Conceptual rendering of a regional transit hub in downtown. / Courtesy of SANDAG

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San Diego has moved on from its pursuit of a regional transit station and airport connection as part of a redevelopment of the U.S. Navy’s NAVWAR campus in Old Town – dubbed “San Diego Grand Central.” 

Regional leaders have instead settled on a two-part plan that would provide a rail transit connection to the airport in the short-term, and allow them to pursue a large-scale hub for the region’s transit system. That effort is envisioned for the current City Hall complex and a handful of nearby blocks owned by public agencies, including 101 Ash Street, the scandal plagued high-rise the city is in a contract to purchase that it is contesting.  

The decision puts an end to one lofty goal Hasan Ikhrata, director of the San Diego Association of Governments, has touted since taking over the organization, but also creates a clear path to a regional priority that has long been elusive: connecting the airport to the trolley.  

“We’re working on a common vision for the region by recognizing the opportunity to advance a trolley to the airport on a concept that is, in regional transit terms, on the fast track, say within the next 10 years or so,” said Mayor Todd Gloria, who is also vice chair of SANDAG. 

The Navy, meanwhile, will continue to redevelop the obsolete NAVWAR facility, but without SANDAG as a formal partner. Still, the Navy’s preference is for a mixed-use project that would include a new NAVWAR headquarters built around a new transit station, said Caitlin Ostomel, director of public affairs for the U.S. Navy Region Southwest, in an interview. 

The airport connection, meanwhile, could break ground in as few as two years, Ikhrata said. He estimated it could be finished in as few as six years, funded by a mix of the $500 million pledged by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority as part of its Terminal 1 redevelopment, federal dollars from the infrastructure package passed by Congress last year, and state and local revenue. A study from the Metropolitan Transit System last year said an airport-trolley connection was viable within 10 years. 

The airport connection would stem from the Port of San Diego’s headquarters on Pacific Highway. A new transit station there would connect to the rental car facility across Pacific Highway, which is connected to the airport terminals by a private roadway. Airport travelers could board an automated people mover from the new transit station, Ikhrata said, which would take them to a space between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 that the airport has included in its design of the$3.4 billion Terminal 1 redevelopment. 

The airport connection envisioned by SANDAG and city leaders would stem from the Port of San Diego’s headquarters on Pacific Highway. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

A maintenance yard for the trolley system, and a new headquarters for the Port, would also be part of the new station, on the Port’s 13-acre property. 

“The most important thing to me is just that we are going to be getting some type of fixed transit to the airport because, that really is what major metropolitan areas have, and we haven’t had that,” said Catherine Blakespear, SANDAG’s board chair and the mayor of Encinitas. “The plan is to move forward with (an environmental study of the project) and to access federal money when we can get to the point that it’s shovel ready, and this seems like it could be a real thing.” 

Ikhrata, though, has spoken loudly and often about the need for a central station for an expanded regional system. But they have now broken his vision for a single project that provided that hub, connected transit to the airport, and built a new NAVWAR headquarters as part of a massive urban development into three separate projects.  

Ostomel said the Navy hopes to put out a call sometime this year for developers interested in putting together a more specific project for its mixed-use redevelopment proposal in Old Town. Last year, the Navy released five potential ideas for the 70-acre project area, with visualizations of new buildings that set off alarms among opponents of dense development. 

“I think it’s fair to say that when we released those ideas last summer, those computer models of density were very scary to a lot of members of the community,” Ostomel said. “We really heard what the public said, and we said, ‘ya know, we need more detail before we finalize our way forward,’ and that’s what bringing a developer on board would help us do.” 

Ostomel said the Navy still wants the project geared around a transit station, but couldn’t say yet whether that would mean relocating the Old Town transit station, or creating another new station. 

A Grand Downtown Project 

But Ikhrata’s vision of a mass regional transit station lives on, in the longer-term goal of building it as part of a new civic center downtown. The “Grand Central” terminology, though, could be a thing of the past. Gloria said he preferred calling it the Central Mobility Hub. 

That project could include the current Civic Center facility, including City Hall, the San Diego Civic Theatre, and a neighboring building on C Street that is home to a fire house and the city’s development services department. It could also include both Civic Centre Plaza and 101 Ash Street, two properties the city entered into lease-to-own deals on that are now at the center of ongoing scandals over a real estate broker who helped put the expensive transactions together, asbestos exposure in one of them, and city officials’ disclosures of the problems as they unfolded. 

“The city has a fair amount of property downtown – we acknowledge that some of it is a little complicated, but that is playing out through litigation, and we’re committed to resolving that. We must,” Gloria said.  

