Friday, March 8, 2013
The Sprinter light rail from Oceanside to Escondido in North County celebrates its fifth anniversary this week. Ridership still lags behind initial projections, but as the economy improves, it’s on the increase.
The Sprinter logs between 7,500 and 8,500 rides a day, less than the 11,000 originally projected back in its planning stages in 2004. But North County Transit Director Matt Tucker said that was before the recession, and as the economy picks up steam, so will ridership.
“Let’s just talk about the full fare,” he said. “It’s two dollars, and I challenge you to go 22 miles in your car for two dollars.”
Sprinter fares only cover about 25 percent of the cost of running the service, but it does take people off the roads.
“Given the reliability of the Sprinter,” Tucker said, “riding at 99 percent on time performance, it will give people opportunities to take the Sprinter train and potentially transfer to other trains headed north and south, and altogether avoid using their automobiles.”
Tucker admits making better connections is a key to motivating people to use public transit in the future. He said money for infrastructure like extra parking lots near train stations is hard to come by these days.
Wendy Taylor rides the Sprinter every day from her home in Oceanside to her job in Escondido. She brings her bike on board and said that’s what makes the commute connections work for her.
“I knew about the Sprinter,” she said, “and I knew it was $2. But it was a little daunting to figure it out and I have a car. But this summer I just changed my vision I guess, and my friend and I made a date: ‘We’re just going to figure out the Sprinter one day,’ and we brought our bikes and figured it out. It’s really not difficult. “
The ride takes 53 minutes, which is longer than driving in off peak times, but considering Highway 78 is becoming increasingly congested, is sometimes preferable to sitting in traffic.
"It’s chill,” said Taylor. “It’s a little more of a time investment, but I get to read, so it’s an investment in myself as well.”
Matt Tucker said there are plans to run a Sprinter Express once an hour with just five stops. That would shave ten minutes off the time. But it could be a while in coming. It could take a decade to find the money to double track the line to make this possible.
Many of those riding the Sprinter on a recent morning were students traveling to Palomar College or Cal State San Marcos. North County Transit is offering sweet incentives to students facing hefty parking permit prices: a month’s Sprinter pass for less than $30.
The next major investment in the line is likely to be a stop at Camp Pendleton, so Marines and civilians on base have a way to connect to the Coaster, Amtrak and the Sprinter. That would open up connections to L.A., San Diego and Escondido for thousands living and working on base.
This weekend's Sprinter anniversary celebrations include surprise gifts for lucky loyal train riders.