San Diego Plans Extension to Its Trolley Network, Mostly Skipping Over Inner City

» Metropolitan Transit System will nominate Mid-Coast Corridor Trolley Extension for federal New Start funding, but it has limited other future routes to bus rapid transit.

You would think, with an ideal climate year-round, that San Diego would be one of the nation’s most livable cities for pedestrians and transit users. What is the good excuse for being stuck in the car when the weather’s perfect?

Yet San Diego remains one of the nation’s sprawl capitals, with 85% of the population using private automobiles to get to work every day and only four percent riding transit. That’s in spite of a light rail system called the Trolley that first opened in 1981 and that now carries about 93,000 daily riders across 53.5 route miles and three lines. But most of San Diego and the surrounding region is of only moderate density and an extensive freeway network makes getting around far easier by car.

Nevertheless, the region’s brightest growth spot has been downtown, which according to Census data grew 73% in residential population between 1970 and 2000, the second most of any center city in the country (after Seattle). Regional authorities expect it to grow by another 150% by 2050.

This increasingly vital core, as well as several densifying inner-city neighborhoods like University Heights, should be the focus of the city’s alternative transportation strategy, since it is in these communities that a population of people unattached to their automobiles can be nurtured. It is here that walkable neighborhoods can be developed. Further out, other options should be promoted.

But the Trolley network has thus far been focused on connecting relatively far-away communities to downtown. The newest planned extension, the Mid-Coast Corridor from Old Town Transit Center to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and University City, won’t be much different. The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), the local public transportation authority, is submitting the project to public review next month with plans to seek federal aid under the New Starts grant program next year.

The $1.2 billion Mid-Coast line would extend light rail eleven miles and include eight new stations by the time it is completed in 2016. Most of the corridor is shared with the Coaster diesel commuter rail line that extends from downtown San Diego to Oceanside, though the light rail would get its own right-0f-way through UCSD and its surroundings. The Mid-Coast project would receive half its funds from the TransNet half-cent transportation sales tax reaffirmed by voters in 2004 and 50% from the federal government if Washington agrees.

TransNet is expected to raise a total of $14 billion in funds for transit and highway projects by the time it expires in 2048.

The advantages of the light rail project are clear: it would connect one of the region’s densest areas, University City and the almost 30,000 students at UCSD, with downtown. Initial analysis indicates that the project could connect the area’s inhabitants with the center city in thirty to forty minutes and attract about 25,000 new transit boarding daily. The Coaster commuter rail line currently takes about 25 minutes to make the trip between Sorrento Valley (north of University City) to Santa Fe Depot downtown. But it only runs thirteen round-trips on the average weekday, and it doesn’t provide direct access into the center of University City.

MTS is planning an 8-mile, 15-station bus rapid transit system in that neighborhood called SuperLoop that would interconnect with the light rail line and begin operations this fall.

In reviewing transit alternatives for the Mid-Coast corridor, local officials compared the light rail extension to a bus rapid transit line and a new extension of the commuter rail system directly into University City. The conclusions indicated that only light rail was financially feasible, since it would attract more than twice the number of daily riders at an equivalent cost. Thus from a cost-effectiveness perspective, only light rail would qualify for federal funding, at least under the old rules. Moreover, building on the commuter rail system would never provide adequate connectivity with multiple stations around UCSD since the trainsets wouldn’t be able to run on surface streets.

The study, it should be noted, limits potential commuter rail ridership by artificially limiting theoretical service to every thirty minutes at off-peak times.

A truly rapid bus line operating in its own right-of-way would be no cheaper, though the project would be converted into a more typical express bus if MTS is unable to receive federal money for the project. Yet San Diego seems likely to meet federal approval for light rail.

The dedication of $600 million in local funds to this line is a big commitment that prioritizes its implementation over other potentially valuable corridors. Though the light rail project would serve University City well, it would only include three stations between there and Old Town, basically denying service to a significant segment of the region. The fact that the alignment would follow the Coaster route means that the lovely and popular La Jolla beachfront (admittedly difficult to access via rapid transit) would get no service whatsoever.

More importantly, the high levels of spending on this project alone force other potentially more valuable corridors to stick with bus rapid transit. Though the South Bay project makes sense as BRT since it would run primarily along highways, the Mid-City Rapid route could be perfect for light rail. That project, which is expected to open for operations next year, connects downtown with San Diego State University along a number of wide boulevards potentially ideal for transit-oriented development. Those inner-city neighborhoods, including University Heights, could serve as direct extensions of the walkable downtown, but it’s hard to see them doing so with BRT.

