San Diego Trolley 30 Years Later: Special Report

August 29, 2011 17 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

30 years have passed since San Diego opened its first 15.9 mile starter and Jacksonville ignored Metro Jacksonville's Bob Mann's warning that the skyway would be a failure and that it should be replaced with light rail or streetcars. Today, Jacksonville's 2.5 mile Skyway attracts less than 3,000 riders a day in a struggline downtown that has city leaders perplexed on what needs to be done to stimulate revitalization. On the other hand, San Diego now has 53.5 miles of light rail, attracting over 91,000 riders a day and a buzzing downtown with 32,000 residents (expected to increase to 90,000 over the next decade). Today, Metro Jacksonville takes a look at the San Diego Trolley system and suggest where successful transportation and land use policies could be implemented locally and in other peer communities across the country.

About The San Diego Trolley

Fares from trolley passengers cover 67 percent of its operating costs, one of the best "fare box recovery" percentages in the country.

The San Diego Trolley is a trolley-style light rail system operating in the metropolitan area of San Diego, California. The operator, San Diego Trolley, Inc. (SDTI), is a subsidiary of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS). The Trolley began service on July 26, 1981, and today operates three lines called the Blue Line, the Orange Line, and the Green Line. The San Diego Trolley is currently the 6th most-ridden light rail system in the United States, and is also the 8th oldest system in the United States.


The San Diego Trolley system today is the result of a natural disaster. On September 10, 1976, Tropical Storm Kathleen destroyed parts of Southern Pacific's rail line connecting San Diego with Arizona, making San Diego an isolated portion of the SP system.  Instead of repairing the damaged line, SP petitioned for abandonment at a time when mass transit planning studies were underway in San Diego. This led to San Diego successfully negotiating with SP to purchase the damaged rail line for $18.1 million in 1978.  In 1981, the San Diego Trolley opened with 13.5 miles of "no-frills" operations.  Service started at 15-minute headways using the rehabilitated single-track line.

On September 10, 1976, Tropical Storm Kathleen destroyed parts of SD&AE;’s Desert Line, at the time a part of the Southern Pacific (SP) system. The hurricane caused $1.3 million worth of damage, primarily in the Eastern part of the State. Through freight service to Arizona was suspended and San Diego became an isolated portion of the SP system. SP petitioned for abandonment of the SD&AE; on August 9, 1977 of all tracks west of Plaster City, while the MTDB guideway planning project was ongoing. Due to the apparently immediate availability of a right-of-way in the South Bay Corridor, the transit planning refocused on the SD&AE; (SP) Tijuana line, making it the effective ‘minimum operable segment’.  

At the same time, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors became concerned about the freight service on the SD&AE;. Direct freight service to the East was seen as vital to the county’s economic interests and the continued viability of San Diego as a deep-water port. With an eye towards preserving freight service and future transit right-of-way, San Diego County commissioned its own internal study effort, “Feasibility of Using Existing SD&AE; ROW for Commuter Service”, to examine using a portion of the SD&AE; tracks for light rail or diesel passenger service sharing track with freight services. Part of the motivation for considering the SD&AE; was to “operate the freight service at a profit through changes to work rules, relief from property taxes, and sharing of costs with the transit operation”.

Incremental Implementation

In 1978, the MTDB successfully negotiated with SP to purchase the SD&AE; for $18.1 million, including the $1.3 million required to restore the hurricane damaged freight line. This was a dual-intent decision, to preserve both rail freight services to the Imperial Valley, and to preserve available right-of-way for future transit use. In light of cheaper light-rail options identified in the MTDB and San Diego County studies, more expensive options such as a proposed $325 million rail-rapid transit line on a new right-of-way to the border seemed less competitive. There was universal agreement that using the SD&AE; right-of-way and light rail technology was more economical and practical than a new rail-rapid transit line.

