San Diego’s trolley service will soon connect the city’s two densest areas, but the expansion’s success depends on flipping development patterns in the communities in between.
For the region’s overall transportation framework, the project accomplishes two major goals.
For one, it creates a much sought-after “single seat” rail trip — one in which a rider sits down once, without needing to transfer — between University City and downtown, San Diego’s two densest areas.
It also extends the trolley’s most-used leg — the blue line, which runs from San Ysidro to downtown. That means connecting the working-class communities north of the border and south of downtown to a major employment center, and to regional resources like UCSD.
But between the trolley’s new northernmost destination and downtown, the blue line will also serve a number of neighborhoods that aren’t traditional hubs for transit ridership.
And areas with the dense, walkable character that normally stoke transit demand and aren’t currently reached by the trolley — like the beaches and mid-city neighborhoods — will continue to make do with bus services instead.
“The mid-coast trolley extension does not take advantage of smart-growth opportunities in ways that other transit projects have or can,” said Elyse Lowe, executive director of Move San Diego, a public-transit advocacy group that nonetheless supports the project.
The Mid-Coast Trolley Corridor Transit project will eventually extend trolley service from Old Town to University City, adding 11.2 miles of new rail service and at least eight new stations, including three in neighborhoods just east of I-5 between downtown and La Jolla.
At a projected cost of $1.7 billion, the extension has been part of the region’s transportation vision for decades.
It was part of the county’s first-voter approved initiative to implement a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, called TransNet, in 1987. One of the few uncompleted projects in that initial list, the mid-coast trolley became a priority when the tax was re-approved in 2004.
Local sales tax funding accounts for half of the project’s projected price tag, as well as operating funds through 2048. The other half is expected to come from a Federal Transit Administration program.
The public comment period on the project’s environmental effects closed July 17. SANDAG, the county’s regional transportation agency, will soon finalize that report before voting to certify it early next year. After final design decisions are made by SANDAG, the county’s regional transportation agency, construction could begin in 2015, and operations could begin in 2018.
Existing trolley service basically circles the center city area, with extensions spurring east to Santee and south to San Ysidro.
A hypothetical line through the middle of that service area, into neighborhoods like Hillcrest, North Park and City Heights, could attract ridership there by capitalizing on its existing state, Lowe said.
Instead, the blue line extension will in part be judged on its ability to drive a change in land-use decisions near the stations it’ll establish in the suburban neighborhoods between downtown and University City.
That’s a tall order, but SANDAG has said the mid-coast trolley is its best option for extending the city’s existing service.
The extension scores higher on SANDAG’s evaluation scale – which measures how well projects serve regional needs, develop an integrated transit network and promote sustainability – than any other project on the agency’s 40-year plan.
Two other trolley projects on the list – one a new line from Pacific Beach to El Cajon, the other from SDSU to downtown along El Cajon Boulevard – scored much lower, and have higher price tags.
“Those projects fare pretty well, but not as well as this,” said Gary Gallegos, executive director of SANDAG. “People say they love transit, and they want it to go to the beach and other places, but we find those projects are just as controversial. And while I believe when we get to the beach it’ll be a big success, I’m cognizant that it’s not a slam dunk easy route to make happen.”
There are a few factors behind the mid-coast extension’s high evaluation score. For one, it meets the agency’s responsibility to serve lower-income communities. And since ridership on the blue line is already strong, the agency expects healthy ridership.
Also, each of the planned stations sites is included in SANDAG’s smart-growth concept map, a list of 200 countywide sites identified as ripe for sustainable development.
But the sites in between University City and downtown have the potential for dense development; other neighborhoods in the city are already there.
And two of those stops, one at Balboa Avenue and one at Clairemont Drive, fall within Clairemont’s 30-foot height limit.
That’ll affect the prospects for transit-oriented development around those two stations, Lowe said. Normal transit-oriented development standards would call for 60 to 80 housing units per acre near the stations. The height limit will force that down to closer to 20 units per acre, she said.
“If we’re talking in the immediate proximity of the project, yeah it’s going to be really hard… but you want to think of transit-oriented development as a community-based concept,” Lowe said. “So, how is the city going to think of land use in the area, considering whether someone could live there without a car? Is there grocery and retail amenities, or general accommodations like parks and schools?”
A bright spot, she said, is the arrival of the city’s new planning director, Bill Fulton, who built his name advocating for such development.
Mayor Bob Filner’s office did not respond to a request to interview Fulton.
Gallegos said SANDAG is forecasting 20,000 riders per day in the first year of service from the blue line stations north of Old Town.
But in its public comment on the extension’s environmental report, Lowe’s organization raised a concern with the amount of parking SANDAG is planning to provide at the new stations.
She’s worried the organization is looking to boost initial ridership by catering to drivers, even if it’s at the expense of long-term planning decisions.
“If you want to encourage people to live as close to transit as possible, you need to encourage that,” she said. “But they know that with this investment, they will do anything to make the ridership work, even if it means accommodating for the automobile.”