East County officials accuse SANDAG of highway robbery

RAMONA, Calif. -- A group of angry East County elected officials accused the county's transportation planning agency of highway robbery for diverting money from a long-awaited road improvement project.

They say that San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has shifted money from a project to widen state Route 67 to public transit projects elsewhere in the county.

“We paid the sales tax. We paid the gas tax. Now fix the damn road!" shouted Poway Mayor Steve Vaus.

Vaus was joined at a news conference on the roadway by San Diego County supervisors Diane Jacob and Kristin Gaspar.

“[SANDAG says] it’s their way or the highway,” Jacob said. “We choose the highway!”

Jacob said several state roads need to be widened and improved because they are wildfire evacuation routes from towns like Ramona. In 2007, the Witch Creek Fire burned through the area, forcing thousands to flee their homes, she said.

“It’s not just a highway. It’s a lifeline,” Jacob said.

“It becomes gridlock,” said Ashley Ridge, a Ramona resident. “You are a sitting duck, pretty much stuck.”

Ridge said the possibility of another wildfire burning through the area is on the minds of many Ramona residents. Jacob pointed to the devastating Camp Fire, which killed 88 people before they could escape to safety. She said she feared the same kind of tragedy could happen in Ramona during a firestorm.

Mayor Vaus said the road, which narrows to just two lanes in places, is dangerous for drivers. He said there have been hundreds of unnecessary accidents on the road in the past decade.

“It’s got a new name now: Blood Alley,” Vaus said.

Gaspar said SANDAG has been collecting taxes for the repairs for decades, but it feels like they are now pulling a bait-and-switch.

“We’ve been paying for these improvements since I was 7," she said. "Where has all our money gone?”

FOX 5 contacted SANDAG for a response to the complaints from the elected officials. The agency's executive director, Hasan Ikhrata, sent this written statement:

"SANDAG staff and leadership are committed to addressing this important safety issue for our region. The question that SANDAG has for those who held the press conference today is: The fires occurred in 2003 and 2007 – what have you done in the last 16 years to fix the problem? Our Regional Plan will include real solutions that will improve safety and reduce congestion on SR 67."

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