Construction of the San Diego Trolley proceeded incrementally. The initial construction of new track focused mainly in downtown San Diego. The work on the SD&AE; railroad track is best described as ‘rehabilitation’. The MTDB replaced 40% of all ties, cropped and welded the jointed rail, constructed electric catenaries, and installed an absolute block signal system. To control costs, the San Diego Trolley ordered only 14 cars, and did not install ‘mimic’ boards or the on-train location equipment until after the East Line was completed in 1989. No new sidings were initially installed on the SD&AE; segment, which had three passing sidings between San Diego and San Ysidro. Service started at 15-minute headways using the rehabilitated single-track line.

San Diego Trolley opened in 1981 with 13.5 miles (21.7 km) of operations on the South Line. Additional vehicles were purchased in 1983, and the South Line was mostly double-tracked by 1984, largely on the strength of demand for more frequent headways. The business plan’s incremental building and funding approach was vindicated. The East Line opened to Euclid Avenue in 1986, and was extended to El Cajon in 1989 and Santee in 1995. Service was extended northward to Old Town in 1996 and then eastward in Mission Valley in both 1997 and 2005.[3]

The transit center at 12th & Imperial, in the southeastern portion of downtown San Diego, has historically been used as the transfer point between the various lines, and is located adjacent to the Trolley's maintenance facilities. It is a recognizable landmark in the neighborhood, as it includes a grey clocktower with red clock. It is located two blocks east of the main entrance to PETCO Park and is the station serving that facility.[/quote]

Current Operations

After 30 years of operating, the San Diego Trolley system has grown to 53.5 miles of double track rail and carries 91,284 riders a day on five different lines.

The Blue Line

The Blue Line currently operates between San Ysidro and Old Town. The line first opened between Centre City San Diego and San Ysidro in 1981, at a spartan cost of $86 million. The Bayfront/E Street station in Chula Vista opened in 1985. A year later, the line was named the South Line to differentiate it from the new East Line to Euclid Avenue. It was renamed the North-South Line when the Old Town extension opened in 1996. The North-South Line was renamed the Blue Line in 1997 with the opening of the extension to Mission San Diego. The Fenton Parkway stop opened in 2000. With the introduction of the Green Line on July 10, 2005, most Blue Line service between Old Town and Mission San Diego was discontinued save for a few select rush hour trains. On September 3, 2006 the Qualcomm service Blue Line trains were discontinued entirely due to low ridership. Now, all Blue Line trains terminate at Old Town, although many passengers suggest the Blue Line end at Qualcomm stadium during Charger Games and events due to overcrowding problems on trolleys and at stations along the Mission Valley alignment.

Stations built prior to 1986 such as those along the southern end of the Blue Line are sparsely furnished and do not feature raised concrete platforms like the rest of the system.

The Orange Line

The Orange Line currently operates between Centre City San Diego and El Cajon. Service began on the Trolley's second line in 1986, initially operating between downtown San Diego and Euclid Avenue. The East Line, as it was then called, kept its name after successive extensions to Spring Street, El Cajon Transit Center, the Bayside in downtown, and Santee Town Center. It was renamed the Orange Line in 1997. Service between Gillespie Field and Santee Town Center was replaced by the Green Line in 2005. When the orange line is late it will turn around at Arnele Avenue or El Cajon Transit.

The Green Line

The Green Line is the newest Trolley line, opened in July 2005. Service currently operates between Old Town in San Diego and the city of Santee. This includes the Mission Valley East extension, as well as previously operating segments of the Blue Line west of Mission San Diego and Orange Line east of Grossmont Transit Center. The San Diego State University stop is the system's only underground station.

The expansion of the trolley to suburban Mission Valley attracted two new types of passengers -- shoppers and sports fans -- instead of mostly commuters and tourists.  The new Green Line direct connects Trolley passengers to major suburban shopping centers such as Fashion Valley (shown above), Hazard Center and Mission Valley Center.

