Candidates bid for local seat

    Democratic incumbent Councilman Scott Peters and his Republican opponent Phil Thalheimer sparred over issues of infrastructure, development and traffic issues in a debate for the first district seat on the San Diego City Council at UCSD Extension on Oct. 15.

    Peters has represented the first district, which includes La Jolla, on the council or four years. He is the first city council incumbent to be forced into a runoff election in 13 years, after he fell just short of the 50 percent of votes required to win in March’s three-candidate March primary.

    More than 40 people attended the informal debate, hosted by the UCSD Institute for Continued Learning. The center invited the candidates as a part of its forum programs.

    A common concern among the attendees was San Diego traffic congestion, which was repeatedly addressed in the question-and-answer section of the debate.

    “It’s like San Diego is getting more people than it can build roads for,” Carmel Valley resident Marietta Blake said of a 677-home development approved by the city council last month, despite concerns over impending traffic congestion in neighboring areas. “We really have to do something about traffic before it gets worse.”

    In response to such complaints, Thalheimer outlined his intentions to overhaul a traffic system that XM satellite radio ranks as the sixth-worst for traffic congestion in the country. Thalheimer’s “Common Sense Plan to Reduce Traffic” would halt developments that increase traffic, utilize road-tax dollars, call for efficient road and highway management and implement new public transportation systems.

    During the debate, Thalheimer also suggested the introduction of reversible lanes as a solution to traffic problems. Such lanes, which are used to serve heavy traffic in one direction during the morning and the other direction during the afternoon, are currently used on the Coronado Bay Bridge and Interstate 15.

    “Reversible lanes are a very inexpensive solution,” he said. “It’s millions less than some of the other proposals.”

    Peters also discussed congestion solutions at the debate, including the “Super Loop” city project. He described the plan as “an internal circulation element that will use ‘flex-trolleys’ to connect key points in University City, including the future Nobel Coaster Station, [University Towne Center], businesses, residential areas and UCSD.” The system would reduce traffic flow by providing the option of public transportation.

    Peters, a member of the California Coastal Commission and the Land Use and Housing Committee, oversaw the completion of State Route 56, which opened in July and connects Interstates 5 and 15. Construction of the $220-million, four-lane highway began in 1999, but was delayed by multiple financial and environmental concerns.

    “I was so happy to finally see [SR 56] finished,” Del Mar resident Larry Porter said. “I use that route a lot now, and it’s something this council should be very proud of.”

    However, Thalheimer argued that the route is much less convenient for North County residents than Peters had expected.

    Thalheimer also said he was told by city engineers prior to the opening of the interstate that they were “deeply concerned that once [SR 56] opens, traffic will flow into these neighborhoods.” Thalheimer also said that the engineers’ suggestions for mitigating traffic were ignored.

    Some SR 56 commuters agreed that the route, which was planned with no direct connecting ramps eastward off southbound Interstate 5, or north to Interstate 5, was not as practical as it once seemed.

    “I thought it was an amazing idea at first,” La Jolla resident Julia Thompson said. “But when you use it, it doesn’t really go to major places you want, and the traffic gets really bad during peak hours.”

    Thalheimer also said he believed his experience with both financial and information city systems would give him the knowledge to serve the district well.

    “I’ve interfaced with every department within the city of San Diego,” he said during the debate. “I have the relationships. I understand the bureaucracy. I know what works and what does not work.”

    While traffic congestion was the biggest concern among the older attendees of the debate, Peters said the problem also involves university students.

    “One of the challenges we have is UCSD, which is going to go from a population of 31,000 total students and administration up to 61,000 in a decade,” Peters said. “I have no control over that, but what I’m trying to do is to use the community planning process to make sure we have good transportation.”

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