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Downtown San Diego, California. Gaslamp Dist. (Photo: Johan Erkki, Shutterstock)

Hasan Ikhrata Out at SANDAG

A fervent supporter of a ‘vehicle miles traveled’ and mass transit utopianism

By Thomas Buckley, July 30, 2023 7:30 am

After nearly five years with the agency, Hasan Ikhrata will be leaving his CEO spot at the San Diego Association of Governments.

Ikhrata, a longtime fixture of southern California transportation and planning sub-culture, announced he is resigning effective December 29 yesterday.

In his resignation letter to SANDAG board chair Nora Vargas, Ikhrata said he “came to SANDAG almost five years ago to reinvigorate this organization and reimagine a brighter future for the San Diego region” and that the agency has tackled “long-standing issues such as transit to the airport, the falling Del Mar Bluffs, building a third crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the need for free transit, more bikeways and housing. Our bold vision has garnered support from federal and state funding agencies, with more than $1 billion in investments coming to the region.”

SANDAG is what is known as an MPO – metropolitan planning organization, of which there are dozens scattered around population centers across the country.  MPOs are run by boards made up of local elected officials and set regional transportation priorities and act as a conduit for federal funding (they were originally created to force big cities to share fed money with their neighboring communities and suburbs.)

Unlike most other MPOs – such as the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) which covers the rest the region – SANDAG not only plans transportation projects but actually builds them, and in the case of mass transit, operates  them, too.  That gives the agency- annual budget of $1.4 billion –  an enormous amount of power in San Diego County.

Ikhrata took over the top spot at SANDAG about five years ago when then-CEO Gary Gallegos resigned under a cloud involving over-stating revenue estimates; in fact, Ikhrata had held the top spot at SCAG until making the move.

Ikhrata’s resignation does not come as too big a surprise – he threatened to do so at the end of last year.

At the heart of the contention between Ikhrata, his 23-member (each city in the county gets a seat plus the county itself, though voting is, controversially weighted)  board, and the public has been his adamantine stance on growing public transit, favoring such projects over roadway expansion.

He has also been a fervent supporter of a “vehicle miles traveled (VMT)” taxing plan for San Diego to both meet state traffic reduction mandates and fund a $165 billion-dollar, 30 year transportation package.  In fact, the concept made it into the plan briefly, the board panicked, and pulled it out.  Ikhrata, however, went ahead and submitted the plan with the VMT for state approval, though he did say that – as directed by the board – staff would try to figure out a way to fulfill the plan without a VMT.

The board panicked because VMT taxes are – rightly – deeply unpopular, an egregious violation of privacy rights (your car would have to be tracked at all times to figure out the tax,) and political suicide.

Ikhrata’s fiscal management had also been questioned recently, with serious concerns raised over contract inflation and dodgy expenses.

Attempts to reach Ikhrata for comment were unsuccessful.

And now for the full disclosure part – when Ikhrata was in charge of Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), I was on the board there (I was also Riverside County’s representative to SANDAG but that was well before Ikhrata had made the move.)

In that time, I personally found him to be professional and dedicated to public service.  We’ve had dinner, he’s a good guy.  Politically we’re rather different, but that was never an issue.

I can also say that I absolutely understand why he would rub the SANDAG board the wrong way.  Hasan is very very much a Planner, capital P, and tends to see things through that lens.  He understands that politics exists and can play in the sandbox when he needs to, but in the end he defaults back to that PLANNING concept, an almost strident mass transit utopianism, whenever a difference of opinion comes up as it did over the VMT.  He did not seem to quite grasp exactly how much the public loathes the concept and continued to push it and push it, much to the consternation of pretty much every regular human in San Diego County.

At SCAG, there are 86 people from 6 counties representing about half of the people in California.  The seats – except for Los Angeles and Long Beach and the counties themselves – are done by district with each person representing multiple cities (I had four.)  Of that board, at most about one-third paid attention to anything unless their district was mentioned – they were cats that you didn’t even have to bother to heard and in general deferred to staff.

Also, SCAG does not build or operate things like roads and buses – it’s a planning and financial cog in the transportation funding world.

SANDAG is different.  Each city in the county gets a seat on the board and – since it builds and operates things itself – it is politically a very hands-on organization.  What SCAG plans may or not matter in the long run; what SANDAG does matters immediately.  This far more active – Ikhrata may have called them intrusive – board (which, heaven forfend!, even includes Republicans – remember, it’s San Diego) and he were bound to hit a logjam at some point.

All that being said, he probably won’t be out of a job for long – there’s surely a think tank or a state or federal administration out there that will hire him.

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