“We had strong Council support for a bigger and better vision for this site,” he said, citing a Council meeting last month in which city Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone outlined the city’s real estate needs, and began a discussion about ways to solve them. 

State law – specifically a law requiring that public agencies prioritize affordable housing whenever they develop public land, the same one that thwarted the city’s first attempt to redevelop the Sports Arena property last year – also makes it easier for the city to provide housing as part of any downtown transit hub that also provides a new City Hall, Gloria said. 

The project could also include a neighboring block now owned by SANDAG, which it has worked for years to acquire to provide a stopover facility for the many buses that begin and end their routes downtown. SANDAG leaders also want a new headquarters.  

Finally, the state has recently asked developers to propose projects for two adjacent blocks that it owns downtown. Gloria hopes that redevelopment effort could also be part of the project, though he conceded that the state’s process is ahead of the city’s, which could complicate things. 

“I don’t want to get too far ahead, because again ultimately that’s the state’s call, but you know, it’s not just a City Hall project,” Gloria said. 

That is all what would go above ground at the refashioned Central Mobility Hub, covering a large swath of downtown. 

All of the region’s rail lines would converge underground, Ikhrata said, with new subway lines he envisions coming in 80 feet underground, and trolley and bus lines pulling in 40 feet underground. Above that, you’d have retail, housing and office development focused around the new Civic Center. 

“This is like the true meaning of what we call a Civic Center, that gives the city a character,” Ikhrata said. 

SANDAG is pursuing the airport-trolley connection at the Port property and the Central Mobility Hub downtown as two phases of the same project, Ikhrata said. They would be connected by a direct, underground subway route, he said, and the new maintenance facility would be essential for the scale of the downtown station. The agency will do one environmental review for the two phases, he said. 

Late last year, SANDAG indicated it was shifting its focus from a regional transit center at the NAVWAR site, looking instead downtown and at the Port property. It’s now decided: first the Port, then downtown. SANDAG, the Port, the Airport and the city of San Diego have signed a multiagency memorandum of understanding to “develop regional transportation solutions,” said Jessica Gonzales, a SANDAG spokeswoman. “There is no current agreement with the Port as is relates to the redevelopment of their property, but we are working closely together,” Gonzales said. 

It’s too early to say how long, even roughly, it could take to build the Central Mobility Hub, both Gloria and Blakespear said. 

But estimating a timeframe, Blakespear said, is less important than creating a definitive answer on the region’s approach to major priority, allowing leaders to begin working on it rather than fighting about the best way to answer it. 

“I really like the phrase, government spends too much time admiring the problem,” she said. “We recognize that this is a problem, but how do we move beyond the analysis paralysis to work on an actual plan? When it is actually open is, honestly, less important than the reality of being on a path that could actually be accomplished.” 

Blakespear said that’s especially true of the decision they’ve made on finally creating an airport-transit connection. 

“The analysis paralysis on the topic of transit to the airport – that just seems endemic – and now, there’s a real thing here,” she said. “That’s an actual plan, and that’s the thing that excites me most.” 

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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20 Comments

  1. Yay for finally “getting it” that a connection between Coaster and airport does not require a multi-billion dollar white elephant transit center to do, but I’m not understanding the actual plan to do that.

    Build a new terminal – a Coaster/Amtrak stop I assume – at the Port of Seattle HQ? Got that, sounds good.

    From there? Somehow you go to the rental car center, then catch a “people mover” (a bus?) to the airport on their “private roadway”?

    A diagram might make it easier to understand…

    Speaking as a long time train commuter and user of transit to get to the airport whenever I can (yes, I know the 992 bus well), there are three things that are critical. NOT doing any of them will result in failure..

    1) Long term parking at coaster and trolley stations throughout the area. Right now Oceanside may be the ONLY station where you can park for days (or weeks) while travelling by air somewhere.

    2) Train schedules that aren’t “every once in a while” separated by hours of inactivity mid-day, and cutting off in the early evening.

    3) An airport connection that is easy. Get off the Coaster, board the connection, get off at the airport. Not “walk many blocks” or “get on and off multiple forms of transit” to get there.

    Right now the 992 connection is actually just fine for #3, if the entire system had parking and ran more frequently we’d be mostly there. A trolley would be nicer, though…

    1. excellent cautions and questions for the planners to focus on before any details or diagrams are made. after all, this is the first public outing i’ve seen of this new possible plan.

    2. Yes, indeed making Coaster more of a regional rail service with consistent all-day, bi-directional, and weekend trains is crucial to driving up ridership.

