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Roundtable: San Diego tries again to bring transit to the airport

 April 15, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: This week on Roundtable. It's all about how San Diego gets around. A vision for our own Grand Central Station is getting another look. Hear about the new plan that still includes transit to the airport. And the shift to electric vehicles is more than just the cars we drive from garbage trucks to forklifts , the push to take the emissions out of our heavy machinery. I'm Matt Hoffman , and this is KPBS roundtable. It might be one of San Diego's most ambitious goals in recent memory a Grand Central Station where a unified mass transit hub connects the county to downtown , and finally , a trolley line to the airport. KPBS has been covering this idea for more than two years. It first came to life as a way to repurpose the NAB war building. That's the Old World War Two relic in Old Town. It's now being used mostly for cyber projects. Here's how KPBS has Andrew Bowen covered it back then.
S2: The Navy plans to design and build a more compact headquarters and pay for it by leasing or selling off its excess land for private development for help with that vision. The Navy has turned to the county's regional planning agency , SANDAG.
S3: It's going solar right now. It's a little scary actually.
S2: Hasn't a crater is sandbags executive director. The two agencies are now meeting weekly trying to hammer out a joint development deal. A big part of a Kuroda's vision is a new mass transit center with a rail line connecting to the airport less than two miles away.
S3: They told us what they need and we told them , if we give you that , when you give us the land , that's pretty much the term. And we will take about 14 acres of the land and we will build the San Diego Grand Central and we'll open the rest of it to private development.
S2: A grotto says the addition of a new transit center could kickstart the revitalization of the Midway District , which is plagued by blight. New housing and commercial space would fund some of the transit hubs costs , but it would also require some local taxpayer dollars. A Kuroda says finally connecting rail to the airport would be worth it.
S3: I want to convince people in San Diego that is to their interests and to their kids and grandkids. Interest is to do this , the whole system. But this is special. This is transformational. This is going to influence what happens from the sports arena all the way to downtown.
S1: Again , that was from KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen in February of 2020. But now it looks like we're back to the drawing board. The Navy says it'll do something else with the Napa site. SANDAG , which is trying to boost the adoption of public transit , says it now has a new location in mind. It's all detailed this week by voice of San Diego's managing editor , Andrew Keates. And yes , the elusive goal of rail to the airport is still in play. Welcome back to Roundtable , Andrew.
S1: Good to have you here. So we'll get into all the details in a moment.
S4: SANDAG , the executive director , has on a Kuroda indicated to me that as they were required to , as they were studying that idea , they also studied some alternatives. And he indicated to me in an interview that those alternatives had sort of surpassed the old town option as the top priority and that they were giving more serious looks at the other one. There's some complicated reasons for that , mostly the sort of timeframe that they were working with the expense. It was not all that clear how making it a transit station benefited the Navy , how having a Navy headquarters benefited SANDAG. There was just a number of pieces in play when you have a project of that big and it looked like regional leaders had decided to simplify their ambitions and go with something else. And that is now official. That is now sort of the ambitious idea of a Grand Central Station as part of a naval redevelopment has now sort of been put to bed.
S1: So now with D'avoir out of the picture , the focus is turning to the port of San Diego's headquarters. Those who had driven to the airport , they can't miss it. It's that tall building right along Pacific Highway.
S4: I think the main selling point here and that probably the main takeaway for most people is that that is now the approach that regional leaders have settled on to achieve that elusive , oft discussed goal of connecting the transit system to the airport. They think they can immediately start environmental work on getting a project like that approved , and if they do that , they think they could break ground in as little as two years. I will say that that strikes me as very fast , but that's their timeline. And they say if they do that , they could have , you know , an operational finished system. In place in as few as six years or maybe as long as ten years.
S1: And I remember seeing those renderings and it did look grand.
S4: So so that site , that civic highway site built at the port headquarters would be a much , much , much less ambitious redevelopment project. In fact , there wouldn't there's no talk that I've been told so far of building housing or retail or office space. On top of that , it would really just be a transit station in close proximity to the airport that would allow people to divert towards the airport and not have to drive when they go there. But they are referring to that as phase one of a two phase project and the to the second phase , which would be more downtown. That would be the project. That would be sort of comparable in ambition to the one up in Old Town , which is a we're bringing back that Grand Central Station idea , but rather than building it in a new area like Old Town that doesn't have high rises and super dense housing yet , or even much in the way of offices yet , we would put that instead downtown.
