Apr 26, 2024 - News

Mario Orso takes over as CEO at embattled transportation agency SANDAG

Mario Orso and SANDAG Chair Nora Vargas

SANDAG CEO Mario Orso (left) and Nora Vargas, county supervisor and SANDAG board chair. Photo: Courtesy SANDAG

The San Diego Association of Governments has a new leader in Mario Orso, a chief deputy at the state highway administration for the San Diego region.

Why it matters: SANDAG oversees a $1.2 billion annual budget and is responsible for outlining the region's long-term transit and highway plans.

Catch up quick: Orso started at Caltrans as a civil engineer and worked his way up over 32 years at the agency, including a stint last year as acting director for the agency in Orange County.

  • At Caltrans, Orso spent time as the agency's liaison to Native American tribes in the region, and he also worked on border-related issues.

Follow the money: Orso's starting salary is $385,000 per year, and he's been hired to a three-year deal with an option for a three-year renewal.

  • His predecessor departed with a $433,000 annual salary.

Between the lines: SANDAG's board — composed of elected officials from the region — has been mired in a yearslong debate over the proper balance between transit and car-centric spending in the region's 50-year transportation blueprint.

  • Selecting a new director who was an executive at the state's highway agency reflects a shift in that discussion.

Flashback: Orso replaces Hasan Ikhrata, who came to the agency in 2018 pledging to remake San Diego into a transit-first region.

The latest: There's a still-unfolding toll scandal under previous leadership, which Orso got a clear look at during a meeting last week that included his appointment.

  • On Friday, SANDAG's auditor updated its investigation into revelations that the agency improperly charged drivers on SR-125, a toll road in South County.
  • The auditor said she's been unable to determine why executives did not alert the board when they learned of the system's failures.

The big picture: The toll-road investigation and the board's feud with Ikhrata are the latest chapters in nearly a decade of dysfunction and scandal at SANDAG.

What we're watching: SANDAG's transportation plans will be heavily influenced by the outcome of a countywide November ballot measure that would raise sales taxes for transit, highway and road projects.

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