Not long ago, U-T San Diego reported that the new planned San Diego Trolley line from Old Town to University City would cost $1.7 billion, and a Voice of San Diego member sent the article to me with a question.

“I was wondering about our trolley system and thought you are the guy to ask: Why isn’t there a push to connect our airport and our trolley system — for a fraction of the $1.7B UCSD line extension? Taxi-cab lobby?” he wrote.

I haven’t kept track but I’m pretty sure this is the 1.7 billionth time someone has asked me why the trolley doesn’t connect to the airport and whether it ever will.

On Reddit recently, I did a so-called “ask me anything.” And, yep, this was one of the top-voted questions.

It was time to figure it out. What’s the deal? Why doesn’t the trolley connect to the airport? Will it ever? This is the first in an occasional series we’re calling, appropriately, “What’s the deal?”

Here’s what I found so far: The trolley doesn’t connect right now because San Diego’s transit planners were intimidated by the challenge of crossing the existing freight rail line and they didn’t want to invest in a Harbor Drive spur of the trolley.

Now, will the trolley ever connect to the airport? Not in the way you might think.

Trolley riders may soon be able to hop off at the Washington Street Trolley Station and get on a plane (right now, that’d include an awful walk around the entire runway).

Most people look at the trolley and its path right next to the airport and say the same thing: What the …? It’s right there. Just connect it.

The problem is, it’s not actually right there. A large runway separates the trolley from the airport terminals.

I called Dave Schumacher, who’s now the principal planner for the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG. He used to work for the old Metropolitan Transit Development Board, which eventually became SANDAG and the Metropolitan Transit System, or MTS.

Schumacher was deeply involved in the formation of San Diego’s modern trolley system.

He said that in the late 1980s, a trolley line had been sketched along Harbor Drive that would connect to the airport terminals.

But there were three challenges that killed it:

I. Can’t Cross the Tracks: Trolley cars going to the Harbor Drive line would have had to cross freight rail lines. They can’t just do that the way trains do, switching from rail to rail to one that heads in a new direction. This is because they can’t ever share lines with freight trains.

“Trolley vehicles don’t have the crash worthiness required. They can’t withstand an impact from a freight train,” Schumacher pointed out.

So a bridge over the freight lines or a tunnel under them would have to be built. Along the coast or in downtown, that’s not easy or cheap.

II. Coast Guard: At the time, the Coast Guard would taxi its own plane across Harbor Drive from its base to the airport. Traffic would stop and a plane would cross. This would be a substantial challenge with all the wires needed to run a trolley.

III. Ridership: Remember, at the time this was considered, it was in competition with several of the trolley lines now established. The Harbor Drive spur could not demonstrate it’d have the ridership needed and it never went far in the planning effort.

So that’s why we don’t have an actual trolley line to the airport.

Now what’s going to happen? For this, I talked to Gary Gallegos, executive director of SANDAG.

The good news? Connecting trolley passengers to the airport may not be all that hard or expensive at all. In fact, it could happen by 2015.  

You see, we have a long- and a short-term plan. The short-term plan would allow people to get off the trolley at the Washington Street station, then cross a bridge. This new bridge would have to get them across Pacific Highway:

Illustration by Scott Lewis.

So they cross. Then what?

Passengers will need a shuttle. This problem might be already solved.

The airport is planning to move all of the rental cars currently mucking up the coast to the north side of the airport. It’s building a Consolidated Rental Car Facility, or CONRAC. And the CONRAC will need shuttles anyway.

Can trolley passengers just hitch a ride on them?

Gallegos said the San Diego Regional Airport Authority is moving forward with the CONRAC and SANDAG is trying to make sure that it doesn’t do anything that will prevent a connection to the trolley system.

“We’re saying can we work with each other so we can not only move people who are renting cars, but ‘Can you also stop and pick up some transit patrons?’” Gallegos said.

Gallegos said the plan may cost “a few million.”

This simple, short-term plan is in SANDAG’s Transportation Committee.

And it may be the very beginning of what Mayor Bob Filner was referring to when he said this at the State of the City speech:

“I will advocate at the Airport Authority for an airport that is designed around multimodal access and served by light rail and direct access from Interstate 5, rather than relying exclusively on automobile access from Harbor Drive.” 

City Council President Todd Gloria sits on the Transportation Committee. He and the mayor both sit on the board of directors at SANDAG. The city has the most influence on SANDAG but they’ll still need to persuade counterparts from other cities.

And this little plan is not the long-term vision.

“It’s an opportunity to make it a little better and give people some options to get to the airport but it’s not the bigger vision of what would make this all way better,” Gallegos said.

So what’s the way-better vision?

If you’ve gone to the airport recently, you know major construction on Terminal 2 is under way. This is a commitment to the idea that getting to the airport requires a trip down Harbor Drive.

But at some point, the airport will re-evaluate its entire footprint. And it will have to redo Terminal 1.

In that process, it could reconsider its ties to Harbor Drive and build the terminal on the north side. It could work with SANDAG to give drivers an exit right off Interstate 5.

SANDAG envisions an Intermodal Transit Center, right at the Washington Street Trolley Station. The trolley could end there. Buses too. Include Amtrak’s trains and, if it’s ever built, high-speed rail and it’d be a unique hub.

This is the so-called Destination Lindbergh plan (to see the whole thing, click here and choose Item 7).

In Gallegos’ ideal world, normal passengers wouldn’t need to take Harbor Drive to access the airport anymore. You could exit directly to the airport from the interstate or you could take public transit.

You might guess, the cost of this is not a “few million.” It faces a few more hurdles than the easy plan.

For instance, moving Terminal 1 to the north side would somehow require making enough room so that planes could turn right after landing from the east. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot is right there now and there’s not enough for a turn to the north for most passenger jets.

The Marines weren’t all that accommodating to San Diego’s last air travel fantasy.

It’s a big dream. One of those that San Diego’s not so good at pulling off. We’ll wait and see.

But the smaller version might be possible — and soon. If we want to connect trolley passengers to the airport right now, it’s possible.

We just have to build them a little bridge.

How hard can that be?

Update: I’ve already gotten numerous emails and messages about how you can easily take the bus to the airport. I did know this — I’ve taken it. But here’s an interesting take from MTS spokesman Rob Schupp, who says it’s not only good service, but better than this idea SANDAG is promoting.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors,  click here.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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