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Bus Light Rail San Diego

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.