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Blue Line trolley extension opens, but accessing it isn't always easy

Service on the extended UCSD Blue Line trolley began on Sunday, marking the biggest expansion of public transit in San Diego in more than 15 years.

Blue Line trolley extension opens, but accessing it isn't always easy

Speaker 1: (00:00)

San Diego's biggest expansion of public transit. And more than 15 years is now up and running. The blue line trolley now offers a one-seat ride from the border to UCS and university, city KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen examines. The impact that extension could have, and the work that's still left to do

Speaker 2: (00:22)

Service on the extended UCS D blue line began on Sunday, but last week, MTS offered the media a preview ride. It was fast and smooth with some excellent views. You can't get well driving full disclosure. I've been looking forward to this trolley ride for a long time, and it's hard to understate. Just how big a deal. The project is nine news stations and 11 miles of new tracks. That's a 20% increase in the MTS trolley network. We're so

Speaker 3: (00:52)

Excited about this project.

Speaker 2: (00:55)

Sharon Humphreys is the bubbly director of engineering and construction at SANDAG, the regional transportation agency that built the trolley extension. She says the project has been planned since the 1980s.

Speaker 3: (01:07)

I myself have worked on the project for the last 10 years. So if you are interested in instant gratification, civil engineering is not the field for you.

Speaker 2: (01:18)

One of the key decisions made early on was to build the tracks next to the I five freeway that made the project cheaper and easier to build by limiting the amount of land SANDAG had to acquire. Nope,

Speaker 3: (01:30)

And he wants to part with their personal property, their land. So by running most of the project through public lands, we were able to avoid impacting property owners and impact

Speaker 2: (01:44)

The downside to that decision. Half the land that surrounds many of the stations is taken up by the freeway where there's no chance of building new housing or commercial development, even where the city does have plans for transit oriented growth. They'll likely take years to come to fruition

Speaker 4: (02:01)

Around. Uh, we don't see the kind of dense housing here that we might hope.

Speaker 2: (02:09)

Katie. Chris does a postdoctoral researcher at UCS D. The campus has two new stops along the blue line. She's starting a study of how the new trolley changes. The transportation habits among university staff

Speaker 4: (02:23)

Expect is that we'll see an increase in physical activity and increase in biking, walking, transit trips, uh, and a decrease in vehicle miles traveled among those people that live near to a trolley stop versus those that live for their way.

Speaker 2: (02:38)

Chris plans on riding the trolley to campus a couple of times a week. She lives in normal Heights, miles and canyons away from the nearest trolley stop. But she's a gung-ho cyclist and transit writer eager to get to the trolley. However she can. The extension starts at old town and runs north between Pacific beach and Claremont before reaching UCS deed and university city.

Speaker 2: (03:04)

Kristen, I rode our bikes up and down Balbo avenue. The third stop on the trolley extension, but it's crossed at the crosswalk massive trucks zoomed by us. Like it was a freeway. Many of the new stations are downright hazardous to access by foot wheelchair or bike. And Chris says, most people who live far from these stations, won't go out of their way to ride the trolley. There are plans to improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure around the stations, but there's no clear timeline on when they'll be complete and they may require taking a lane or two away from cars. Chris says she doesn't see another option,

Speaker 4: (03:44)

Really ambitious targets, right? With our climate action plan. We know that transportation is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases that are warming the planet and causing, uh, you know, public health harm. So I think that that is a trade-off we have to be willing to make.

Speaker 2: (04:03)

So the benefits of the new trolley may take a while to reach most San Diego wins, but UCS D chancellor per deep, Koestler says he thinks the trolley will really catch on with students within a year. We have

Speaker 5: (04:15)

Passes for all of our students. It's part of their student activity fees. So the students will have complete access to San Diego without a car

Speaker 2: (04:23)

Or rather access to the parts of San Diego. You can easily get to via public transit.

Speaker 1: (04:30)

Joining me is KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, who obviously can't get enough of the blue line trolley. He's riding the trolley again today. Hello Andrew.

Speaker 2: (04:40)

Hi Maureen. Good morning.

Speaker 1: (04:42)

How is it getting from your house to the trolley this morning?

Speaker 2: (04:45)

I, I live in university Heights and I wanted to experience it, you know, without driving. So I rode my bike, uh, through Hillcrest mission Hills. It was a really beautiful ride of use of point Loma and mission bay, uh, went through Presidio park. Um, once I got to old town station, it was a bit of a struggle, just getting to the actual trolley tracks because there were a lot of fences and not really clear way finding signage. And then I'm parking. My bike at the station was also a bit of a hassle cause there's not a very clearly marked bike parking anywhere. Uh, so, you know, uh, it was a bit of a struggle, um, but a beautiful ride. And, uh, one that I expect I'll be making, uh, you know, more often in the future.

Speaker 1: (05:27)

Can you gauge ridership on this first week day that the trolley is operational? Like how many people are in your car?

