The South Bay Rapid makes its way through Chula Vista. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The South Bay’s newest transit line is not off to a great start.

In January, regional leaders unveiled the South Bay Rapid, a new bus line from Otay Mesa to downtown that runs frequently by San Diego standards, avoids traffic with dedicated roadways and offers well-accommodated stations much like trolley stops.

But three months in, the South Bay Rapid, now operating as the 225 bus, is coming up way short of ridership projections set by transportation officials.

Years ago, regional planners projected that the route could serve 4,500 daily riders in its first year, which would eventually grow to as many as 12,000 daily riders once expected developments in the east Chula Vista area were finished.

So far, the bus is attracting just around 1,500 daily riders, a third of what was expected for its first year and only 12 percent of its ambitious long-term expectation.

After three years in construction and even longer in planning, the $139 million expenditure – funded both by the beleaguered local sales tax TransNet and federal funds – isn’t delivering.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transit System emphasized that it’s still early for the South Bay Rapid, and its average daily ridership has grown from 1,300 at the beginning of March to 1,500 at the beginning of May.

“South Bay ridership is growing, but we recognize that it is lower than we had hoped,” MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said.

Additional project improvements, like another dedicated roadway on Palomar Street and running the bus on the shoulder of I-805, should be finished at the beginning of next year, Schupp said.

“This will enable vehicles to go faster than cars during peak-hour commutes,” he said.

MTS and SANDAG spent about $150,000 promoting the launch of the South Bay Rapid earlier this year, Schupp said, and they’re now discussing other ways to market the route to improve ridership.

The Santa Venetia bus station in Chula Vista / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Transit planners have established that it can take six months or so for a community to hear about a new service, try it out, begin using it habitually and start spreading the word to others, said Bruce Appleyard, a professor of city planning at SDSU. He said it’s too early to be concerned.

“You need good information campaigns out there to make sure they have a chance to inform potential riders,” he said. “As more people use it, and talk to others about it, that shift can start to happen.”

Much of the eastern South Bay area where the route runs is a suburban environment, which can be a hurdle to growing ridership, Appleyard said. And he said MTS could still make the route more attractive by providing more dedicated bus lanes downtown, along with signal priority, to increase reliability.

La Mesa City Councilman Colin Parent, who’s also executive director of the group Circulate San Diego, echoed those concerns.

“The buses run really slow when they’re downtown,” he said. “You have multiple bus lines competing on Broadway, and that can really add substantial time to a trip even in a small geographic space.”

The city of San Diego is working with MTS to pilot new, bus-only lanes for another Rapid bus on El Cajon Boulevard, to help make it faster and more reliable. Parent said MTS and the city of San Diego should consider doing the same on Broadway.

“That’s likely to make service faster and more attractive and draw in more ridership,” he said.

Some folks who ride the 225, though, say they’re just happy to have an improved bus line.

Fidel Monton, a 61-year-old retiree, lives four blocks from the Santa Venetia station in Otay Ranch and said he used to have to walk a long way to the 709 bus station, pausing three times to rest because he suffers from shortness of breath.

“Not today, now it’s easy,” he said. “It’s very convenient for me.”

Suzie Wang, a 48-year-old who just moved to Chula Vista from China, said she doesn’t have a license yet, and the 225 has made it much easier for her to get around. She said she’ll primarily drive once she gets her license, except when she’s going downtown.

“Parking there is a problem,” she said. “For downtown the bus is very convenient.”

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

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