year 2019 was a record year of travel with 24 million passengers. The daily average would be 65,000 passengers.  If 40,000 used the new proposed connection, that would amount to 62% of all travelers, something that no airport in the country has ever achieved.  SANDAG’s claim of the benefit appears to be exaggerated.

Climate Action Plan

A non-profit group called the “Climate Action Campaign” is pushing work on the city’s climate action plan. Here is their website  They state they are working for a “Zero Carbon” future and have what they call the “Five Fights.”

  • 100% Clean Energy
  • Bikeable, Walkable Neighborhoods
  • World-Class Transit
  • Shade Trees
  • All-Electric homes.

The group claims it successfully advocated for “100% clean energy Climate Action Plans” in eight San Diego county cities: Chula Vista; La Mesa; Encinitas; Imperial Beach; Carlsbad; Del Mar; San Diego; and, Solana Beach. They also claim the San Diego Unified School District as a success story.

The group is conducting a survey that can be found here  They are encouraging the public to log on and provide input.

The goals of when to convert to clean energy are aggressive, to say the least. One goal is to see half of the energy being used by 2035 coming from renewable sources, not fossil fuels. The goals are admirable even if they sound a bit idealistic.

One board member provided his opinion and it seemed like an classic example of the old talking to the young.  Young people are idealistic and have dreams and plans they want to pursue.  The young woman who made the presentation sounded and appeared quite young. The board member was not a young man.

The problem with oldsters is that they have lived long lives and have had successes and failures and feel they know what is realistic and what is not.  They are no longer given to ideals and dreams. They know a lot of that is just the ruminations of the young that will fade away with the years. But, that is not a reason to be discouraging.

This non-profit is not made up of just young people, these goals apparently appeal to people of all ages. Anyone interested in climate action should at least have a look at their website to see for themselves if this is a group worth supporting.

In other news

The city’s budget is out for public comment now. This can be done here .  The particulars of the budget can be seen here   .

Lastly, the Midway group had a brief discussion of the Surplus Land Act that just recently threw a big monkey wrench into plans for redeveloping the Sports Arena site. Chair Cathy Kenton seemed visibly depressed by this stumbling block to the city’s big plans for its Midway property. In fact, the whole discussion was gloomy.

Kenton explained that the city had believed the Surplus Land Act only applied to surplus lands a city was “disposing of,” or selling.  The city is not selling the Sports Arena properties, it is leasing the land. The state law has now been interpreted to include leases of city land.

Although the previous administration knew about this possibility, they forged ahead hoping it would not apply to this development. Kind of like the little kid who puts his hands over his eyes and believes no one can see him because he can’t see them.

Kenton said she believed the interpretation that the law included leases would open a can of worms when the lease on something like Sea World and leases on lots of other city land come due.  There was, however, a fatal flaw in that logic though.  The city wants to redevelop the Sports Arena property.  Sea World’s lease would be an extension for an existing use, not an entirely new use. This could be the case for many other leases on city land. If a lease on a property was not renewed and the land was to made available for development, then the land would fall under the Surplus Lands Act it appears.

The subject of the Sports Arena’s lease came up.  The operator is looking for a new three-year lease to operate the arena.  Negotiations on this lease are apparently on-going while negotiations on the larger project have stalled.  There does not appear to be any objections to the Sports Arena lease as redevelopment would not be ready to start for several years, if an agreement was achieved today.



{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Webb April 23, 2021 at 4:31 pm

Just a few thoughts to add to Geoff’s excellent article. There are two airports in California that have direct connections to rapid transit: San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK). SFO has a BART station located directly in one of its terminals. It can’t get any easier than that and is similar to many international airports that have train or light rail stations right in the terminal. Despite that convenience, rider volume to SFO dropped 2% from 2017 to 2018, and another 6% in 2019. SFO and BART even worked with the TSA to provide priority security lines lines for BART passengers as a reward for ridership, but the numbers still fell. OAK has a people mover that runs from the Coliseum BART station to the airport terminals. Rider volume steadily declined after the first year of operation, even as OAK passenger volumes steadily increased (until, of course, the onset of the pandemic).

