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Saturday, July 16, 2005 | Mine was the first car in the parking lot at 6:35 a.m. on Sunday, July 10. I’m talking about the parking lot at the bright new Grantville Trolley station located along Interstate 8. It was the morning of the first day of revenue service for the new San Diego Trolley Green Line that now will serve the length of Mission Valley.

Originally part of the San Diego Association of Governments’ long-range regional transportation plan in the mid-1970s, and then included in the original 1987 TransNet transportation sales tax measure, the $506 million Mission Valley East Light Rail Transit Project at long last was doing what it was planned to do all along – move people.

Just like the morning of July 26, 1981, when I was aboard the first ever San Diego Trolley train that ran 16 miles from downtown San Diego to the International Border, I wanted to be one of the first riders on the new Green Line. In 1981, when I took that first train, I paid my $1.00 fare – it was a flat fare at the time and one of the first in the United States to break the $1.00 barrier. Given my position as then-General Manager of San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit Development Board, I could have boarded with my employee pass, but I remember my anxieties hoping that there would be some paying customers, and so I did my share to help. As we now know, there were plenty of paying passengers on that first day – and there have been ever since. Today the San Diego Trolley averages about 80,000 riders each day.

I pulled into the Grantville parking lot and had the honor of being the first-ever Green Line paying customer park-and-rider at that station. I bought a ticket – still $1.00, but only because I was now old enough to qualify for a senior fare. As in 1981, I now have a pass – as a retiree – and did not have to buy a ticket, but wanted to make sure some added revenue was enjoyed this first day of service. I faced the new Cubic fare machines and found them space-age compared to those we started with in 1981. The machines have clear and vivid color video-like graphics, and are prepared for credit, debit and smart cards.

The 77 stairs to the platform were a pleasant climb, though there are elevators for the less-inclined. Once on the platform I found I was not going to be alone as there were three other customers already there and waiting. Two were waiting for a westbound train, and one, like me, was heading east.

I couldn’t help but look around and notice how different the station was from our 1981 “cookie-cutter” version. The benches were pink granite. Unlike prior LRT projects, the project budget included some money for art and these extra funds have made a real visual difference, in terms of being eye-catching and pleasant. Even the trash receptacles – no, they are not called trash cans – were designed to be flashy. And, of course, the big difference was that this station was up in the air some 60 feet, offering views east and west along Mission Valley.

The train to Santee arrived on-time at 6:49 a.m. I got on and found six others already on-board my car. In a few seconds, we were on our way and within two or three minutes we had crossed Interstate 8 and proceeded into and under the San Diego State University campus.

The SDSU station will doubtless be among the most active San Diego trolley stations, but on an early Sunday morning there were only a few transit officers along the platform when one of our passengers disembarked. During school days and for major events at Cox Arena and the Tony Gwynn Stadium, this station is projected to be filled with more than 4,000 transit customers coming and going.

The SDSU station was designed to fit into a variety of things:

– First, it fits into the heart of the campus and is adjacent to the Aztec Center;

Whether one calls it “transit-oriented development,” or “smart growth,” or a “village,” I know that the SDSU station will be a model for how to serve high activity land use with transit. It’s not bare bones when it comes to the price tag, but for decades to come, corridor travelers will be the beneficiaries.

Continuing my journey, I traveled on with the train stopping at the Alvarado Medical Center and 70th Street stations. The Alvarado station will be a great resource for staff, patients and visitors going to the hospital or medical offices located just across the street from the station.

Entering the 70th Street station, we passed through the only at-grade street crossing on the new 5.8-mile segment. In another distinction from the first line that opened in 1981, that original line averages two grade crossings for every mile of track from downtown to the Border.

We continued eastward and passed by, and over, mobile homes, a sea of vehicles at an auto and truck dealer lot, empty lots at Costco that would be filled in a few hours, and arrived at the Grossmont Station at 7:01 a.m. This station, which opened in 1989 as part of the Orange Line, will be a major transfer point between the new Green and existing Orange Lines. Sure enough, Orange Line trains arrived almost simultaneously from the two directions and a few passengers from the westbound Orange Line got off and waited along with me for the next westbound Green Line train.

I will be coming back to use more of the Green Line in the future, but on that Sunday morning I ended my trip at 7:18 a.m.

Back at Grantville, I descended the 77 steps and found that my car remained the sole vehicle in the lot. However, I left satisfied that the $86 million investment that we made during 1979-1981 – introducing light rail service to the San Diego region and providing the foundation for our new Green Line segment – will continue to pay off nicely, and return ongoing benefits to a growing number of daily travelers for decades to come.

A professional transportation engineer for 40 years, Tom Larwin served San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) as general manager from 1979 to 2003.

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