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While I was working on today’s story about the local push for federal stimulus dollars, I ran into a side conversation we didn’t have room to include. As we reported, a lot of transit advocates in town want the region to put its heads (and dollars) together to push forward a transit expansion that would make the trolleys and buses more viable for more people.

In addition to her land use consultant work, Marcela Escobar-Eck is the incoming chairwoman for Move San Diego, a local transit efficiency organization.

Escobar-Eck acknowledged that the local transit system is struggling to find funding to maintain its service and operations on the lines it already has. It’s hard, then, for transit advocates here to suggest that the system should be expanded in terms of tracks and cars, when they don’t know if they’ll have money to pay drivers and maintenance people.

But it appears the region’s solution to jammed freeways is to add more lanes. Escobar-Eck said eventually we’ll have to invest in better projects for transit that affect how people actually use transit, and encourage more of them to do so. She said something I couldn’t fit in the story:

I think traditionally transit has been viewed as sort of the transportation welfare system for people who can’t afford a car.

Gary Gallegos of Sandag said that the stimulus’s emergency nature hampered the ability to include projects like wide-scale transit expansion, which in San Diego is a future goal.

Gallegos referred to Sandag’s overarching transportation plan:

I would guess that if there was no constraint of time, we would draw back on our regional transportation plan. There may be more opportunities for more rail, more [bus rapid transit] on a bigger scale than what we’ve said we could do in a year.

Gallegos said Sandag doesn’t want to “go out and build a bunch of stuff that we can’t operate.” Transit, he said, is a subsidized endeavor where riders pay only about half of the cost of their individual trip.

But, I asked, by that token, wouldn’t driving on surface streets and freeways also be a subsidy, since the government pays to build them? Gallegos said yes, but said it’s a question of land use and the patterns San Diegans have established in their commuting habits.

Along similar lines, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle talked today about possibly building a high-speed rail system to connect several Midwestern cities with the stimulus money, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

[Doyle] said that the economic crisis presented an “opportunity to do some things that we’ve dreamed about doing for years.” A Midwest high-speed train system is one such project, he said. …

Doyle said he hoped such a system could be profitable, but said it might require government subsidies to operate.

“Just as we heavily subsidize our road transportation system,” Doyle said. “We subsidize heavily our air transportation system. I don’t think people should say rail is somehow not subject to subsidy when the others are.”

KELLY BENNETT

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