$2B Trolley Extension Underway in San Diego

     SAN DIEGO (CN) — A $2 billion expansion of San Diego’s trolley system from the Mexican border to UC-San Diego, the biggest public transit project in city history, is expected to bring 14,000 jobs, 21,000 new daily riders and ease traffic and pollution in California’s second-largest city.
     The federal government last week committed $1 billion to the Mid-Coast Trolley expansion. Half of the money for the project was raised through a regional half-cent sales tax in San Diego called TransNet. Voters approved the tax in 1987 for transportation projects in the Southern California county known for crumbling roads and deferred infrastructure maintenance.
     The Mid-Coast Trolley expansion has been in the works for years, receiving environmental approval in November 2014 and getting a final go-ahead from the California Coastal Commission in July this year. Construction is expected to begin soon.
     The 11-mile extension is the most ambitious trolley project in San Diego history: twice as long as any other trolley completed by the San Diego Association of Governments and four times as expensive, SANDAG rail division director John Haggerty said.
     The Federal Transit Administration’s $1 billion contribution will be disbursed over 10 years, subject to annual congressional approval.
     The project is expected to create more than 14,000 local jobs and have a $116 million annual economic impact on the region by reducing traffic and parking congestion and increasing access to jobs.
     Pre-construction on the project — including undergrounding public utilities — is already under way. Primary construction is to begin in October, with service expected in 2021.
     With the Blue Line extended from Old Town through coastal San Diego neighborhoods including Linda Vista, Clairemont, Mission Beach, University City and La Jolla, ending at a transit center at UC San Diego, thousands more San Diegans will be able to take public transit to work and school, Haggerty said. The trolley will also connect people to multiple hospitals and the Veterans Administration Medical Center through nine new stops.
     “I think the stations will be really well-used. When you look at the people who need to get to the VA, Thornton Hospital and Scripps Hospital, they will now have a very efficient way to get close to their workplace. I think that will generate a lot ridership,” Haggerty said.
     All nine stations will open at once when the project is done, Haggerty said. The $2 billion budget includes money for 36 new trolley cars for the 11 miles of new track and an expected 21,000 new daily riders.
     If a rider catches the trolley at the international border and rides it all the way to UC San Diego the trip would take about an hour and 10 minutes, Haggerty said.
     SANDAG acquired more than 40 properties through eminent domain. The project will displace Armstrong Garden nursery in the Linda Vista neighborhood, but there were no residential takings.
     Armstrong’s attorney Sean O’Connor with Sheppard Mullin in Costa Mesa did not return a phone request for comment.
     Community Impacts
     In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, the trolley expansion will reduce the number of bus trips. Some buses will be rerouted to drop off riders at trolley stations. All of this should help San Diego meet its ambitious Climate Action Plan goals, which aims for the city to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.
     City Councilman and SANDAG Transportation Committee Chairman Todd Gloria called it a “transformational investment.”
     “I am proud to have supported this project, which will result in a significant number of people choosing to ride transit to reduce traffic congestion. This is the type of project which will encourage the level of mode shift necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in San Diego and meet the city’s bold climate action plan,” Gloria said in an email.     
     The project is also expected to help mitigate the impacts of San Diego’s surging population, as the population along the Mid-Coast region expected to grow by 20 percent by 2030, according to SANDAG.
     The project also should help mitigate the impacts of San Diego’s fast-growing population.
     UC San Diego students support the project. They voted in 2014 to pay just under $50 per quarter through student fees to purchase transit passes for all students, UCSD spokeswoman Laura Margoni said.
     The Triton-U transit pass program began that fall and provides each UC San Diego student with nearly unlimited ridership on San Diego’s trolley and bus system. Margoni said reducing environmental impacts of transportation is important to students and UCSD employees as well.
     “We definitely have a history of trying to support alternative transportation and being aware of sustainability efforts and reducing carbon emissions. It’s seen as a positive way to connect the university better since we can perhaps seem somewhat disconnected to the rest of the county because of our location,” Margoni said.
     The trolley will have an on-campus transit station, giving students from out of town or without a vehicle a convenient way to get to class. It could also increase the already high number of employees — 56 percent — who use alternative transportation to get to work at UC San Diego, Margoni said.
     Groundbreaking will be on Oct. 22.

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