Yet the decision to allocate the majority of transit expansion funds to the University City-bound line makes funding light rail impossible elsewhere.

To spread the money around, the alternatives analysis for the Mid-Coast corridor could have considered a potentially cost-saving possibility: a tram-train system. Modified light rail trains could run along the existing Coaster tracks and then along surface streets. This would mean only one new track would have to be constructed the length of the corridor (versus two in the light rail proposal), saving potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. It would also speed up Coaster trains and allow higher frequencies since those commuter rail operations are currently limited to some one track sections with sidings only.

In other words, it would allow a beneficial compromise between taking advantage of the existing track capacity and allowing direct access to transit in University City. In doing so, it would save money for other projects in the region, potentially allowing the conversion of other important projects to light rail technology, or at least making more bus rapid transit possible than currently envisioned.

Existing Federal Railroad Administration rules make the operation of light rail trains impossible along heavy commuter rail or freight tracks, but the required nationwide implementation of positive train control by 2015, virtually eliminating the possibility of train-on-train collisions, makes tram-train technology a realistic option for this corridor. Mid-Coast Corridor plans, however, may now be too far advanced for this option.

29 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Ray

    Yonah, you capture my thoughts exactly.

    1. I’m shocked that they’re not putting resources into developing transit in Downtown SD. The Centre City – Downtown, LIttle Italy, Golden Hill, neighborhoods have grown remarkably yet there is still inadequate bus service in these areas that would connect these neighborhoods with the downtown core. This area would be a prime candidate for streetcar expansion (i.e. Portland). Many cities are jumping on the streetcar bandwagon thanks to FTA funding in this area. Unfortunately, San Diego would rather focus on highway expansion, systems management, and the Mid-Coast corridor. SANDAG used to be a leader when it came to transit planning – not anymore.

    2. When they’ve got Coaster/Amtrak right-of-way that is parallel to most of the proposed Mid-Coast project, you would think they would utilize it more rather than reinventing the wheel. But I understand the connectivity and FRA-compliance issues limiting the use of commuter railcars and DMUs. Not to mention the cost of running diesel trainsets on 20-30 minute headways (i.e. Caltrain and Metra).

    3. The Superloop is now in operation.

  • NCarlson

    Frankly I understand their reluctance to take on the FRA after the experience with Coaster and what’s happened in Austin. I honestly wouldn’t hold out for anyone getting anything like tramtrain approved until Caltrain and CHSR is approved, and that might be a while yet.

    That caveat aside, great article. It also got me thinking that we should take another look at Rapid Streetcars in the next few years (http://www.lightrailnow.org/features/f_lrt_2007-02a.htm).

  • Eric L

    Existing Federal Railroad Administration rules make the operation of light rail trains impossible along heavy commuter rail or freight tracks, but the required nationwide implementation of positive train control by 2015, virtually eliminating the possibility of train-on-train collisions, makes tram-train technology a realistic option for this corridor.

    Can they really develop a plan that assumes such regulatory changes? It would be nice to get commitments from the FRA to relax the safety regulations that require heavy/slow passenger trains and prevent tram/train systems, but until we get those commitments can we really expect any transit agency staking billion dollar investments on regulatory changes that are beyond their control?

    • Allen

      @Eric, we can’t. More so, there is nothing about the FRA’s regulations as I understand them that would require existing freight lines to install PTC for new passenger service.

  • Joseph E

    Great post, Yonah.

    I am surprised but delighted that the “trolley” (Can we call it the “Pantograph” instead?) extension to UCSD/UTC will qualify for New Starts, and that is it so cost effective. If done right, this should be a hugely popular rail line, considering the limited parking and limited entertainment and housing options around UCSD, and the many jobs in the UTC area.

