Image: TrueStatement: ” Competing against hundreds of applicants nationwide, SANDAG has won a $14 million federal grant to replace four aging timber trestle bridges in the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon in North County – a critically needed project to improve the reliability of both passenger and freight services in the nation’s second busiest rail corridor,” SANDAG, the region’s planning agency, wrote in Sept. 8 press release.

Determination: True

Analysis: San Diego’s rail system just received crucial funding to repair some of its aging bridges.

SANDAG, the region’s planning agency, was awarded a $14 million federal grant to repair four timber trestle bridges that traverse the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, a coastal marsh south of Del Mar.

In a press release announcing the grant, SANDAG claimed this railway – known as the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor – is the second busiest in the nation.

That statistic appeared in news stories about the grant and was highlighted by County Supervisor Bill Horn, who represents residents in county’s northern reaches.

Good news: #sandiego got a $14M grant to replace old bridges in “nation’s second busiest rail corridor.” All aboard!

— Supervisor Bill Horn (@SupervisorHorn) September 11, 2013

I decided to check this statement because how much the rail system is being used has an impact on future expansions and investment.

To start, let’s define a rail corridor.

The Federal Railroad Administration, the nation’s authority on rail travel, doesn’t have a formal definition but multiple experts said it’s generally understood to be a passenger rail system that connects at least two metropolitan areas. Amtrak is the nation’s largest operator of such rail systems, which span hundreds of miles.

Amtrak operates the corridor SANDAG mentioned but refers to the roughly 350-mile stretch as the Pacific Surfliner route.

Commuter rail, on the other hand, typically transports riders between far-flung suburbs and downtown hubs. The North County Transit District’s Coaster system is an example of this, though it follows the same coastal path as Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner.

A SANDAG spokesman said the agency relied on Amtrak ridership numbers to compare our region’s rail corridor with those across the country.

Here’s a look at how the Pacific Surfliner’s ridership compared with those in other parts of the country during the 2012 fiscal year:

The Northeast Regional corridor is clearly the busiest. About 11.4 million passengers used it to travel between Boston and Lynchburg, Va. – and many cities in between – in 2012.

The Pacific Surfliner carried considerably fewer riders during the same period but bested other major corridors, including California’s Capitol Corridor, which ferries passengers from San Jose to Sacramento and more, and the Keystone Corridor, which takes riders from Harrisburg, Pa. to New York City.

And an Amtrak spokeswoman said the Pacific Surfliner has been among the service’s busiest for about a decade.

Amtrak statistics show the Surfliner has carried at least 2.5 million passengers annually since 2009.

All this makes SANDAG’s claim about the route being the second busiest rail corridor in the nation true.

Transit experts say the volume of passengers along the Pacific Surfliner route isn’t surprising.

Not only is California the nation’s most populous state but two of its biggest cities are relatively close – though traffic often makes driving unappealing.

“These are two major cities close to each other, a lot of population, a lot of congestion,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association, an advocacy group that promotes transit. “Who would want to drive to these places?”

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

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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