Mission Valley Center

Fashion Valley Mall

The Green Line seen from the second level of Hazard Center

The Special Events Line

Qualcomm Stadium is home to the NFL's San Diego Chargers and located along the Green Line.   This section of the Trolley was completed in November 1997, just in time for Super Bowl XXXII (January 1998).  The stadium's station is designed to allow trolleys to move up to 6,000 riders in 30 minutes.  When the line to Qualcomm Stadium opened, ridership on the trolley jumped 43%, compared to a steady 10% passenger growth on the local bus system during the same period.  Count San Diego as another community who took advantage of hosting Super Bowls in the creation of a legacy project that all residents can enjoy year round.

SDTI operates special trains during sporting events at PETCO Park (which is served from the Gaslamp Quarter Station; the park's main entrance is at 10th & Imperial, about a block away) and Qualcomm Stadium (which has a dedicated station), as well as selected conventions and other major city events. These trains operate between Qualcomm Stadium and downtown San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.

These trains run anywhere form every 7 1/2 to 15 minutes apart in addition to normally scheduled trains based on the time, size and location of the event.

The Orange Line's Petco Park Station

The Silver Line (Vintage Streetcar)

The Silver Line is the most recent addition to the San Diego Trolley's network. Sharing the same tracks with LRT, this line consists of five vintage PCC streetcars (3 ex-San Francisco, 2 ex-Philadelphia) making a circular loop around downtown.  Operations began on August 27, 2011.

Freight Operations

The San Diego Trolley is one of the few LRT systems in the United States to share tracks with freight operations.  Owned and operated by RailAmerica, the San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad (SDIY) serves several industrial clients along 33 miles of the San Diego Trolley line.  In 2008, the SDIY hauled 6,500 carloads, in which the main commodities were petroleum, agricultural products, and wood pulp.

Transit Oriented Development

In support of it's investment in the San Diego Trolley, San Diego implemented Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) land use policies in 1992.  The city defines a TOD as a compact land use pattern with housing, public parks and plazas, jobs, and services located along key points on the transit system. The goal of these policies were to reduce automobile dependence, improve air quality, and create pedestrian oriented, interactive neighborhoods.  19 years later, a combination of reliable, attractive, fixed transit and supporting land use policies has resulted in the development of sustainable growth patterns that are envived by communities across the country.  Here are a few examples of TOD located at various San Diego Trolley stations:

Completed in 1998, The 950 unit, Promenade Rio Vista Apartments are one of several multifamily suburban residential developments that promotes their connection to mass transit:

Enjoying a sense of community is more important than ever, that’s why we’ve created a community that enables you to enjoy a myriad of activities without leaving. If you would like to head out into the city, we’ve made that easy, too. The Rio Vista Trolley Station is built right into The Promenade.

Inside the Promenade Rio Vista apartments development.

Promenade Rio Vista's Trolley station is connected with a multiuse path paralleling the San Diego River, which connects with other developments in Mission Valley.

The multiuse path heading to a major suburban office development called the Rio Vista Center.

City of San Diego Transit-Oriented Development Design Guidelines:

Transit Oriented Development in San Diego County: Incrementally Implementing a Comprehensive Idea

Future Plans

After 30 years of successful operations, the San Diego Trolley system continues to evolve and expand incrementally. Future projects include the Mid-Coast Trolley, 2015 Operating Plan and a streetcar line to Balboa Park.

Mid-Coast Trolley

SANDAG is planning a Mid-Coast extension of the San Diego Trolley from the Old Town Transit Center 11 miles (17.7 km) to the University City community serving major activity and employment centers such as the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) campus and University Towne Centre (UTC) shopping center. This is part of the "Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project". It is planned to be completed by 2015. MTS hopes to have S70s operating system-wide by the opening of the extension.

2015 operating plan

Currently, the Green Line does not connect to downtown.  The 2015 operating plan will extend the suburban Green Line through downtown to Petco Park and the Gaslamp District.

Once the Mid Coast trolley extension is completed, MTS plans to revamp the operating plan to allow for "more efficient travel" which includes extending the Green Line for its existing eastern terminus in Santee out to Old Town and south to the 12th and Imperial Transit Center's Bayside Terminal; similar to the Special Event Service Line, while the Orange Line will be shortened to terminate at the Santa Fe Depot. The Blue Line is expected to be extended northbound to include the new Mid-Coast Trolley stations.

