Image: Mostly True

Statement: “The existing blue line today is probably one of the best light rail lines in the entire country,” said Gary Gallegos, executive director of SANDAG, in a July 17 interview with Voice of San Diego.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: It’s not often that people say nice things about San Diego public transportation.

The city’s reputation as a sprawling ode to Southern California’s automobile dependence is well established.

So it was surprising to hear Gary Gallegos, executive director of SANDAG, the regional transportation authority, say the most popular line in the city’s light rail system is among the best in the entire country.

Since the statement was so out-of-step with conventional wisdom, we decided it deserved another look.

The blue line runs from the U.S.-Mexico border through the South Bay, Barrio Logan and into downtown San Diego. By 2018, SANDAG will have expanded the line all the way to University City.

Part of the calculation to expand the blue line to University City — rather than to build light rail service to some other part of the city — was based on the ridership of the existing line, which makes it easier to count on a solid return on the investment of extending service an additional 11.2 miles.

Gallegos was explaining that calculation when he made this bold statement.

But he was also relatively vague.

He hedged a bit by saying the blue line was “one of the best” lines nationwide.

And he didn’t specify what metric he was using as a basis for his claim.

Spokespeople for SANDAG and MTS, which operates the local public transportation system, said Gallegos was referring to a metric called farebox recovery ratio, or a line’s operating expenses divided by its fare revenue. It measures a transit line’s cost effectiveness.

“The blue line and the San Diego Trolley system as a whole rank at the top of light rail lines in the nation in terms of ability to recoup operating costs,” said Helen Gao, a SANDAG spokeswoman.

Here’s a chart of farebox recovery ratios for the best-performing national light rail systems, using 2011 data from the National Transit Database.

The blue line itself has a farebox recovery ratio of 76.4 percent, compared with the overall trolley system’s 57 percent. Boston, the next highest performing system in the nation, has a 49 percent recovery ratio. Los Angeles comes in at 21 percent.

The blue line, clearly, does a great job of recouping its operating expenses.

So, how does that metric fare as a single, catch-all description of a transit line’s effectiveness?

“When you look at financing public transit and providing reliable transit, the first thing taxpayers ask is, ‘Does this make sense?’” said Elyse Lowe, executive director of local advocacy group Move San Diego. “Transit relies on its ongoing operating revenue to be successful, so I really think (farebox recovery ratio) is the gold standard because you want to know people are buying in.”

Lowe said one complaint of the trolley system as a whole, including the blue line, is that its stops aren’t located in areas where it’s possible to walk from home, meaning people often have to rely on a car even if they use the trolley on a regular basis.

But the blue line remains effective because it goes all the way to the border, where it begins with thousands of riders using it to access jobs throughout San Diego.

“Clearly it was very smart to build the trolley all the way to the border,” Lowe said.

That decision also reveals another strength of the blue line: its original cost of construction.

The line’s capital cost in 1981 was $87.5 million, or $5.5 million per mile. Two years later, planners added a second track to the line, bringing the total cost to $119.25 million.

Adjusting for inflation, the original expenditure comes in at more than $300 million in 2013 dollars. That’s a lot, but consider the proposed extension of the blue line to University City is currently carrying a projected cost of $1.7 billion, more than five times the inflation-adjusted original expenditure.

“Between farebox recovery ratio, on top of the blue line being cited often as one of the cheapest lines in the country, that combination means it’s probably the top-performing line financially in the country,” said Juan Matute, a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

But Matute also said judging the line entirely by its financial performance reveals the priorities of its planners.

“There’s a very businesslike focus about operating and always making sure there’s a return on investment,” he said. “In other parts of the state, transit is seen as a social service that connects people to jobs. That’s just not going to show up in (farebox recovery ratio).”

Matute said his preferred measure of a system’s overall performance is “passenger miles per annual vehicle revenue miles.” It’s basically a way to measure the average number of riders on a transit vehicle. It tells you whether a transit line is being used, rather than just whether it’s financially viable.

Here’s how the San Diego Trolley ranks among other light-rail systems nationwide based on that metric.

By that standard, San Diego still does pretty well, but it’s no longer the clear top performer. It’s closer to the middle of the pack.

Based on a purely financial assessment, Gallegos was right to place the blue line among the nation’s best-performing light rail lines.

What he didn’t mention was any other way to measure how effective a line is, such as how well it allows residents to save money by ditching their car, what percentage of the population makes use of the service or how satisfied customers are with their trolley experience.

Consider this: A system consisting of one bus tasked with covering the entire city would cost little to operate and could be entirely full at all times. Though effectively useless, the hypothetical line might notch a 100 percent farebox score. Farebox alone doesn’t tell a transit line’s whole story.

But outside of a super-metric that properly weighs competing priorities and spits out a single answer on the “best” line in the country, farebox is an important measure.

Our rubric grades a statement “mostly true” when it is accurate but misses an important nuance.

That fits Gallegos’ statement, which accurately described the blue line as one of the most financially successful in the country, but didn’t acknowledge other ways a public transportation line performs.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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