    A few years ago, the high ridership along the light rail lines was largely due to the Tijuana to Downtown route, with the San Ysidro station at the border having the highest daily boardings in the whole system. The bad traffic along the southern freeways, and the horrible traffic for cars at the border itself (the pedestrian crossing is much faster) make the blue “Trolley” line very well used. Now with the extension to San Diego State completed, and the border traffic decreased, the other lines are also better used.
    A comment on neighborhoods: the “University Heights” neighborhood is quite small and not very dense. Perhaps you are referring to the whole Uptown region, which also includes Hillcrest, North Park and Normal Heights, and is a growing, fairly dense neighborhood. However, the real center of transit ridership with the Midcity area east of 805, the center of which is known as City Heights (and is sometimes labeled East San Diego, due to its history as an city of that name before annexation). The busiest bus routes in the city are along El Cajon Blvd and University Blvd between Park Blvd and College Blvd.

    I thought at the time that the route of the 15 would be a great option for a new light rail line. However, if the full BRT treatment is done, with proof of payment, exclusive bus lanes, signal priority, and stops every 1/2 mile, a better bus could provide almost the same service as light rail on this corridor, except for the higher capacity and better ride quality of rail. In contrast, the route to La Jolla can use the current rail right-of-way more cheaply. I think the decision to go with BRT for now in the street-running routes is reasonable, until San Diego invests more in transit overall.

  • Jonathan Parker

    While PTC is coming, that regulatory change, by itself, does not make sharing tracks viable. FRA would likely require temporal separation for sharing track with FRA compliant vehicles like the Coaster DMU and the Amtrak Surfliner, which operates on those same tracks, which would render those services ineffective. That says nothing of ownership issues or the freight carriers that may operate on the tracks (I believe this is a BNSF corridor).

    Tram-train may be popular in Europe, but we have a substantially different regulatory regime.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I looked at this rail line on google street view and it looks like there would be a less then 50 mile gap between it and the other suburbs of LA if LA keeps growing and it’s light rail system keeps growing to the south then this light rail syetem if it builds more north east of this extension could one day run into LA’s streetcar system.

  • Joseph E

    Ocean Railroader, the Los Angeles area has Metrolink diesel trains which run from Ventura to Oceanside in North San Diego county, and San Diego has the Coaster diesel train from Oceanside to downtown San Diego. Both of these services run every hour or two during most of the day.

    Of course, if you want to go from San Diego to Orange County or Los Angeles, Amtrak has the Pacific Surfliner, which lets you check baggage and has a cafe car to where you can eat a hot sandwich and drink a local beer while watching the view go by.

    Inland, the second phase of the high speed train project would connect San Diego to Riverside and then turn west to Los Angeles, for a 90 minute trip between LA and SD. Perhaps it will be done by 2035, if all goes well.

  • Nathanael

    Two points:
    (1) Coaster tracks are overcrowded. The need for a separate pair of light rail tracks is not just driven by FRA rules in this case.
    (2) You can walk from UCSD to the La Jolla beach; I’ve done it.

    This is definitely the highest-priority expansion for the SD rail system. After this, the Mid-City really ought to be a rail line, you’re right about that.

  • It’s a shame that there is so much sprawl in the San Diego area too since the weather there can certainly sustain high density transit oriented residential developments. While we can’t turn back the clock and reduce the current amount of urban sprawl surely efforts can be made to curb further sprawl entirely.

  • John W

    Is there no commuter rail station serving UCSD? Seems odd to skip a large destination like that – or are there bus links from the next station up the line?

    With the new light rail it would make sense to have a shared LRT/CR station at University Center Lane – also useful to save backtracking for Balboa station, etc. Are there no plans to do this?

    • Nathanael

      No — the commuter rail route makes a wild detour right around the UCSD area, for historical reasons. You can see it on the map. New-build would be required to serve UCSD by any means.

      • John W

        What about a transfer station at the LRT stop, marked on the map south of the campus, just before the LRT and commuter rail lines split? From the map above, it looks like people travelling by rail from the north would have to come all the way down to the Old Town Transit Center, and then backtrack about 8 miles on the LRT just to reach that point.

        Alternatively, would it make sense for the SuperLoop BRT to intersect with the commuter rail? Or are there not that many likely users to the north of UCSD?

  • Pantheon

    Having lived in both San Diego and Portland, I would say the Trolley is better than the MAX. But both systems have their share of professional criminals and undesirables, an issue which is never discussed on these theoretical transit blogs. Rail transit in many American cities can be a scary experience. It makes transit an unattractive option regardless of the number of new lines being built.

    • Nathanael

      Parking lots have rather more than their share of professional criminals and undesirables, an issue which is never discussed by theoretical advocates of car travel.