      That said I believe that the massive growth of Mission Valley and UTC will pour tons of ridership into the Mid Coast and Green Lines and onto the airport APM, especially once SANDAG increases all trolley frequencies to 7.5 minutes.

  2. SANDAG neither needs, nor deserves a new HQ.
    If so it must have its own cafeteria for those taxpayer sponsored meals

    1. Not a fan of government agencies but SANDAGs been killing it. These types of projects are exactly what I pay taxes for. Not more useless, polluting highways. I’d be happy to buy their lunches.

  3. I realize building a trolley or a subway system is incredibly expensive but I believe a major error in building the current trolley was not putting the downtown portion of it underground. As it takes up room on downtown streets it is a hazard to auto traffic and pedestrians as trains that are parked at some of the stations extend into intersections making visibility for oncoming traffic (both auto and pedestrian) more limited. It’s dangerous for people having to walk into intersections to go around the back of the trains. Hopefully with the proposed central station with the idea of the trolley being underground that undergrounding can be extended to the rest of downtown.

    1. Oh, for sure. Not to mention the trolley runs very slow through Downtown because it has poor signal priority. One reason why Seattle’s Link Light Rail can handle up to 3 minute frequencies is because they have a Downtown LRT tunnel, which also massively speeds up travel.

  4. “A maintenance yard for the trolley system, and a new headquarters for the Port, would also be part of the new station, on the Port’s 13-acre property.” – Everyone above has given some good comments on the other aspects but the other thing that sticks out to me is the “maintenance yard”. With downtown land being so precious and valuable, I’m sure they can find a more suitable place to put another trolley maintenance yard!

  5. Mayor Gloria can’t figure out a way to add a quarter mile long painted bike lane on a residential street in Mira Mesa, but he thinks that the City should embark on a massive redevelopment of the north side of Downtown combining new housing, new civic buildings, two levels of underground transit, and a portal for a subway link direct to the airport. I think both he and Hasan Ikhrata need to get reacquainted with the reality of what is possible in San Diego, and it’s not what is proposed here.

    Why are politicians so obsessed with rail links to airports? BART spent billions on a high quality link directly into the terminals at SFO, and ridership fell short of expectations, even before the pandemic. The new proposal for a trolley spur to the airport at the Port Authority building is at least more reasonable than Ikhrata’s earlier dream of a “Grand Central Station” at the SPAWAR property. Still, I wonder how much ridership such a link would actually see. Why not spend that money instead to provide high quality transit to underserved and transit-dependent areas like Mid City?

    1. Actually it’s not a new trolley spur that’s being built at the Port Authority HQ, it’s an APM. It looks like they’ll relocate Middletown Station a couple hundred feet north to be on the Port HQ where they’ll build a new station where passengers transfer between the trolley and APM.

    2. A big reason why SFO BART was not successful is because SFO BART has only 15 minute frequencies. Compare this with Atlanta Airport, where pre-COVID MARTA trains from Downtown would arrive every 5 minutes, even though Atlanta is far less dense than San Francisco!

      OTOH, San Diego’s going to get a one-seat APM connection between airport and Downtown. The APM could provide up to 2 minute frequencies, so ridership will be much higher than on SFO BART. Why is frequency so important? Because a minute spent waiting can feel up to 2x as long as a minute of in-vehicle travel time.

  6. As of last week, the airport authority has told us that the new, free shuttle connection from Old Town transit center averages less than 150 riders per day. Now I know that any new transit option typically takes two to three years to mature, but I have to wonder exactly how much demand there really is (other than that “everybody knows” a transit connection to the airport is a “no brainer”) for rail transit from somewhere near the port building to terminal 1, given the anemic ridership on the current shuttle plus 992 bus system. Given that there will still be a pedestrian component (or perhaps another shuttle) from the station to the car rental center, just how appealing will this be? As one writer points out, ridership on BART to the airport was declining even before COVID, and the AirBart people mover to OAK has never live up to its projected ridership and is declining, similar to SFO, even though those systems take you right to the terminal area from the BART stations. When you look at what LAX has budgeted for its people mover (over $4 billion) vs. the as yet un-demonstrated demand for transit to the airport, just how much sense does this proposal make?

    1. SANDAG’s Downtown-Airport-Port HQ will likely feature 2-minute frequencies versus the Oakland Airport Connector’s 6-minute frequencies. How do I know? ‘Cause SANDAG is going to spend $4 Billion on the APM whereas the Oakland Airport Connector cost a measly $600 million because BART was super cheap and built the OAK airport connector as a Cable Liner. Cable Liners are the cheapest but also the worst APM technology. Cable Liner trains have no motors, instead they’re hauled by cables, which means low top speeds, low frequency, and poor reliability (if the cable fails your whole system is out). The worst part of the OAK airport connector is that trains have to stop midway not to pick up any passengers, but simply to switch cables!