S1: And we've talked with you in the past about why San Diego does not have a rail line that goes to the airport. The airport recently started its major rebuild of Terminal One , and that includes carriers like Southwest.
S4: The airport's a willing partner in this case. They're happy with the idea. They've said that they are basically agnostic about the way that it's done , that that's not for them to decide. That's for the transit experts to decide. Their role in this is they have already secured from airport carriers as part of the cost of the Terminal one redevelopment , $500 million for all related transportation improvements to help ease access and congestion to and from the airport based on the increased number of flights that they're going to be able to choose to service based on that that terminal expansion.
S1: We're talking with Voice of San Diego managing editor Andrew Keats. And Andrew , as you mentioned earlier , your story points out the other big piece of this project , SANDAG , is now looking at the current city hall complex for something that , as you said , resembles a Grand Central Station.
S4: So it would include all of that in a mass redevelopment that if you've spent any time at City Hall , you know that it is showing its age quite considerably. It's not a impressive building by any stretch of the imagination. And the city has been quite open for a number of years now that it's just not a permanent solution for their office workers. It's not really putting the city's best foot forward. So this would kind of wrap in the city's city hall needs into this idea of a Grand Central Station or a central mobility hub station. But next door to that , also , you've got a fire department firehouse that needs a new , new facility as well and a block next to that. SANDAG has for years tried to build its own headquarters on top above sort of a bus terminal. It has acquired that block across the street from that. The state of California has two blocks that it has made available for redevelopment. And right in this vicinity is the 1 to 1 ash street high rise that the city of San Diego has been facing a mess of problems with for a number of years now. It is asbestos contaminated even after the city entered into a long term lease to own agreement that is tied up in litigation based on a number of problems with the property , but that will presumably be sorted out at some point. And so now you can throw that into the mix here as part of this vision. So you've got like seven or eight blocks of property downtown surrounding City Hall. And the idea , as explained to me , is that you would build a subway terminal for new lines that would be built as part of the region's future transit system that would come in 80 feet below ground under this new central transit station. The trolley and various buses that come through downtown would come in 40 feet below ground. And then above that , you would have your city hall , you would have potentially a new SANDAG headquarters , you would have other office space that might need to be built downtown. And you could have quite a bit of housing , including affordable housing , maybe a civic theater , to replace the one that's there as well. Who knows what else they could decide to include in ? His project that would all be sorted out in the future after the city tries to go to private developers to help them build this. But I think some of the answers to those questions about what specifically would be in there are pretty far off at the moment.
S1: You've covered these issues for a long time here in San Diego and , you know , all the key players here.
S4: The downtown project , I think , is , you know , sort of faces a lot of the problems that the network considered as well. But at least now those sort of ambitions have been decoupled from the pressing need that the region has expressed for many years now of having a transit system that reaches the airport.
S1: Voice of San Diego's Andrew Keates is our guest here. And Andrew , you talked with Sendak's board chair and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blake Speer about all this. She had this term analysis paralysis to describe the region's inability to move on big projects like this.
S4: But every solution that was proposed would have some group of people that didn't like it as much as some alternative solution. And so you would get into a , you know , political litigation about whose idea was best. You'd have interest groups lined up on one side or the other , maybe a public one public agency favored one another. Public agency favored another. And because there was so much disagreement , you just didn't solve it at all. You just sort of said , well , well , we all agree on the problem , what the problem is. But unfortunately , those knuckleheads on the other side of this debate are preventing us from arriving at a workable solution. And that she was saying what's really beneficial here is we've now settled. This is how we're going to try to bring transit to the airport. And now it's just a matter of clearing every hurdle that's in the way of that in the immediate future. We don't have to spend any more time debating the best way to do it. I think that's what she made by. And I think it's a useful insight.
S1: And before we go here , you mentioned earlier that the Navy , they were sort of moving on with their own plans for the nav war site.
