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An MTS trolley makes its way through downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego’s public transportation system comes under regular criticism, but there’s one area where the Metropolitan Transit System stands out as a clear success: operating costs.

San Diego’s trolley is one of the cheapest rail networks to operate in the United States, and has the best financial performance of any national light rail system. MTS’s buses, likewise, have some of the best financial performances in the country: By one measure, they have the lowest operating costs of any large or medium-sized transit agency in the United States.

Public transit requires subsidies almost everywhere in the world, but San Diego’s subsidies per passenger are unusually low.

That is good news no matter where you stand on public transit. For those who oppose it, this means San Diego is more efficient than other large metro areas.

For public transit advocates, it’s an opportunity. It means MTS and the San Diego Association of Governments, which subsidizes transit in the county through a half-cent sales tax, could offer more frequent service or lower fares by offering transit subsidies comparable to other large metro areas.

The National Transit Database tracks cost, revenue and ridership on every American public transit system, making it easy to compare transit systems by operating costs.

The operating ratio is the ratio of revenue to operating costs; all systems are below 100 percent, meaning they require ongoing subsidies through taxes. But at 56 percent, San Diego is by a fair margin the best in the United States. Alone among the American light-rail systems, the trolley’s financial performance is on a par with that of the legacy subway systems in cities like New York and Chicago, where a much larger portion of the population owns no cars and rides trains to work.

It’s possible to measure costs on a per-mile or a per-hour basis, but on rail systems, operating costs are predominantly based on distance. Adam Rahbee, a former transit manager with experience in New York, Chicago, Boston and London, said rail maintenance and inspections are calculated based on distance. He argues, for instance, that speeding up trains would seem to make them more competitive on a per-hour basis, but would actually cost the system more by stressing brake lines from decelerating more aggressively.

MTS’s bus operating costs are low as well. NTD data for the major American bus networks and their costs and operating ratios shows San Diego again does very well, with one of the best operating ratios in the United States, thanks again to low costs.

For buses, unlike with trains, it makes more sense to focus on the per-hour cost than the per-mile cost, because the biggest cost items for buses relate to time rather than distance. The biggest single cost of a bus, for instance, is the driver, who is paid by the hour. But fuel consumption and maintenance also relate to time more than distance, because in a city the bus spends very little time at cruising speed. It has to stop at red lights, in traffic and at bus stops with the engine running all the while. These starts and stops consume fuel and stress the systems, requiring maintenance.

The upshot is that working to make buses faster would improve MTS’s bottom line. Bus operating costs in San Diego per mile are already nearly the lowest of major American systems, but they could be even lower if SANDAG and MTS ran the buses faster.

MTS could do this by giving buses dedicated lanes and signal priority at intersections to speed them up. It could debut off-board fare collection — where passengers pay through automated systems rather than when they board the bus — and let passengers board from any door. MTS has taken a step in this direction by adding pay-by-phone features.

The New York-based think tank Transit Center released a report recommending American cities consolidate bus stops so they’re spaced every quarter mile rather than every eighth of a mile; MTS could do this as well. The 215 Rapid bus has some of these features and averages 12 miles per hour, 10 percent faster than the system-wide average, though it still falls short of true bus rapid transit standards.

If MTS installed those improvements on more routes, it wouldn’t just provide better service for its passengers, it would also reduce operating costs even further. For the same budget, MTS could offer more frequent buses with better coverage.

Finally, San Diego’s rail-to-bus cost is also notable. In most cities with both buses and light rail, light rail has higher operating costs both per mile and per hour— but since trolley cars are bigger than buses, replacing two buses with one trolley car results in overall savings. For the most part, though, the primary advantage of light rail over buses is that the ride quality is more comfortable for passengers.

But in San Diego, operating costs for buses and the trolley per mile are almost the same. Since trains are bigger, replacing buses with trains would reduce expenses even further.

Together, San Diego’s good light-rail finances, low bus operating costs and low ratio of bus-to-rail operating costs point the way forward for the region’s transit system. SANDAG should run more public transit service, because it can do it more cheaply than most American cities. The economics of raising taxes to increase bus and rail service in San Diego, where each bus ride is subsidized by about $1.75 and each trolley ride by $0.80, are just better than in cities where the subsidy reaches $5, like in Dallas and Houston.

And San Diego should be looking to expand the trolley, in addition to running more frequent trains. It’s already extending the Blue Line from Old Town to University City, and would like to build a new Purple Line from Chula Vista to Kearny Mesa, following the path of I-805. In looking for potential lines with ridership that would justify the expenditure, it can set the bar lower than peer American cities.

The region has already succeeded in running a sustainable public transit system. It should leverage its success and use it to run more bus and rail service and extend light-rail tracks in more directions and into more neighborhoods.

Alon Levy is a Paris-based mathematician and public transportation policy writer.

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