    • Thad

      There are professional criminals and undesirables in all public spaces preying on easy targets everywhere, and most of the time these people don’t even approach you or pay attention to you.

  • NCarlson

    As far as Ocean Railroader’s comments about linking up to LA go, what I see is potential for the I15 busway to eventually end up running all the way from the border to Ontario Airport, and maybe even on to Victorville.

    • Ocean Railroader

      If the Las Vegas high speed rail gets built to Victorville and it starts working out then light rail or Metro rail would be a good idea for linking Victorville into the fast growing LA light rail system.

      • Anon256

        What are you talking about? Victorville is 80 miles from Dowtown LA and 40 miles from San Bernardino, with nothing but mountains in between. Running slow metro/light rail trains designed for dense inner cities over such a route would be completely absurd. Commuter rail of some sort might make some sense if Victorville were the sort of place anybody wanted to live, but as the only reason to go there would be for intercity service to Vegas the sane thing to do is to extend the Vegas line into downtown LA via a short, flat connection from Barstow to Mojave and then the California High Speed Rail route. This is the eventual solution DesertXpress have proposed.

  • Based on the conversations I’ve had with people at FRA, the agency is more likely to consider such track sharing in the context of PTC than you might think. This administration recognizes the problems with the existing rules.

    On the contrary. The Administration wants to extend FRA-type rulemaking to FTA.

  • NCarlson

    “On the contrary. The Administration wants to extend FRA-type rulemaking to FTA.”

    That may be true, but frankly I can’t see that being anything but good in the long term. The transition will be hard and painful true, but it can only lead to the FRA realizing one way or another that current rules don’t work.

    For that matter I have yet to hear anyone, even inside the FRA (although I don’t really have any contacts there), suggest applying current mainline rules to rapid transit. Handing regulation over to them makes a lot of sense all around, except for how obnoxious the base mainline rules are when applied to passenger rail (of any sort).

  • cph

    [Posted at both Human Transit and Transport Politic]

    While going through some old papers, I found an old MTDB (San Diego) Regional Rail Transit Plan map. I scanned it and mounted a copy at http://transit.freeshell.org/sd1990.jpg

    It is undated, but would seem to date from 1990 or 1991, according to the lines shown in operation (South and East without Santee)

    Of course now the Old Town and Mission Valley lines have been completed, as has the Santee segment. Missing from any planning (as far as I know) is the Airport/Pt. Loma, Park Blvd, Mission Beach and South Bay segments. As far as I know, there was never a plan to put LRT where, say the #15/115 bus operates

    Notice the proposed extensions to Oceanside and Escondido. These will most likely not be built as Trolley extensions, as they are covered by the Coaster commuter rail and the I-15 carpool lane system, respectively. California HSR will also most likely enter San Diego on the I-15 corridor.

    • Nathanael

      Very interesting!
      Shows how long the lead time actually is on these things. If you want a line built now, start 20 years ago and claim it will be under construction 15 years ago.

  • pamina

    What makes public transit unattractive in San Diego is the inefficiency. Buses are late, trolley breaks down, bus drivers are not always nice and community minded, routes are long. Takes a lot of patience to take the public transit; at least you get to read a lot of books during the waiting time. There’s just not enough financial support to have bus lines run more often. The fare is too expensive for those who want to travel a few blocks; there should be shuttle type buses for local areas, where 50 cents ought to be enough to allow someone with groceries to travel a few blocks. It isn’t so much the prof criminals, but the uncouth, loud and drunken/drugged riders, stinky homeless people that make the rides unpleasant and unattractive. San Diego has a huge mental health problem. Hopefully the homeless shelter planned for November 2010 will help with that. But the rider populace in general freaks out a lot of tourists. Its embarrassing for a San Diego resident to say the least.

  • There was news a month ago about a student in France who sued the public transit system in her hometown for being chronically late. There is enough technology available to at least compel punctuality in public transit, like what they use in Japan, The US is simply not catching up with the public transit technology. A huge country like this should be having more bullet trains than Japan or Europe. China has already caught up in a matter of years. This historical coddling of the automobile industry should be done already, especially with the peaking of oil reserves and the increase of air pollution related diseases in humans. Sensibility has to override corporate greed.

  • citizen

    when are they gonna have the trolley go to the airport? what about balboa, down el cajon blvd, towards the beach? i agree with going north but they should really try and link the tolley to the airport

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