Speaker 2: (05:34)

I would say there are about 15 to 20 people on the car that I'm riding. And right now I didn't get a good look at the other two cars that are, that are connected to this, uh, yesterday. Uh, and the big grand opening. There were cars that were just absolutely packed standing room only. And it was also free yesterday. So I'm sure that had played a role in it MTS before the pandemic projected that the extension would add an additional 27,000 trips per day, but it hasn't revised those projections since the pandemic hit right now. Their ridership overall has recovered to only about 65% of what it was pre pandemic, but of course these projects are built for literally decades. So you really can't measure the impact just based on a day or even a couple of years.

Speaker 1: (06:20)

And how long does it take to ride from the border to UCS D?

Speaker 2: (06:25)

Yeah, this is a big peg, a caveat to the selling point of the one-seat ride with no transfers. Uh, so it's roughly an hour and 20 minutes from the border to UCF. And even on a day like today with rush hour traffic, uh, you know, that could still be two to three times faster. Uh, if you just make that, uh, via car, of course, a lot of people around the border and everything don't have cars, so it's nice for them to have that one seat ride and not having to transfer. Um, but you know, even, even though it is a faster and smoother and more convenient ride for a lot of people, it's still probably going to be faster to drive for a lot of people.

Speaker 1: (07:06)

Now, you and other Metro Watchers have been very excited about the opening of the blue line. Can you encapsulate for the rest of us, why this is such a big deal?

Speaker 2: (07:16)

Rail infrastructure is really difficult and expensive to build in the United States, partly because it's difficult and expensive to build any mega project, big infrastructure projects just don't get built as often as they used to be. But partly that's because most of our money goes to building and maintaining roads and freeways. And in San Diego in particular, there's a certain antipathy, I think, toward public transit that you hear among some elected officials, you know, they say that public public transit benefits only a fraction of the population, and they should spend more money and more time subsidizing driving. But in terms of the project itself, this actual, uh, you know, 11 new miles of light rail, nine news stations, university city, where this line ends is a huge employment hub. It's not just UCLA. They're also big office buildings around their retail at the UTC mall. Uh, the VA hospital is a big employer as well. So th the rail extension really has the potential to reshape commute patterns a lot, but a lot would also have to change in terms of, you know, ways people can get to those stations and the development that happens around them.

Speaker 1: (08:25)

Yeah. Yeah. You mentioned several downsides to the blue line trolley extension. And so if enough people can't live near a trolley stop or safely get to, and from the trolley, will it really have a significant impact on San Diego?

Speaker 2: (08:42)

Yeah, I think it really depends on what happens next. So I think we are likely to see plans for a denser housing, become a raw reality around some of the news stations, by the way, I'm right between Claremont drive and Balbo avenue. I'm by, uh, at mission bay as we go by and right around here, there are a lot of plans for dense housing to my left. I'm looking at a, I'm heading backwards to my left. I'm looking at a lot of homes in Claremont. And, uh, right now the city is debating the Claremont community plan update, which would add some density around this area, around the stations. And if the city really wants to improve the transit experience, it would probably have to spend a lot of money, uh, making changes to the streets that get people to these stations. Uh, some of those changes might also upset people. You might have to take away a lane of, uh, for cars and give it over to buses so that people can be whisked away in a rapid bus from Claremont or Pacific beach to, to the trolley line. So I think there's a lot of potential and the seeds of a lot of success in this project, but it's just, um, not all of those things have happened at

Speaker 1: (09:47)

You're reporting ridership on all of San Diego's trolley lines have gone through ups and downs. What are the main reasons you think that keep people away from using the trolley?

Speaker 2: (09:58)

The bottom line is that the trolley network doesn't go to or come to where a lot of people live or, uh, where they're going and that even when it does cars are still faster most of the time. And so, you know, it's going to take, um, probably some carrots and sticks. If you talk to any economists, they'll say, you know, you can subsidize, uh, transit passes. You can build new lines and make it faster and better and everything, but without a stick to sort of nudge people out of their cars, uh, then you know, th the, the success that can only take you so far. So, you know, if, if San Diego really wants to change, it's going to have to start seeing transit as, uh, the, the option of first resort rather than last resort and make the changes to the infrastructure accordingly. Okay.

Speaker 1: (10:45)

I've been speaking with KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew bow, and Andrew have a good and safe trip. Enjoy yourself. Okay.

Speaker 2: (10:52)

Thank you very much, Maureen. It's been a pleasure.

Trolley passengers now have a one-seat ride from the San Ysidro border crossing to the educational and employment hub around UCSD and University City. The $2.17 billion extension comprises nine new stations and 11 miles of new tracks — a 20% expansion of the MTS trolley system.

RELATED: San Diego Pledged To Shift Away From Cars. So Why Is It Still Widening Roads?

But while the improvement for transit riders is immense and undeniable, there is still more work to do to extend the new trolley's benefits to even more San Diegans. There are not many housing developments around stations, and some also lack safe bike and pedestrian access and speedy bus connections.

The project has been planned since the 1980s, said Sharon Humphreys, director of Engineering and Construction at SANDAG, the regional transportation agency that built the trolley extension.

