After years of behind-the-scenes work planning the next expansion to the MTS trolley system, the San Diego Association of Governments is gearing up to take its $1.2 billion project to the public.

The Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project proposes to construct an 11-mile line between Downtown and University City, linking the two regions via a light rail line running along much of Interstate 5. The line, Sandag officials say, would also connect to the blue, orange and green lines and relieve congestion along the heavily traveled corridor.

Sandag’s proposal for the corridor was last updated and approved by its board of directors in 2001. Now that it has made it to the top of the agency’s priority list, the agency is hoping to shake out any wrinkles, update it for 2009, and apply for federal funding.

It is already clear that they will face resistance from transit advocates who believe the rail plan will not go far enough in meeting the Mid-Coast Corridor’s transit needs. As Sandag prepares for the final stages of the development process before seeking federal funding next year, those voices are lining up to ask the countywide agency to reformulate its long-term approach to transit development.

Sandag expects to complete environmental impact documents by next year, and by 2011 secure a Federal Transportation Administration grant that would cover fifty percent of the project’s cost. Local TransNet sales tax revenue, a tax last approved by voters in 2004, will fund the other half of capital construction. Construction would begin in 2012.

The project has been a long time coming. Plans to develop light rail along the Mid-Coast Corridor date back to the late 1980s, when San Diego residents first approved TransNet for transportation projects. Other projects, like the trolley’s green line connecting Santee to Old Town through Mission Valley, have taken priority.

With that line’s completion in 2005, the Mid-Coast Corridor project was taken off the shelf. The project would target the 200,000 commuters who live within the corridor, which includes the communities of Little Italy, Midway, Old Town, Linda Vista, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Clairemont Mesa, La Jolla, and University City.

The project’s working group, which includes leaders of business, environmental and community groups, will hold several public meetings before the end of the year to solicit input on behalf of Sandag’s board. The working group’s first meeting scheduled for this week was postponed and hasn’t been rescheduled. By next year, planners expect to submit both state and federal environmental impact reviews.

Sandag officials believe that the proposal, which currently features the rail line as its main component, will be a boon for University City, one of San Diego’s most densely populated and congested regions.

“That corridor,” said MTS Spokesman Rob Schupp, “has got a huge university that’s growing. You’ve got all this biotech, you’ve got a huge mall, and high rise residential units. Connecting that with downtown makes a lot of sense.”

The area is not currently served by direct or fast transit, which makes it ripe for a trolley line, said Sandag marketing manager Anne Steinberger. “This is the next extension of our transit system because the area needs it,” she said.

But critics of the plan think it is outdated and does not address the needs that commuters within the Mid-Coast Corridor actually have. As it’s currently proposed, the extension will stop short of the Sorrento Mesa area, a major destination for technology firm employees.

That eliminates incentive for potential riders seeking a time-competitive alternative to driving, said Elyse Lowe, executive director of Move San Diego, a non-profit organization that advocates for the development of a sustainable local transportation system, and a vocal advocate for revising the plan.

“You’re about to spend $1.2 billion on a project and you’re not even going to include the area where 50,000 people go to work everyday,” Lowe said. “If we really want a world-class transit system in San Diego, we need to focus on getting the biggest bang for our buck, and that is serving the region’s largest customers.”

The trolley’s route along Interstate 5, she said, will also limit pedestrian access along most of its length, discourage potential riders, and do little to relieve congestion if riders have to drive to use the system.

Move San Diego has presented an alternative plan that it hopes will be taken under consideration as Sandag finalizes the alternatives the FTA requires it to submit along with its principal proposal.

The alternative proposal sheds the central rail line in favor of a network of dedicated bus lanes, bridges, and rapid transit lines that Move San Diego believes will make transit more accessible to neighborhoods. It also extends service all the way into Sorrento Mesa.

“We want to make the system inherently more walkable and bikeable,” said Lowe, who is organizing a coalition of biotech industry leaders to support the project, arguing it will promote transit use among their employees.

Investing in light rail for the Mid-Coast Corridor, Lowe said, commits to expensive capital construction that could be used for more efficient and extensive bus and reconfigured rail service, serving more people.

Sandag and MTS must also contend with riders’ preferences, Schupp said.

“People for whatever reason prefer to get on a train. That’s proved all over the country,” he said. “We think the line up to UCSD will have a similar impact on that community.”

City Heights resident Anna Daniels calls herself “transit dependent,” and though she does not oppose trolley expansions, has been frustrated by cuts to the bus routes she relies on.

“Trolleys, for reasons that I really don’t understand, must be sexier or more palatable to some riders. I don’t get it,” she wrote in an e-mail. “They are also costly and take years to construct, and in the meantime we have buses.”

“Trolleys do not serve neighborhoods, buses do,” she wrote.

Steinberger said the rail extension is only the next step in Sandag’s efforts to continue improving the local transit system. “Our entire system is incremental,” she said, “and this is the next increment in a system that won’t preclude other elements.”

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Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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