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Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 | After facing down developers early this year, the burgeoning hub of Sorrento Valley wireless, telecommunications and biotechnology firms are banding together again — this time to protect a threatened public transportation service they say is imperative to their employees.

The Coaster, operated by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, is a popular mode of transportation in the industrial region. After arriving at the Sorrento Valley Coaster station, which is a nexus for nine routes, riders are shuttled to outlying firms on the Sorrento Valley Coaster Connection, a service that transit officials say is in danger of being discontinued due to funding cuts.

Without the Connection, the Coaster will be of little value to Sorrento Valley’s workers.

Roused by the threat to the service, a collaboration of biotech and high-tech executives, joined by at least one environmental group, are set to propose a plan to purchase MTS passes in bulk in an effort to save the shuttle, saying a robust public transportation system is a key component of the infrastructure the area needs to continue to be a mecca for the lucrative industries.

Under the plan, initiated by Reed Vickerman, a vice president of Sorrento Valley-based Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Inc., companies would purchase $40 monthly Coaster Connection passes for six months at a time through March 2009. Employers who pre-purchase tickets would resell the passes to employees or provide them as a benefit. Companies wouldn’t be allowed to reduce the number of passes they agreed to buy — ensuring a steady cash flow to MTS — and the commitment wouldn’t bind MTS to continue the service.

Vickerman said he has roughly 30 employees who use the Coaster and the Connection to avoid the stress of a hectic commute and to save money on gas. Plus, many Sorrento Valley employees were recruited from large cities and foreign countries and are accustomed to using public transit, he said.

“Traffic is a nightmare around here and parking is tight,” he said. “This area is generally just kind of a pain.”

The fate of San Diego’s most lucrative industries depends upon a strong infrastructure, including a robust public transportation system, industry insiders said. As industries go, biotech and high-tech have highly desirable qualities. The sectors are largely green, and infuse the local economy with a well-educated, well-paid workforce. Biotech workers in San Diego, for example, earn an average wage of $80,000 annually, roughly 83 percent above the average pay for all jobs, according to the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

But the industry has to be able to attract qualified employees and that means that the region must provide plenty of affordable housing, public schools with good reputations, unclogged roadways, open recreation space and convenient public transit —”typical quality of life concerns,” Vickerman said.

Beyond Vickerman’s proposal, transportation could be the next politically galvanizing issue for the growing industries, said Kevin Carroll, executive director of the San Diego Council of the American Electronics Association, a national lobbying organization that represents the technology industry.

Motivated by a threat to their expansion in Sorrento Valley, a similar coalition of local biotech and high-tech executives fought and won a battle against residential developers earlier this year. City planners said at that time that community was instrumental in ensuring that the general plan, passed in March, included provisions that fend off residential developers from scarce and desirable plots of industrial land.

The political victory set an important precedent for the biotech and high-tech industries. San Diego has lost at least 800 acres of industrial land over the past 15 years, according to the San Diego Economic Development Division, and future land battles are anticipated as different development interests scramble to acquire remaining land in the county.

As the industries’ attention turns to transportation, transit system officials said they are supportive of Vickerman’s efforts and that they are also looking for solutions to the transportation gap that would exist if the shuttle service ceases.

“We’re in a downward spiral for public transportation,” Vickerman said.

High gas prices, increased environmental awareness and new, more convenient routes have public transit ridership on the rise in San Diego — almost 6 percent in the last year and even more since January, said Sharon Cooney, an MTS spokeswoman. But at the same time, funding is faltering and the agency is looking to shave costs.

The agency counts on subsidies from a handful of county organizations to supplement its operating budget and support services. This summer the transit system lost about $732,000 in such subsidies for the Coaster Connection, the shuttle Sorrento Valley employee’s use, after contracts ended and weren’t renewed.

In an effort to offset the cuts and preserve the service, MTS on Sept. 1 implemented a $1 per-ride fee to ride the once-free shuttle. That doesn’t sound like much, Cooney said, but an agency study found that it has caused a “significant loss of ridership.” She said that could be because Coaster train rates also rose slightly in July to between $129 and $168 for a monthly pass.

And the rub for riders is that even with the rate increases, the connection service can’t be sustained without a steadily growing ridership and full shuttles, Cooney said, but Vickerman’s plan, if enough companies join him, could save the service.

“It’s not the end-all solution, but it’s a start,” Vickerman said.

Please contact Darryn Bennett directly at darryn.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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