RELATED: Report finds SANDAG transportation plan falls short of San Diego climate goals

"I myself have worked on the project for the last 10 years, so if you are interested in instant gratification, civil engineering is not the field for you," Humphreys said with a laugh.

The trolley extension starts at Old Town and continues north, with stops at Clairemont Drive near Mission Bay Park, the San Diego VA Medical Center, UCSD and the Westfield UTC mall.

Humphreys said she gets chills thinking about the impact the project will have on the region.

"I think about all of the students who are in South County who have told me personally they have no easy way to get to an education at UC San Diego," she said. "This alignment gives them a direct connection to the UC San Diego campus and all of the educational and environmental and economic benefits that an education there affords."

One of the key decisions made early on in the trolley extension planning process was to build the tracks next to the I-5 freeway. That made the project cheaper and easier to build by limiting the amount of land SANDAG had to acquire through eminent domain.

Sharon Humphreys, SANDAG director of engineering and construction, points to a model showing planned transportation projects in San Diego County, Nov. 16, 2021.
Andrew Bowen
Sharon Humphreys, SANDAG director of engineering and construction, points to a model showing planned transportation projects in San Diego County, Nov. 16, 2021.

"Nobody wants to part with their personal property, their land," Humphreys said. "So by running most of the project through public lands, we were able to avoid impacting property owners."

The downside to that decision: Half the land that surrounds many of the stations is taken up by the freeway, so there's no chance of building new housing or commercial development there.

The city has approved two growth plans that will streamline approval for high-density housing around the first three stations. More of that growth could be streamlined under the Clairemont Community Plan update, which is expected to get a City Council vote sometime in 2022.

But the draft of that plan would still only allow low-density single-family homes in some areas around the Clairemont Drive and Balboa Avenue stations. And while higher-density housing would be permitted in Pacific Beach west of the Balboa Avenue station, that housing would be limited by the city's 30-foot coastal height limit.

"What we expect is that we'll see an increase in physical activity, an increase in biking, walking, transit trips, and a decrease in vehicle miles traveled among those people who live near to a trolley stop versus those that live further away."
Katie Crist, postdoctoral researcher in UCSD's Urban Studies and Planning Department

"When we look around, we don’t see the kind of dense housing here that we might hope for," said Katie Crist, a postdoctoral researcher in UCSD's Urban Studies and Planning Department.

This fall, Crist is embarking on a study of the trolley extension's impact on the transportation habits of UCSD staff. Participants will answer questions about their commutes before the COVID-19 pandemic, then wear devices that measure physical activity and location for a one-week period in 2022, 2023 and 2024.

"What we expect is that we'll see an increase in physical activity, an increase in biking, walking, transit trips, and a decrease in vehicle miles traveled among those people who live near to a trolley stop versus those that live further away," Crist said.

The study will also measure whether increased trolley ridership leads to savings on transportation costs.

"We would expect that as people start taking the trolley, that they would have a decrease in their transportation spending, certainly, but maybe even be able to give up a vehicle," Crist said. "And we can look at whether that change is associated with increased spending in other health or quality-of-life-related expenses."

RELATED: 'Recovering engineer' explains why he thinks streets prioritize cars over pedestrians

Blue Line trolley extension opens, but accessing it isn't always easy

Crist lives in Normal Heights, miles and canyons away from the nearest trolley stop. She still plans to bike to that station as part of her regular commute to UCSD but said she doesn't expect others who live far from the network will go out of their way to ride the trolley.

And for riders who are intent on accessing the Blue Line without a car, the experience can be unpleasant, even unsafe. When Crist rode up and down Balboa Avenue to get to the third station on the Blue Line extension, multiple large vehicles sped by uncomfortably close at freeway speeds. Sidewalks on Morena Boulevard leading up to the Balboa Avenue station are in disrepair, and some intersections lack curb ramps for wheelchair users.

The draft Clairemont Community Plan update envisions a separated path for cyclists and pedestrians on part of Balboa Avenue, but city officials could not provide an estimated completion date. The draft does have clear or specific plans for bus-only lanes that would speed up transit connections to the neighborhood core.

While it may take years for the benefits of the Blue Line extension to reach most San Diegans, UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said he expects the trolley to catch on with students in six months to a year.

"We have (transit) passes for all of our students, it's part of their student activity fees," Khosla said. "So the students will have complete access to San Diego without a car."

Or, more specifically, access to the parts of San Diego they can easily get to via public transit.

The Blue Line trolley extension is now open -- it could be a lifeline for UCSD students and others who already live and work near a trolley stop. But many of the new stations remain difficult to access by foot, wheelchair, or bike. Meanwhile, The Airport Authority says the palm trees in Ocean beach are, or will soon be, a hazard to aviation and must come down. Homeowners in the area say the airport isn't giving them adequate information as to how the decision was reached. Plus, a deputy director at the California Department of public health explains concerns about vaccine equity ahead of the holiday season.

Corrected: November 22, 2021 at 2:20 PM PST
"A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when the City Council is expected to vote on the Clairemont Community Plan update. The error has been corrected."