How San Diego’s Transit Went from First to Worst

by on October 17, 2017 · 0 comments

in San Diego

Public domain photograph

By Murtaza Baxamusa / UrbDeZine

The current leadership at San Diego’s regional transportation agency hates tax, except that they love to spend it.

This double-standard has become increasingly apparent in the recent months, as they are back-filling the shortfall in the local sales tax revenues and increase in project costs with $5 billion from a statewide gas tax that many on the agency’s board vehemently oppose.

With the failure of the local sales tax measure last year, and the gridlock in Washington D.C., the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG – in charge of planning and building transit in the county) is now far more dependent on the passage of transportation taxes by the California legislature.

Yet, SANDAG is institutionally resistant to achieving state transportation goals particularly with regard to climate change. For example, even though CalTrans Strategic Management Plan, 2015-2020, aims to double the transit modal share, San Diego is stuck in the 20th-century modalities. Table 1 shows that the modal share of a commute for workers over 16 years old has increased for those who drive alone, and relatively flat for those who walk, bike or use public transportation during the last two decades.

Table 1. Means of Transportation to Work in San Diego (for workers 16 and over)

Despite our mild weather and active outdoor culture, it is difficult to use transit or any other non-auto mode to get to work. This is because a typical job is only accessible to 29 percent of San Diegans by transit within 90 minutes.

Since the transit system forms the backbone to support all other non-auto modes, such as walking and biking, they have all been languishing regionally. Meanwhile three-quarters of San Diegans drive alone, a share that has been creeping up gradually, further congesting freeways.

Our region has not historically been a laggard on transit. San Diego’s streetcar service began in 1886 with mules and horses. Electric rail service was established by John D. Spreckels within a few years – one of the first electric streetcar systems in the nation. The late 1940s saw the end of rail transit and streetcars. Yet, as voters expressed increased interest in its revival in the 1960s, the City of San Diego took over the transit system.

The Blue Line (South) and the Orange Line (East) were originally built by the Metropolitan Transit District Board (MTDB), which was created by state legislation in 1975 as a transit development entity. San Diego became the first U.S. city in modern times to create a light-rail system in 1981 after it built the line from downtown to San Ysidro in 30 months. It’s one of the most successful light rail segments in the nation, in terms of it ridership and farebox recovery. Meanwhile, the North County Transit District (NCTD) built the Coaster rail that goes from downtown to Oceanside.

However, there has been marginal progress on transit in recent decades. San Diego ranks 24th out of the country’s 25 largest cities for percentage of the population commuting to work on public transit and worst among California’s large metropolitan areas.

SANDAG’s lack of investment in transit is only going to get worse. Under the current funding projections, the Mid-Coast trolley may be the last new rail line built in San Diego in decades to come. This is because most of the bonding capacity for TransNet was consumed by freeways.

Over $4 billion worth of transit projects has been deferred beyond 2035. The centerpiece is the “Purple Line,” which would be an elevated rail-line along the I-805 from the high-tech job centers in Sorrento Valley to the U.S.-Mexico border. This 805 transit project was conceived by former Mayor Dick Murphy and has been talked about for more than a decade.

Yet, it is nowhere near the planning stage it should be for a project this scale to break ground in the next decade. SANDAG has been unable to adequately prioritize local revenue sources and attract state/federal funds to proceed. In contrast, it was more resourceful in building the Southbay Expressway (SR-125) – added subsequent to the voter approval of TransNet.

Moreover, there needs to be forward-thinking on a blended route to support the ridership for Phase 2 of High-Speed Rail, and planning for the network of sub-regional rail routes during the next decade.

The Los Angeles basin to the San Diego region ridership is projected at between 19.1 – 21.4 million riders by 2030 — second only to the ridership from the Los Angeles basin to the Bay Area — based on California High-Speed Rail Ridership and Revenue Forecasts. To do this, the double-tracking, tunneling, and electrification of the LOSSAN corridor need to be put back on track.

In the context of this multi-billion dollar gap in transit funding, it’s important to recognize the role of California state legislature in the region’s transportation governance.

In 2003, the state removed the construction and development functions from the sub-regional transit agencies (MTDB and NCTD) and gave them to SANDAG. This made SANDAG a super-agency, with the sole regional authority to plan, fund and build transit. It also means that neither of our sub-regional transit agencies is able to build transit. MTDB was dissolved, and the bus and trolley operations were folded under the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS).

SANDAG became solely responsible for the design, engineering, and construction of local transit and rail projects. It has a significant oversight role regarding transit fare setting, even though the transit operators retain authority over the operation and maintenance of their transit services. For example, MTS cannot build transit rail projects (unlike LA Metro) but operates them, based upon funding it receives from SANDAG.

Transit needs to get back on track in San Diego, for our planet, our children, and our own quality of life. The building blocks of visionary leadership and restoration of public trust are grounded in Assembly Bill 805 by Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. Now that Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill, we need to begin a regional dialogue on the role of transit, walking, and biking as viable transportation options for our future, and the resources needed to make it happen.

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