By Noel T. Braymer
Much has happened in San Diego since the expansion of the San Diegan trains in the mid 1970’s from 3 round trips a day to 12 Pacific Surfliners between San Diego and Los Angeles today. San Diego also pioneered Light Rail in the US with the San Diego Trolley in 1981 which was then the first new Light Rail service in the US since World War 2. San Diego County has also changed from a largely suburban region of low density housing to a growing urban core as part of the second largest city in California. In this transition from suburban to increasingly urban is behind the changing demographics of the County’s population. This is reflected in the current conflicts within the city representatives of the “San Diego Association of Governments” (SANDAG) which is the planning body for San Diego County, particularly for Transportation. In 1988 county voters approved a half cent transportation sales tax which voters extended in 2004 to 2044. To appeal to voters the sales tax funded both rail and highway projects. Problems came up when the previous SANDAG Executive Director refused to comply with State requirements to lower Green House Gas Emissions in San Diego County from Transportation sources. The County lost a lawsuit against San Diego County for refusing to comply with the State Regulations. In 2016 SANDAG put on a ballot measure to raise the County’s transportation sales tax another half cent. While it received a majority vote, it failed the 2/3’s majority needed to pass. At about the same time it came out the assumed revenues from the current transportation sales tax wasn’t bringing in the revenue that was projected for it. At the same time SANDAG tried to hide this fact before the election for the additional transportation sale tax on the ballot in late 2016.
After a long search starting in 2017 a new SANDAG Executive Director was finally selected on September 14, 2018. Hasan Ikharata had been the Executive Director of the Southern California Association Of Governments (SCAG) before his appointment to SANDAG. Ikharata has been focusing on projects which would serve a more urban population and carry more people without expanding the road network. His efforts have been centered on expansion and better organization of public transport to connect to more job centers and new high density housing. This has been sparking outrage from elected officials in suburban and rural areas of San Diego. The new road projects have in large part been delayed because there wasn’t funding for these projects due to in large part the lower than expected revenue from the existing transportation half cent sale tax.
There are plans to expand transit, particularly rail service in San Diego County. What is being worked on include expansion of Coaster service between Oceanside and San Diego. By 2021 current efforts to add double tracking will allow the now mostly peak travel period service and a few trains between peaks into half hourly peak period schedules with hourly service the rest of the day. This will raise the number daily of Coaster trains run from 22 to 42 trains. This will require more rail cars and locomotives to run half hourly peak period and hourly service off peak. This will include the 7 new locomotives recently ordered by NCTD to replace the 5 existing locomotives. The North County Transit District (NCTD) has applied for funding for additional rail cars from SANDAG. The question is will there be a majority of SANDAG Directors representing the different cities in the County voting to approve these improvements? SANDAG is planning to spend $600 million dollars over the next 5 years to increase Coaster Rail service, stabilize for now the bluffs holding the county tracks at Del Mar and creating express lanes on Highway 78 between Oceanside and Escondido.
This may not satisfy local politicians who are more interested in widening highways like the 78 between Oceanside and Escondido than creating express lanes which sounds like High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes. Local politicians are also pleading for expansion of Highway 56 which runs in northern San Diego between the 5 and 15 freeways. Highway 67 is in southeast San Diego County between El Cajon running north to Ramona in a largely rural area.
Along with expanded Coaster service, the NCTD is planning to expand the current half hourly Sprinter rail service between Oceanside and Escondido to every 15 minutes. This will require additional double tracking and trainsets. It will be at least 5 years before these improvements can start building. There is also talk of extending Sprinter service south of Oceanside to Carlsbad. The problem is the Sprinter tracks enters the Oceanside Transit Center from the south and Carlsbad is south of Oceanside. Will this require a backup move if the Sprinters services downtown Oceanside. The other issue is getting Sprinter Trains to Carlsbad. The current DMU trains used by the Sprinters can’t share the tracks also used by Amtrak, Coaster and Freight Trains since they would be crushed if hit by these other trains. Would new heavier self propelled trainsets be needed, or new tracks on the right of way be added to extend Sprinter service to Carlsbad?
One issue that had been in the news recently have been landslides on the bluffs by the beach at Del Mar in San Diego County. This is where Amtrak and Coaster trains run on a single track on this busy railroad paralleling the often jammed I-5 freeway between Los Angeles and San Diego. So far no landslides have undermined the right of way on the scenic Del Mar track segment. But the question is still more of when not if the railroad could be cut off. What SANDAG is planning now is to reroute the tracks in the future to a double tracked alignment under Camino Del Mar, also called Highway 101 which is near the railroad. SANDAG has also been proposing a major project to build a “San Diego Grand Central Station” near the Old Town Transit Center, This would expand the connections to transit and rail services in San Diego to the nearby San Diego Airport which lies halfway between Old Town and Downtown. As part of current planning is redevelopment of 70 acres of land next to Old Town owned by the Navy for new housing and businesses. This is an example of the current planning by SANDAG to have major transit centers combined with new high density housing and employment centers. This is a classic form of urban development. This curtails sprawl since people need to travel less when jobs, housing and services are close together for walking, biking or frequent public transit. There is support in the city of San Diego for such development. But many of the suburban cities are opposing new housing and transit in their towns but support more roads. The reality is building and expanding freeways don’t relieve traffic congestion. It just attracts more people to drive more with added congestion on the widen freeway. More roads tend to lead to more sprawl which leads to less land for affordable housing.
It is difficult to know what will be planned by SANDAG in the future, and when and if it will be funded. A news story in the San Diego Union Tribune for April 26, 2019 wrote about a planned Purple Light Rail Line “an envisioned trolley route that would run from the Otay Mesa border crossing, through National City, the city of San Diego and to Oceanside.” This hasn’t been in the news much as far as I’m aware. This would be a transit route of at least 50 miles between the Mexican Boarder to Oceanside. This sounds like this would run east of the current Trolley Blue Line between the main border crossing at San Ysidro to downtown San Diego. The Blue Line by 2021 is expected to be extended north of Downtown San Diego to Old Town and then another 10 miles or so to the Campus of the University of California at San Diego and the University City area. This alone will add more connections to Amtrak, Coaster services and connections to regional buses and the Green and Orange Trolley Lines. The Blue Line would draw more riders with an easy connection to the airport which the Green Line and Blue Line will both ride near by. As for extending the Trolley north of San Diego to Oceanside, that seems unrealistic given the shortage of funding. With expanded rail service coming soon between Oceanside and San Diego plus new connections being added for both local and regional services, this alone will create plenty of faster travel options than what is available now.