Balboa Park Streetcar Line

MTS began work in March 2011 on a study to evaluate the feasibility of reconnecting Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo and Downtown San Diego through a fixed-guideway, electrified streetcar line. The project study corridor runs between the City College Trolley Station area, and Balboa Park, in the vicinity of the San Diego Zoo; An alignment similar to the proposed one was last served by a streetcar system in 1949 on lines 7 Park Boulevard-University Avenue to East San Diego & 11 Park Boulevard-Adams Avenue to Kensington. The Committee is also evaluating what types of streetcars to use, the possible options include the future 57 Ultra Short 2011 S70s in the "Modern Streetcar" category, and the Restored PCC Streetcars from the Downtown Silver Line in the "Vintage Streetcar" category.

Pointers For Jacksonville

What community doesn't desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, slow the proliferation of sprawl and encourage economic development and job creation in areas of the community where public infrastructure already exists?  American history from Jacksonville to San Diego has proven that combining transportation investment with supportive land use policies can efficiently deliver these goals.  While transit should be designed to fight within the context its meant to serve, there are several successful techniques that San Diego has implemented that would be applicable to every city interested in investing in rail transit.

1. The Incremental Approach

Many cities, transit agencies, and consultants sink their their plans by making them too expensive to be implemented.  San Diego's incremental approach started with the implementation of a 13.5 mile single track starter line.  Over 30 years, the system has grown to 53.5 miles, expanding as needed and when the opportunity arises.

2. No-Frills Service

Many communities make the mistake of setting their systems up for criticism and failure by making them more expensive than they have to be.  For example, basic rail service isn't improved by lumping expensive streetscapes or extensive double tracking on most starter lines.  The San Diego Trolley's original operations started with a single track, a small number of rail cars and rudimentary stations.  It has expanded and added amenities as the funds have become available and opportunities present themselves.

3. Shared Track Infrastructure

For some reason, many make the assumption that LRT must travel on its own rails.  However, San Diego's infrastructure is shared by LRT, streetcar and freight operations.  In addition, parts of the Blue Line corridor share ROW with Amtrak and commuter rail services.  Sharing track, where feasible, allows a community to keep implementation and annual O&M costs down.

4. Freight Service As O&M Revenue Generator

The issue identifying a revenue source for passenger rail annual O&M costs is something that most public agencies struggle with.  The San Diego Trolley is innovative with funding because by sharing tracks with freight service, freight profits can be used to help maintain passenger operations and services.  Such a set up allows for a community to provide mass transit without being forced to raise taxes.

5. Transit Oriented Development

In 2007, this 527-unit apartment complex was constructed at the Trolley's Grossmont Station in the suburb of La Mesa.  It gives the transit agency a is projected $635 million revenue stream over a 99-year lease on its property at the trolley station, which would have drawn a little more than $7 million had it been sold.

Over the last 30 years, San Diego has been a model for transit oriented development.  This is the result of modifying land use policies to support the community's mass transit investments.

The Village at Morena Vista Station features 161 apartments, 18 lofts and a set of retailers including Starbucks, Sprint, Jamba Juice, and Fed Ex Kinkos on a former parking lot.  The developer's 55-year ground lease pays the transit agency $150,000 a year and makes the station another built-in generator for transit use.

6. Fixed Transit In Suburban Areas

Trolley Square is anchored by a Target shopping center in the suburb of Santee.

Many critics of rail make the assumption that rail can't work without density.  The San Diego Trolley's Green Line makes a mockery of this misguided position.  Opened in 2005, the Green Line provides riders with direct service to destinations like Target, suburban shopping malls and IKEA, proving that people will use mass transit if it's comfortable, reliable, frequent and takes them directly to where they want to go.

Although suburban, the shopping center is designed to accommodate rail transit riders, delivering them to the shopping center's stores without forcing them to cross a single driveway on foot.

Article by Ennis Davis