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San Diego Trolley Turns 30 Amid Praise And Higher Expectations

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Aired 9/2/11

Most people believe the San Diego trolley has been a success in serving San Diego. But some say it needs to do better to justify the investment in new lines.

— Commuters and San Diego State students are among the people heading west on the San Diego trolley’s Green Line on a Tuesday morning. Some of these people ride the trolley because they don’t have a car. Others, like Alex Johnson, ride it because they choose to.

A San Diego trolley.
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Above: A San Diego trolley.

"I use the trolley every day,” he said. “I work at Kaiser. I walk a block from my house. I get on the trolley. Switch over the green line, and the bus takes me right to work."

But why would he ride the trolley if he has access to a car?

"Because I don't have to worry about parking. My wife rides the trolley also,” said Johnson. “She works at USD. They have a shuttle that rides right from Old Town. You know…we probably drive our car once a week."

The San Diego trolley has been called a lot of things. One word you often hear to describe it is "iconic." Those bright red trolley cars seem to show up on every brochure advertising the pleasures and character of San Diego.

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2050 Regional Transportation Plan

2050 Regional Transportation Plan

Red lines on the map indicate proposed trolley lines in SANDAG's 2050 Regional Transportation Plan. They include a line that would connect downtown San Diego to San Diego State, running along El Cajon Blvd.

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But the trolley is not just iconic. It's historic.

Thirty years ago this summer, San Diego became to the first American city to develop a light-rail system. Today, most people consider the trolley a success. Still, some people believe the huge capital cost of the system demands a bigger return on the investment.

Paul Jablonski, the CEO of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), is one who believes the trolley has been very successful at paying for itself and attracting riders.

"I'm very high on the trolley because I see what it does," he said.

The MTS operates the bus and trolley systems in San Diego. Jablonski goes to say the best measure of the trolley's success is the amount of use it gets.

"Go out on the Blue Line. Go out on the Orange Line and see how full those trains are,” said Jablonski. “I mean, when we start out operations at 5 o'clock in the morning, there's probably 200-300 people waiting for that first train to come through."

People at the MTS say the proof is also in the numbers.

The San Diego trolley carries 31 million passengers a year. Jablonski said a trolley can carry six times as many people as a bus at the same cost of labor.

The most impressive thing about the San Diego trolley is what transit folks call its "farebox recovery rate." Nearly 59 percent of the trolley's operating costs are covered by the fares of paying customers. The San Diego trolley has long been recognized for its low level of operating subsidy. The MTS says that among the country's many light rail systems, only Boston's does better at paying for itself.

But here's another impressive figure: half a billion dollars. That was the cost to taxpayers of building the Green Line, the most recent trolley extension. Nobody I spoke with said the trolley was unsuccessful. But some did say for that level of investment, the trolley should do better. Elyse Lowe is the director of the transit advocacy group, Move San Diego.

"The questions that Move San Diego has been asking is: Have we done enough with the trolley? Has it gone the right places, and what do we have to do as we look to the future?" she said.

There are a lot of places the trolley simply doesn't go. It will not take you to the San Diego airport, or the beach or to Balboa Park. And although the trolley serves Mission Valley, a large job center, Lowe points out that 80 percent of the jobs in Mission Valley are more than a quarter of a mile from a trolley station. In other words…not within easy walking distance.

Lowe points out the trolley actually skirts the most densely populated areas, east of downtown San Diego, by not directly serving neighborhoods like Hillcrest and North Park. She admits that fitting a trolley line into those population centers would have been a lot more expensive, and it would have faced much greater political opposition.

"But had we made that investment 30 years ago, we would see much higher trolley ridership than we do today," said Lowe.

The trolley, for all of its strengths and shortcomings, was the vision of a San Diego politician named Jim Mills. A former president pro-tem of the California Senate, Mills carried legislation that funded San Diego's first trolley line. When I asked Mills why he wanted to bring light rail to San Diego, he spoke of his love of the old trolley cars, and his strong belief that good transit would make San Diego a great place to live.

"Freeways build sprawl. Transit builds cities,” he said. “You see that throughout the world."

The Regional Transportation Plan, from San Diego's planning agency SANDAG, envisions four additional light rail lines, built between now and 2050. Future generations will see whether that can turn San Diego into a city that's built around transit, and not around cars.

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