The Gillespie Field trolley station is on the Green Line in the northwest corner of El Cajon near its namesake, the county-owned Gillespie Field Airport.
That’s part of its problem – aside from the airport, there is nothing around.
“I kind of laughed when I looked on Google Earth,” said Ethan Elkind, one of the authors of a UC Berkeley study released last week that blasted San Diego for failing to develop around its trolley stations – and specifically called out the Gillespie Field station as the single most underdeveloped transit area in the state. “I almost wondered if there was really a station out there or if we got the GPS wrong. It looked like cow pastures.”
Elkind said there were several criteria that transit areas needed to perform well in the study. There needed to be a high number of residents or employees in the surrounding areas who actually relied on public transportation. The station needed to be near amenities, like stores, banks and restaurants. It also needed to encourage walking with features like dense housing, sidewalks and cross-walks. The study also looked at home values, crime rates and any future plans for development in the transit areas.
The area around the Gillespie Field Station’s only selling point was its low crime rate.
To gauge how pedestrian-friendly each station was, Elkind and his colleagues used a “Walk Score,” a score between 0 and 100 that measures the walkability of any address. Gillespie Field Station had a score of 32, showing it was car-dependent.
San Diego’s best-performing stations, 12th and Imperial and Civic Center, had scores of 86 and 94, respectively. But even the Santee Town Center Station, a similarly suburban station and the last stop on the Green Line after Gillespie Field, had a score of 54.
About 1,686 residents live within a half-mile radius of the station. Only 4 percent of these residents and 4.5 percent of people who work in the area take public transit. And only 6 percent of households in the vicinity don’t own cars.
It’s not a high bar, but the Santee station does better on all those numbers.
Nearly 3,500 people live in the half-mile area surrounding that station, and about 4 percent of residents and 6 percent of workers take transit. Seven percent of the nearby residents don’t have their own vehicle.
To put those numbers in context, the stations in downtown, urban neighborhoods are surrounded by far more people, and a much larger share of them rely on transit. The half-mile area around the 12th and Imperial Station has a population of 9,529 (five times Gillespie Field), and about 31 percent of residents and 14 percent of workers use the trolley (seven times and three times more than Gillespie). About 26 percent of households in the half-mile radius don’t own vehicles, four times more than near Gillespie. The numbers are similar at the other high-ranking San Diego station at Civic Center.
I spent an hour last Wednesday morning – from 9 to 10 a.m. at the Gillespie station. Only one person got on a train. I had missed the commuter crowd, but the station’s parking lot wasn’t even half full. Our photographer spent 40 minutes taking pictures of the station on Tuesday and only two people boarded.
The next day, as people went home from work from nearby warehouses and manufacturing and other industrial companies around 5 p.m., the trolley station was a bit more crowded. But even during rush hour, a maximum of 10 people boarded any given train.
“It’s a good stop,” said Brittney Scott, who commutes from Lemon Grove on the trolley every day to her job at the House of Magnets warehouse – about a 10-minute walk from Gillespie Field Station. “Nice view, no one here.”
“This station is cleaner,” Scott said. “But it’s because no one uses it.”
“There’s never really a lot of people here,” said Antwanette Wall, another regular rider.
Wall takes the train home to the Grossmont Station every day after working at Home of Guiding Hands, a nearby social services organization. She said there are always more people at her home station, near Grossmont College.
The Gillespie Field Station has an average of about 300 daily boardings, according to MTS. But during special events – like last Monday’s Steelers-Chargers game – the station goes hog wild, selling about 50 tickets more than the daily average.
The trolley station was built in August 1995. Back then it was on the Orange Line.
Before the trolley system was re-aligned two years ago, both the Green and Orange Lines stopped at Gillespie Field and the average daily boardings reached more than 700.
Now people are more likely to park at Santee Town Center Station if they want to take the Green Line or at Santee or El Cajon stations if they want to take the Orange Line, instead of going to Gillespie. According to MTS, boardings have doubled at Santee Town Center since the realignment.
When Gillespie Field Station was originally built, there were plans to develop more around the airport, so it made sense to build transit there. But the development hasn’t really happened.
But many are still hoping that the area around Gillespie Field airport can be further developed.
In a February 2014 study, CalTrans, the state transportation agency, identified Gillespie Field as one of several airports in the state where regions should target smart growth and mixed-use urban development. The agency reasoned that the unique combination of a trolley station and an airport provided the opportunity for the area to be a regional economic hub.
SANDAG also identified Gillespie Field for targeted future growth because of the potential employment opportunities it could provide and its transportation infrastructure.
El Cajon recently submitted a proposal to SANDAG for funds to actually make some of these visions a reality. The cities of Santee and El Cajon and the county all own land surrounding the airport and rail station.
The East County Economic Development Council has also been trying to spur development in the area.
“We already know that the area around is ripe for smart growth potential,” said Jo Marie Diamond, president and CEO of the council.
According to a March 2015 study by the organization, the airport already contributes more than $403 million and provides 3,164 jobs annually to the East County economy.
Some of the key areas for growth that the study highlighted were national security and defense, tourism and hospitality, manufacturing and aviation maintenance and operations. Increasing job opportunities in the area would help increase public transit use, Diamond said.
But the study even raised the trolley as a problem. The station, the report said, is “not well integrated into a coherent plan to address the efficient movement of goods and services.”
Diamond said there are several things that could be done to encourage use of the trolley: moving the airport terminal closer to the trolley station, putting a hotel nearby and implementing a shuttle service to better take people from the trolley to their jobs – most of which aren’t all that close to the station.
She said those visions haven’t turned into anything because it would require additional infrastructure, and the county, Santee and El Cajon can’t afford it.
On Tuesday, the East County Economic Development Council’s airport committee is going to review an agreement with a consultant, who would further formalize plans for the area and layout a potential partnership with developers to make the plans happen.
If the agreement is accepted by the council and the consultant is brought on, she said, then they can start figuring out the last trivial detail: how to pay for it.