S4: They did have a little bit of news that they're going to start soliciting developers to demonstrate their interest in being part of this project sometime this year. What they need here is a new headquarters for the network facility. What they can offer in exchange for that is land that , you know , a developer can make money off of with everything else they build on the property. This is the same model that they used for their Navy headquarters in downtown San Diego. That's now part of a sort of life sciences campus that's being built down there. So that's what they want. And they still they say that they still want it to be a mixed use project. They still want it to be on top of a transit station , if that's possible. And maybe it'll be less dense than they had initially envisioned. And I guess you could scale it all the way back to not being anything more than just a new name for headquarters , though that does not sound to me like what they want. They would like to have a nice , big , sparkling , mixed use project that also happens to give them a map for facility free of charge.
S1: I've been speaking with Andrew Keats from Voice of San Diego. And Andrew , thanks so much for your time today.
S4: Thank you , Matt.
S1: It's a bit of relief for those who get around by car , but not by much. After the war in Ukraine pushed gas prices to the $6 range locally. We've seen it come back down a bit. According to Tripoli , the average price for a gallon of regular is now around $5.80. As a result , we've seen a spike in interest for electric cars. So much so that some popular brands like Toyota and GM are getting close to exhausting their allocated federal rebates. This week on Roundtable , we're taking the EV discussion to a new level. Heavy duty vehicles that are just as big a part of reaching our climate goals. Ron Nicholas from the San Diego Union-Tribune got an in-person look at some of this new technology. Rob , welcome back to Roundtable.
S4: It's nice to be back , Matt.
S1: Good to have you here. So this show , Intel that you saw had a nice backdrop on the Broadway pier in downtown San Diego.
S4: They have what they call their annual Fleet Day. And that's an event that's geared to attract operators who make and sell medium and heavy duty trucks. And a number of automakers were there showing off their rigs.
S1: And your story starts by telling us about an all electric garbage truck.
S4: There's a garbage truck on display , all electric. But there are also other automakers that make garbage trucks. So , for example , Peterbilt and Electric. But I found that to be very interesting because , you know , there is a movement towards heavy duty and medium sized trucks going the electric route. But when you see that actually seen an electric garbage truck , it kind of caught everyone's eye. And this Mac representative said that they've sold about 20 of those garbage trucks so far. So they are a few on the road , not a whole lot , but they've sold 20 so far in California. There's one in Santa Cruz. And the people in Santa Cruz have this. How the they're thinking about adding about two more. So those Mac garbage trucks are on the road. They waste £66,000. That's a pretty heavy and that's a big reason why that they are heavy is because they afford lithium ion batteries on those trucks.
S1: And people listening , everyone knows what a garbage truck sounds like. They're very loud.
S4: It's just , like , just as quiet as you would experience with an electric passenger car. Hmm.
S1: Hmm. And range anxiety is a term that drivers of electric vehicles know very well.
S4: That's at least what the Mack truck official told me is gave me an example. It said , Let's say that your locality has to go , your garbage truck drivers have to go 20 miles just to get to their various routes. In that case , it's not going to work that well because the range goes from about 70 miles to a hundred miles between charges. And if you're going to have to do a charge , you can take maybe up to 2 hours. So they're basically the sweet spot they're looking at is if a locality has a route that's very close where you don't have to go 20 miles from one place to another. But if they're all in kind of concentrated in a compact area , they say that this is a good fit for them.
S1: We're talking with San Diego Union-Tribune , energy reporter Rob Nicholas. And Rob Jeanie , we know that they put on Fleet Day. That's the event down there at the Broadway Pier.
S4: And they offer various plans , like , for example , these plans include charging infrastructure in which the utility owns most of the equipment. And but there are other plans as well that they offer where the operator owns most or all of the equipment. It all depends on what the operator feels. Whether they want to spend that much money is that little bit less and have the utility or most of at least some of it out ? It varies.
S1: Governor Gavin Newsom , he wants to end the sales of gas powered passenger cars by 2035.
S4: Quote , where feasible. So there is some wiggle room there coming down the road. We'll see what happens. There's also dreads. Trucks must be zero emissions by 2035 and dreads trucks for the people who aren't familiar with that , they're basically vehicles that are commonly used to transport freight from an ocean port a very short distance. It's what transportation officials commonly call the first mile of the shipping route.
S1: All right. Now let's get into some of the other types of vehicles. There's everything from forklifts to the trucks used to unload the cargo at the ports. The food company , Dole , they had their own show , Intel earlier in the week of new electric trucks that they added to their fleet.
