Jolly Trolley Folly

by Carolyn Chase


e're always told that "mass transit" is an environmentally good decision. After all, it combats pollution and traffic congestion. Congestion becomes an ally of mass transit as it drives people behind the wheel to seek other solutions to the stresses of traffic.

When you actually go to seek solutions, you find a system divorced from the petty realities of demand, supply and costs, and subservient to the greater pitfalls of bureaucratic prognostication, political patronage, and simple nostalgia.

What solutions? For whom, at what cost and using what technologies? Do transportation tax dollars actually provide the increasingly needed relief at a reasonable cost in the most environmentally sound manner? What can be done to loosen the noose of ever-tightening congestion?

In the beginning (1981-3), San Diego's trolley from downtown to the border received international acclaim. At a price of $7.5 million/mile, it was the lowest cost North American light rail line built in modern times. It now carries more than 31,000 riders/day - probably the most "bang for the buck" light rail line in modern U.S. history. The 16-mile line from southeast San Diego to El Cajon was built for about $9 million/mile - well within the $12 million/mile figure that light rail advocates have used as a criteria for line feasibility if ridership is as low as 15,000/day. However, this line now carries considerably fewer than that.

Time has passed. Ridership has not gone up to the forecasted levels. Of course, costs have continued to rise. The Santee line came in at $34 million/mile. The Old Town line came in at $33 million/mile. The Bayside line was about $37 million/mile and the recently opened West Mission Valley line came in at $36 million/mile.

In many areas, the physical terrain in San Diego does not exactly lend itself to cutting costs when installing rail systems. The easiest lines were built first. A rule of thumb in transportation planning is that these systems cost $10 million/mile at grade (on the same level as roads and cars ), $20 million/mile elevated (any bridges along a route increase the cost), and $40 million/mile for underground. The systems most able to decrease congestion and provide what riders most need - frequent, fast service - also cost the most.

Future planned lines include the Mid Coast line at $32 million/mile, and the East Mission Valley line at $55 million/mile (tunneling required). The total estimated costs to build these two extensions is $685 million to serve only 26,800 riders per day. The costs will undoubtedly go up from there, while the ridership often fails to meet hoped-for expectations. It should also be noted that due to growth, drivers will not even notice any improvement on our congested freeways even with the projected ridership.

Unfortunately, the environmental benefits are exaggerated too. Environmental damage can be higher in at-grade systems which require the most land to build. Martin Wachs, Professor of Urban Planning at U.C.L.A., has stated, "we could do far more to clean up the air by investing in local bus service... than these expensive rail lines." (Polluting diesel buses are now being replaced by clean burning natural gas buses.)

As for relieving congestion, where the trolleys are built at grade the system actually adds to congestion by increasing delays at intersections and requiring signals to stop existing traffic. They add the capacity of another freeway lane, but a slow (22-23 mph), expensive one. If it's going to be expensive, at least it should be faster.

The taxpayer cost of operating the entire existing San Diego Transit bus fleet is only $27.5 million/year with a ridership of about 90,000/day. According to San Diego Transit, they could double their bus ridership with $30 million/year net cost to the taxpayer. If the $658 million cost of those two trolley extensions were banked at 7% interest, $48 million/year in interest could be earned. This could not only cover the costs of operating SDT's bus fleet, there'd be another $20.5 million to use to improve the system. So about 45,000 riders/day could be added at increased service levels. But the bureaucratic system of funding seldom seems capable of funding higher service solutions.

Transit planners know that the faster and more convenient transit is, the more people will use it. People are willing to pay to get places faster. In low density, sprawled areas like San Diego, the car is still the fastest way to get around when your choices are the slow bus or the slow trolley. The general momentum of regional plans to expand the freeway and transit systems is to load the freeways until they slow down enough to make the slow transit more usable. It's kind of like "dumbing down" the market demand, rather than seeking to provide what people really need.

Adding another lane of slow traffic is not really what people want. People are willing to pay to get places faster. We need to set up systems that take advantage of this market demand and use those payments to fund higher throughput travel. Right now, the various agencies and elected officials can only cobble together enough to fund "more-of-the-same" type systems that can't really resolve the problems of pending growth.

Currently, bus routes in San Diego generally run twice per hour or less and it takes far too long to get to one's destination. Moneys could be usefully spent to add express routes and increase feeder services. Dedicating more paid-access and H.O.V. (limited access High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes and establishing demand-based pricing for faster services is part of an incremental process of trying to fund and improve throughput in an already badly designed situation.

Is there an sane, affordable answer to breaking our pathological patterns of urban sprawl which leave us only slow and expensive transit alternatives? One key is choosing systems that provide minimum service levels. Another is designing communities as neighborhoods where people don't have to travel as much, or as far or as often. More and more people are coming to understand that this provides the highest quality of life, often with reduced costs all around.

When it comes to right down to it, I love the trolley. But I also have to admit, it's pure nostalgia.