      When SANDAG says they’re spending $4 Billion, not $600 million, on an APM, you know they’re getting much better technology. Something like the Bombardier Innovia 300 used at PHX Sky Harbor or the Mitsubishi Crystal Mover, both of which easily handle 2 minute frequencies, involve NO cables, and have higher top speeds than the Cable Liner.

  7. The answer as in Roissy en France is a tram via car rentals to all terminals. Skip the Folly from city center. I mean trolly. Dan Smiechowski qualified candidate D2 SDCC. SANDAG can eat at Jacques dans la boite! AKA Jack in the box!! I do! Plus, I take public transportation. I’m from Missouri. Elect Dan SDCC D2 858 405 5118

  8. Hypocrisy 101 “If a SDCC candidate is not endorsed/followed by important people that candidate is unelectable.” “Everyone laments and criticizes the important folk.” Make up your minds!!!

  9. Several problems here. I have read the highest transit ridership of passengers at US airports is about 7%. I have ridden the Cleveland Rapid Transit direct from downtown elevated/subway service numerous times directly into the terminal and have never seen more than a couple of other people going to the airport for a flight – the last leg into the terminal carries under 10 people, mostly employees.
    I question if SD could attain 7%:
    1.) SANDAG and supporters continue to fall into the trap of using available property to construct major projects. The Middletown Station doesn’t tie directly to the CONRAC facility, so one wonders if public parking or car rental facilities would be able to use the APM without stops which would extend the en-route time
    2.) Many departures are too early in the morning or arrivals too late in the evening to expect people to take public transit involving multiple connections,
    3.) 1 or 2 transfers are required for most travelers.
    4.) A taxi or Uber ride from downtown or the convention center would be much quicker and not that expensive due to the short distance,
    5.) The plan is said to drop passengers between the two terminals, which must require people to hoof it with luggage up to 1/4 mile.
    In Dec 2021 the Voice of SD ran a story about SANDAG basically approving the APM concept.
    LAX is building a similar system that will serve all terminals with up to 2-minute headways and forecasts 30 million passengers per year WITHOUT CHARGE, which could be over 30% of total passengers. It requires 11 train sets of 4 cars carrying 200 passengers per operation. 10 Minute travel time means almost all trains would be moving during peak hours. The spec sheet says $2billion, but Paul Webb’s comment says $4B, meaning maybe the cost has ballooned.
    It’s doubtful if MTS runs the system that it would be FREE. If SDIA ran a third of LAX totals (approximate difference of passenger counts between airports) that would be 10 million a year, somewhere in the 30% range of all passengers. Very doubtful these numbers could be achieved.
    The estimated construction cost of $1.5 billion could be compared to an overly optimistic 200 million ridership over 20 years, that’s $7.50 per passenger just to pay for the construction – operational cost and maintenance per year is anyone’s guess.

    1. Paul, agree with everything you have said. I got the $4B figure from news articles about the LAX project, and I believe that is the budgeted figure, but even if it is only $2B, you can bet with contract amendments and over-runs it will come in close to $4B.

    2. I believe San Diego Airport would be better suited to an APM than LAX is. LAX should’ve got a direct, fully grade-separated subway connection to DTLA like Atlanta’s MARTA trains running between airport and Downtown at 5-min frequencies, pre-COVID.

      But San Diego’s airport is kind of at a geographical cul-de-sac. Branching off the main Trolley trunk to serve the airport would dilute frequencies from the Mid Coast and Green Lines which desperately need more frequency given UTC and Mission Valley’s massive growth. Worse yet, SANDAG said the airport trolley option would likely have only 15-minute frequencies. So an APM with 2-3 min frequencies going between the airport, Downtown, and the Port HQ made the most sense, actually costing less to build and operate per mile than a trolley would.

  10. Who is this project for? Who is lacking/demanding expensive and slow service to/from the airport? The funds would be better invested improving transit services that MOST people might use – not just for the high flyers.

  11. Comment: Have no interest in going downtown. What about turning the task over to Elon Musk’s Boring Company. It would get done and probably not cost $500 million. Suggest could expand north under I5 to north county Del Mar intersection of I5 and 56 to address travelers north to Oceanside and west to Escondido keeping traffic off the congested I5 section to airport and downtown San Diego. See
    https://sdforward.com/images/default-source/default-album/populationdensity_may2019.png?sfvrsn=23d3fe65_0

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