S4: This port areas do emit a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. And the reason why is because generally speaking , they use diesel fuel. So when you've got all that diesel fumes , that really affects places like Barrio Logan and also National City that are right next to the port. And they've had traditionally for a long time that had a lot of problems with particulate pollution , air pollution , and that leads to all kinds of health issues like greater incidences of asthma.
S4: That's more difficult to make that transition. That's because the range of electric vehicles is usually 200 , 300 miles. I did see one truck that had under optimum conditions , ranges of 350 miles. But even when you're getting to that high end , that's not really going to be conducive if you're going to be doing a long haul coast to coast transporting of goods.
S1: We're speaking with youth reporter Rob Nicholas. And Rob , this all costs money , all this transition stuff. And when it comes to passenger cars , EVs are typically more expensive compared to gas powered ones.
S4: The Mac garbage truck that I looked at the other day on Broadway Pier is listed at about $600,000 , and that's twice as much as a conventional diesel truck , and that's pretty common. Electric vehicles are generally much more expensive , but operators who want to buy or lease them can , on the other hand , get discounts , government subsidies , things like that , to help offset the price. For example , that Mack truck that I was telling you about , the garbage truck that can get $120,000 in state funded discounts.
S1: Now let's get your take on the driving experience. You were able to talk with some drivers.
S4: And one other interesting thing that struck me when I took a look at the cab inside of one of these heavy duty truck vehicles was there's no gearbox. I mean , and if you're if you've ever seen the inside of a truck cab , you see big gearboxes because the drivers are constantly shifting. But there is no gearbox , at least not in the this one truck I saw from this company called Nikola that's based in Arizona. And the rep from Nikola told me that he had an experience where he had a driver actually drive the vehicle over a long , fairly long distance for a number of days. And he was just the driver was talking about how how this was the first time he had been driving for a long , long time. This was the first time he was ever able to drive a big rig and all he could hear was just the sound of the wheels. He said , I could never hear the sound of wheels because there was too many too much other noise that was being generated by the by the vehicle. But in this case , it's like a Tesla. It's like a Nissan Leaf. It's very , very quiet.
S1: We mentioned gas prices at the beginning of this segment , and you've been following the current situation generally.
S4: I think a lot of people are thinking about doing that on the passenger side. Also , that's a selling point that they had on Fleet Day from a lot of these truck makers that were saying , hey , if you're paying because actually diesel is more expensive than gasoline right now. So that could lead to a transition there. But there are some challenges , though , because as we mentioned earlier , they are more expensive. You get the subsidies and knock the price down , but it still is a little bit more expensive to make that transition right now.
S1: I've been. Speaking with Rob Nichols. He's an energy reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. And Rob , thanks so much for being here today.
S4: You're welcome , Mat.
S1: Before we go , we have a special event coming to KPBS. On Wednesday , April 20th , Metro reporter Andrew Bowen is hosting Unsheltered Solving Homelessness in San Diego. The online forum includes some of the local experts on the issue , which has no easy fix. The start time is set for 6 p.m.. Again , that's next Wednesday night. You can learn more and sign up to participate at KPBS talk. That wraps up this week's edition of KPBS Roundtable. And I'd like to thank our guests , Andrew Keats from Voice of San Diego and Rob Nicholas from the San Diego Union-Tribune. If you missed any part of our show , you can listen anytime on the KPBS Roundtable podcast , I met Hoffman. Thanks so much for being here. We'll catch it next week on Roundtable.

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San Diego International Airport was largely empty as travel plummeted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020.
Bennett Lacy
San Diego International Airport is largely empty as travel plummets during the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020.
The vision for a central transit hub in San Diego with direct access to the airport is scrambled, and there has been progress in bringing electric vehicle technology to heavy machinery.

KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman talks with Voice of San Diego managing editor Andrew Keatts about a pivot for the city of San Diego and SANDAG in efforts to build a primary transit hub for the region and establish a direct rail link to San Diego International Airport. Also, San Diego Union-Tribune energy reporter Rob Nikolewski details some of the progress made to bring electric vehicle technology to larger vehicles like garbage trucks and short-distance port machinery.