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Last year, Carol Carson got a job working for Union Bank in downtown San Diego. But driving to work was out of the question.
A spot in a parking garage would alone cost almost $300 a month, not to mention the wear and tear both her wallet and her car would endure from the 60-mile daily round trip from Escondido.
So she started taking the express bus, which picks her up at the Escondido Transit Center, hops on Interstate 15’s carpool lane and, after just two stops, deposits her at the corner of Broadway and 6th Avenue faster than if she’d sat in rush hour traffic.
“It’s great. I’m really happy with it,” she said of her commute. “I’m a true believer in public transit if it’s available.”
Express buses like the one that makes Carson’s daily commute such a breeze are rare in San Diego. There are only eight routes, most designed to allow people living in suburbs like Poway and Carmel Valley to zip to their jobs downtown without the hassle or delays of multiple stops.
But in the years and decades to come, similar express bus routes are envisioned to become a larger part of San Diego’s regional transit network. There are at least 26 new routes planned.
The limited stop express buses, known as Bus Rapid Transit or Rapid Bus lines, are designed to cut through freeway and street traffic using reserved lanes, dedicated off-ramps and re-timed signal lights that let them jump ahead of traffic. They’re in the works along the northern portion of Interstate 15 and southern portion of Interstate 805 and on some of San Diego’s major thoroughfares like El Cajon Boulevard, where street improvements scheduled to start next year are expected to shave nine minutes off the bus trip from San Diego State University to downtown.
“It’s a concept that has some flexibility because they run a little like trains with rubber tires, and because you don’t have to stay on the rails like a trolley would,” said Muggs Stoll, transportation planning director for the San Diego Association of Governments, which plans to spend nearly $3 billion on express buses in its 40-year, $200 billion transportation plan.
Many of those buses will require wider freeways to operate. Ten of the lines Sandag wants to build would run on freeways, once improvements have been made to them. Carson’s bus, for example, will get downtown even faster once Caltrans finishes an I-15 expansion that will include a longer stretch of carpool lane.
But transit advocates are struggling with Sandag’s choice of buses, because they want to see less freeway expansion, not more. While generally supportive of the expansion of express bus service, they want to see it pried free of its dependence on freeway expansions so it becomes a more viable option for everyday commuters trying to get around.
“We are so spread out that we have to go the extra mile to get transit out of traffic, otherwise people who have a choice aren’t going to use it,” said Elyse Lowe, director of the local transit advocacy group Move San Diego. “It’s just going to be for poor people or people who don’t have a choice.”
The irony of transit being dependent on freeways is not lost on Sandag officials. But they see the strategy of putting buses in new carpool lanes as a pragmatic way to satisfy transit needs in a region so defined by sprawl.
Express buses are relatively new to Southern California. Facing decades’ worth of sprawling development and a growing need to move people across it, transportation officials have started looking to express buses as a cheaper alternative to rail, which requires huge investments to successfully integrate into cities without dense population centers. A six-year-old express bus line extending from Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles has surpassed all ridership projections, emboldening officials to push for more like it.
But that line runs along a major surface street, unlike many of the express lines Sandag would put on newly expanded freeways. Local transit advocates worry that will make them inaccessible and unattractive to potential new riders. Many of the buses would share carpool or toll lanes and only be as fast as the flow of traffic, which is only projected to get worse with population growth.
Many of the routes Sandag has identified aren’t expected for several decades, and plans could change significantly. But they would cater to commuters from far-flung suburbs who, like Carson, have to drive to a station and park their cars before boarding. Buses don’t serve their neighborhoods.
“Along the corridors of 15 in the north and 805 in the south, the way the land uses already exist it’s really hard to come up with routes that really make sense,” Stoll said. “There, the park and ride concept is much more viable.”
Lowe’s group is finalizing an alternative proposal that would avoid the need for parking lots. It envisions an interconnected network of buses designed similar to a subway system. Ten main routes called “spines” would carry travelers to various parts of the region, where they could catch express bus routes that run deeper into neighborhoods. Dedicated lanes, stations and other infrastructure would make the buses largely immune from traffic, which the group believes is key to making transit attractive to people who currently don’t take it because it’s so slow.
“We really need to look at why people aren’t taking transit. It’s inconvenient to access and it takes too long,” she said. “If we don’t try to fix those things we’re never going to have a successful transit system.”
But even among transit advocates, there is disagreement over what that system will look like and whether buses — even express ones — are the best solution to the region’s transportation needs.
“Bus Rapid Transit is not a real solution,” said Duncan McFetridge, director of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, which has been vocal in its local transit advocacy. “It’s simply freeway expansion. It doesn’t solve the fact that we’re still dependent on the car in all our urban areas.”
He believes express buses detract from investment in trolley lines. Buses can be scaled back or eliminated on a moment’s notice. Trolley service, which Sandag does plan to spend $23 billion on over the next four decades, cannot.
“Their bus plans are not part of a real network,” he said. “You should be able to get around.”
That is the goal of some of Sandag’s other express bus routes planned along surface streets, Stoll said.
Street improvements for the express route along El Cajon Boulevard from San Diego State to downtown are scheduled to begin next year. If all goes well, the route along El Cajon Boulevard could someday be upgraded to a trolley line, he said. That’s already in the plans.
But even that express bus route in the urban core has faced a volley of criticisms, ranging from anger over its elimination of a handful of parking spots to concern that saving nine minutes between SDSU and downtown isn’t worth the $63 million price tag, to a desire that a trolley line be prioritized there.
“There’s definitely no one size fits all,” Stoll said.
“It’s this weird transit paradox,” said Lowe, who supports that express route. “Everybody wants transit but then when it happens, people get miffed about having to give up parking spaces or lanes. There are still thoughts that this type of transit isn’t as valuable as a rail. It’s going to take time for perceptions to change.”