A new protected bike lane on Beech Street in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Political troubadour Pete Seeger had an apt formula for comparing education and experience: “Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get when you don’t.”

For decades now, San Diegans unschooled in reading the fine print have lost hundreds of millions of dollars to painful experience: the public pension fiasco, the Chargers ticket guarantee fiasco, and more recently, the 101 Ash Street and inflated hotel purchase fiascos.

Each of these scandals began as a City Hall proposal sold quickly to a trusting public. Each erupted when taxpayers learned too late that they should have read the fine print, paid closer attention earlier, and asked tough questions.

And now a batch of stealth government ploys is costing San Diegans two commodities that are as precious and finite as money: public road space and neighborhood open space.

Two consecutive YIMBY mayors, goaded by YIMBY lobbyists with major development funding — nearly 80 percent of Circulate San Diego’s corporate members work in the land use sector — chose to invest millions in bike lanes as a “climate action” mechanism to reduce vehicle pollution.

In theory, a significant portion of the 55.8 percent of workers who commute by driving solo would join the 1.2 percent who commute by bike. But there’s never been any evidence to support that.

In fact, as Voice of San Diego has reported, a city engineer told city planners in 2014 that projections of bike lane usage “were arbitrary — they ‘did not come from anything measurable or related to actual increased ridership.’”

Still, the city persisted. Hundreds of curbside parking spaces across San Diego were removed to install bike lanes. Angry residents and small businesses complained that street parking was already scarce. A widespread public “bikelash” emerged.

Elected officials were in a quandary. They couldn’t risk defying furious constituents. And they couldn’t break with the lobbyists, especially since checking the “climate action” box (on the cheap) is a ticket to higher office in progressive California.

Enter stealth government.

Politicians who shrink from facing public resistance find ways to evade it. They hold town halls where only “pre-selected” questions are answered. And they keep controversial projects out of sight by shepherding them through the underground passages of planning group subcommittees and hand-picked commissions.

That’s what happened with North Park’s 30th Street Bike Lanes, which came as a complete shock to the North Park community when then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer abruptly announced in May 2019 that they were a done deal.

Another stealth trick is to stash radical land use measures in legislative undergrowth. When the City Council rewrote the “granny flat” ordinance last fall, staff said the changes were simply putting San Diego “in compliance with state law.” Buried in the staff report were giveaways to developers that far exceeded state codes: allowances for multiple rental units on single family lots with no required parking, landscaping, or setbacks.

And then there are the dense thickets of budget documents. This summer’s prize stealth gambit was nestled in page 13 of Mayor Todd Gloria’s 21-page “May Revision to the Proposed Fiscal Year 2022 Budget.”

At a time when city funds are tight and bike lane usage is still anemic, Gloria will spend $828,616 in TransNet funds on 12 full-time positions. The new hires “will be responsible for the design and installation of approximately nine miles of new or upgraded bicycle facilities throughout the city per year.” The money seems earmarked for personnel only. It’s unclear if any funds will support actual construction.

Now that you’ve read the fine print, ask yourself how San Diego might spend nearly a million dollars on more urgent transportation needs, like a more robust public transit system to support increased housing density.

Then ask your City Council representative if she or he thinks this cloaked expenditure for a dubious venture will deliver a solid return on investment.

Kate Callen is a co-founder of the SoNo Neighborhood Alliance.

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