I would point out that the people of the bay area appear to have a greater propensity to use public transit of all forms than the average San Diegan. It’s truly part of their culture, given the cost of parking and the congestion of its roads and bridges. Despite the greater acceptance of transit, bay area air travelers don’t seem to embrace either form of BART to the airport. I can’t imagine transit to the airport will be any more successful here.

Also, let’s look at costs. The BART/OAK people mover cost just under a half a billion dollars in 2014 to construct its 3.2 mile length. Construction of the 2.5 mile people mover at LAX began construction in 2019 under a nearly $5 billion contract. I have no idea how much SANDAG thinks the line tunneled under the airport will cost, but I have to imagine that it certainly won’t be any less than OAK’s half a billion and could conceivably cost as much as LAX’s.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some variation of “extending the trolley to the airport is a no-brainer! Why can’t they just do it?” The fact is that it is just not that easy, nor is it clear that it is even a good idea, particularly given that Uber and Lyft are very strong competition to transit for the air travel passenger. Given the potentially disrupting technology of autonomous vehicles on the horizon, it just doesn’t make any sense to commit the kind of money that a connection to the airport would cost.

Of course this assumes that the Grand Central Station is actually about transportation. I fear that it is not.


Chris April 24, 2021 at 10:40 am

I don’t doubt what you’re posting is true (about BART ridership) but it’s very disheartening to learn. I would like to see a trolley stop at our airport so if it really won’t attract the ridership being predicted then that’s a serious bummer.


Peter from South O April 24, 2021 at 3:26 pm

Why such a fascination with rail to the airport? There is a special express bus that runs to all the terminals every 15 minutes, complete with luggage racks and a direct connection to ALL the rail lines at Santa Fe Depot.
Already fixed. Next problem.


Geoff Page April 26, 2021 at 1:09 pm

Thanks for chiming in with all that information, Paul.


stu April 24, 2021 at 11:04 am

Another negative article. The public will have plenty of say Geoff already started it. I am sure many more will chime in for or against. The rendering is nice although probably not San Diego style so it will change alot. The concept of a mass transit center is great and sorely needed. I don’t really believe it will happen San Diego doesn’t seem to be that forward thinking. But maybe. In the mean time it give s the Port and Sandag something to do. These projects always go through years of public debate and change. It is a start to something


Geoff Page April 26, 2021 at 1:13 pm

What was negative about he article, stu? Was pointing out that SANDAG is crashing head, spending public money on a huge infrastructure project that the community has had no say on considered negative? All we did is point out the truth. There was no opinion in this piece about whether or not such a facility is a good idea, the process is the problem.


Don Wood April 24, 2021 at 5:01 pm

Chair Cathy Kenton, chair of the Midway Planning Committee, lives in La Jolla, but owns land in the Midway district. She and several of committee members who are landowners, thought they had hit the jackpot when former mayor Kevin Faulconer convinced the city council to upzone the district for thousands of new housing units and helped convince voters to partially repeal the Prop D coastal height limit so it no longer applied to their properties. It would be ironic if the interpretation of the state law means that most of any new housing in the district must include low and moderate income working class housing. That would drag their property values back down to earth.


Geoff Page April 26, 2021 at 1:14 pm

Don, I believe you have described the situation quite accurately.


Eric Starr April 25, 2021 at 8:28 am

There are bus routes to the airport (923 and 992) that are very convenient and lightly used. Developing and encouraging use of these routes would cost essentially nothing compared to building a trolley line. Why not start with that and gauge the results?


Paul Webb April 25, 2021 at 10:48 am

When I was still working for the airport on the Terminal 2 expansion, we had numerous meetings with SANDAG and City officials who objected to our proposed parking structure (since constructed). They repeatedly expressed the view that no one should drive a private vehicle to the airport. This always made me chuckle inside because although their offices were within a block or two of the 992 bus route, they always arrived in single occupant private automobiles.

I’ve long said that rather than starting the process of building the people mover, SANDAG should try a high frequency shuttle from the Old Town transit station to the airport. Of course, they won’t do it because they already know that there is very little demand for the 992 bus from the Santa Fe station to the airport, despite the 992’s high frequency and air passenger friendly luggage racks.


Michael April 25, 2021 at 9:16 pm

I just wish San Diego could have good and useful public transport like Europe and Asia.


Geoff Page April 26, 2021 at 1:14 pm

Or Mexico or Guatemala or Honduras, even these countries have a better bus system that we do.


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