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Bishop Roy Dixon wasn’t happy. He’s the pastor of the Faith Chapel Church of God in Christ in southeastern San Diego’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, just three blocks from Interstate 805.
Next year, Caltrans plans to start widening that freeway so it can reserve lanes down the center for a new express bus line that commuters can take from stops throughout Chula Vista to State Route 94 and over to downtown San Diego. As the line gets built out, it will eventually extend along the 805 as far north as Kearny Mesa and University City.
Commuters will be able to get onto the tour-style buses in the middle of the freeway, because Caltrans is building dual-level stations that will use elevators to get passengers there from street-level overpasses.
The buses will zip along Interstate 805, right through the bishop’s neighborhood.
That sounded good. Many of the congregants in his church’s neighborhood have struggled to find work, and many don’t have cars. “We said, ‘Wow, they’re going to put a bus right down the middle. That’s going to be great for us,” he said. “But when we got the map, we found out we’d been left out.”
Under Caltrans’ plan, the agency wouldn’t build a station in southeastern San Diego, so the bus wouldn’t stop there.
Many residents of nearby neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Mount Hope and Chollas View are poor, unemployed, and dependent on transit to get around. So it was bewildering to Dixon and other local leaders that a bus line that would eventually connect several of the region’s job hubs — eastern Chula Vista, downtown San Diego and University City — could be designed right through the heart of their community and not make a single stop to pick up residents who could benefit from access to those jobs.
“We came to the conclusion that, oops, we were overlooked,” Dixon said.
In the months since Caltrans released its formal plan, residents and community leaders have asked the agency to go back and find a way to build a station that would allow the area’s more than 100,000 residents to get on a bus as it travels north or south along the freeway. The most logical site would be on or near a bridge that now carries the trolley’s Orange Line over Interstate 805 on the way to downtown.
Many southeastern San Diego residents ride the trolley west to jobs downtown. With a bus station at the freeway, they could ride the new bus line to jobs in the north or south.
Caltrans has agreed.
“Once you make those decisions you keep going down that path,” said Joel Haven, the Caltrans engineer who designed the $2 billion widening and station project. “Now we heard from the community, and we’re taking a second look and saying this might be important to this community.”
Haven said a station had been considered at the site near the trolley early on, but then eliminated because it was estimated to cost about $350 million, far more than the other $50 million-$100 million stations in Chula Vista and National City. Building a southeastern San Diego stop would require building a new trolley bridge over the freeway. The train’s nearby station might also have to be moved closer to the freeway to make transferring easier. It didn’t fit into the budget, so it was slashed.
But the agency didn’t consider any cheaper alternatives.
David Schumacher, a senior regional planner with the San Diego Association of Governments, which plans the county’s transportation projects, said not including a bus station there had been an oversight on both Caltrans’ and Sandag’s parts. But he said his agency has since promised San Diego City Council President Tony Young, who represents the area, that a station will be drawn into the plans.
In August, Caltrans released a draft of the document analyzing the environmental impacts of the freeway project, one of the last steps the agency has to take before it can begin construction.
The report caught the attention of staff at the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., the public agency in charge of redeveloping blighted areas of southeastern San Diego and creating job opportunities for its residents. The staff realized that the communities had been entirely overlooked.
“They just kind of blew by and didn’t look at a connection there,” said Nancy Lytle, SEDC’s vice president of projects and development. “Our question was why? How can you overlook 100,000 people?”
Unemployment numbers for the area are hard to come by, but community leaders across southeastern San Diego suspect the rate is higher than the 10.1 percent unemployment rate citywide. According to SEDC, the median household income in the area is $37,492, with 26 percent of families living in poverty, compared to a citywide average of $62,518 and a 10 percent poverty rate. Nonprofit groups in the area do what they can to provide jobs and job training in the community, but they say they can only do so much.
So news of the freeway expansion and the express bus route to jobs was thought to be a good thing. Until they realized it wasn’t stopping there. Not only that, Lytle said, but the community would be affected by the physical widening of the freeway, which would come closer to homes. But what would they gain from it?
“This is going to be Caltrans’ biggest investment in our community,” Lytle said. “If they’re coming through with a widening, the community should experience the benefits as well as the impacts.”
Caltrans responded to SEDC’s concerns, and last month, a local nonprofit, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, organized a meeting between residents and Caltrans and Sandag officials.
Young, the council president, also met with transportation officials. “We told them this was not acceptable and we’re going to have to find a different plan,” he said.
At a recent Sandag meeting, planning officials told Young the station in southeastern San Diego would be included as part of the project, he said.
Bishop Dixon said the oversight had been upsetting, both to him and to other pastors who serve the area’s residents.
“As a bishop and a pastor, it don’t make me feel good at all, because of the fact that here the people that need the thing the most, they’re saying ‘Away with you,’” he said. “Who rides the bus more than we do? Who rides transit more than we do?”