San Diego’s public transit authority has had some problems lately.

Voice of San Diego has detailed that Measure A, a half-cent sales tax SANDAG proposed last November, would have raised far less than the promised $18 billion, and it appears that agency officials knew it and promoted the figure anyway. Measure A was ultimately rejected. Making matters worse, the agency’s existing sales tax, TransNet, has a $17 billion shortfall thanks to the same forecasting error and escalating prices for the projects voters approved in 2004. The agency is scrambling to fill its funding hole.

In such an environment, it is important to build every existing project as inexpensively as possible.

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening with one of SANDAG’s highest-profile projects, the Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project, which will extend the trolley’s Blue Line north to the UCSD campus. The official cost of the project is high by any standard – $2.1 billion for 11 miles – but it’s especially high for a light-rail project.

SANDAG expects the project to attract 35,000 weekday riders by 2030, for a total of $60,000 per rider. That’s a very high per-rider cost: The initial trolley lines cost about $16,000 per rider by 2000, or $22,000 in today’s money. In Los Angeles, the Expo Line has cost about $60,000 per rider, but projections for future increases in ridership by 2030 reduce that to just $40,000 per rider.

Worse, the high costs of the Mid-Coast extension come following what’s already been a major cost overrun. In 2010, the project was expected to cost $1.24 billion; the current budget of $2.1 billion is 69 percent higher. That’s because of both additional scope, such as more parking at stations, and higher costs for the same items, such as the same length of bridge that’s now more expensive.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Contrary to what you might expect, large cost increases are no longer normal for American light-rail projects: Researchers at George Mason University found in 2009 that since the 1980s and early 1990s, forecasts had steadily improved, and by 2005 they were on average correct.

In this decade, a cost overrun as large as that of the Mid-Coast Extension suggests something is seriously wrong with the agency’s planning and design.

This contributes to a political climate in which the public lacks trust in SANDAG’s projections. The environmental and transit activist group Cleveland National Forest Foundation accuses SANDAG of failing to promote mass transit in the region. Activist Harry Jensen, a frequent critic of the Mid-Coast project, said in a recent email to SANDAG board members that the region should “suspend all construction work on the Mid-Coast Trolley project.”

Cleveland National Forest Foundation Director Duncan McFetridge criticizes the project because the land use patterns between downtown and UCSD are auto-oriented and hostile to mass transit. UCSD and downtown are dense and walkable and can generate ridership, but the areas in between cannot. The group is instead pushing an alternative Mid-Coast alignment, using the Coaster tracks and a proposed tunnel under UCSD, which would have the added benefit of speeding up intercity trains between San Diego and Los Angeles.

There is a third way.

SANDAG could consider a serious change to the project that would reduce its cost and take advantage of both existing light-rail lines and the Coaster rail line. This is a German invention called the tram-train. It is used mainly in small cities like Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany; but there are also under-construction lines in the Paris suburbs.

The tram-train uses light-rail vehicles, like those used on the San Diego trolley, that can drive on mainline rail tracks between urban areas (like the Coaster) and on city streets in light-rail mode within city centers (like the trolley downtown).

The Mid-Coast extension runs alongside the tracks used by the Coaster commuter trains and the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, except at the northern end, where it is planned to climb Miramar Hill to serve UCSD; the mainline tracks go around the hill instead. Right now, the plan is to build dedicated tracks for the trolley; if it were a tram-train, it could instead use the existing tracks shared with regular trains and only use new tracks to climb the hill to UCSD.

Tram-trains also have a history in the U.S., by another name: the interurban. In the first half of the 20th century, private companies built long commuter lines and even intercity rail lines. They were mostly separate from the conventional rail network, and were electrified rather than steam-powered, but ran like regular railroads between cities; within cities they ran on city streets, like streetcars. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was some track-sharing between urban transit and commuter rail in New York, but federal regulations outlawed it in the 1910s on safety grounds.

Today, some former interurbans have been turned over to light rail, which runs on city streets in the center and on dedicated railroad lines farther out. Unfortunately, the need to construct new dedicated tracks for every light-rail line, rather than sharing regular train tracks, leads to high construction costs. Using the existing rail tracks is cheaper, and San Diego should investigate if it is possible to modify the Mid-Coast extension to do so.

There is already one place in the U.S. using a proper tram-train using mainline rail: the New Jersey River Line uses city streets in Trenton and Camden and mainline track between them. The regulations for this are complicated, and River Line has strict time separation, with freight trains running only at night. But European regulations are friendlier to tram-trains. An ongoing overhaul of American passenger rail regulations is planned to permit lightly modified European trains on American tracks, and it is likely that sharing tracks between intercity passenger and freight trains and light rail will soon be permitted.

Public transit consultant Jarrett Walker discussed tram-trains in 2009. He said that the technology is useful when there is a dominant destination that is a little too far away from the train tracks. In the case of San Diego, this is UCSD. Walker cautioned that street-running slows down the trains, since they have to obey street traffic rules; in this case this is not a problem, since the segment through UCSD is planned to be elevated rather than on the street.

SANDAG should study the tram-train option as soon as possible. It is likely to be substantially cheaper than the current proposal to build new light-rail tracks alongside the railroad, and the sooner the change happens, the less it would cost and the less it would delay the project. The agency is facing a revenue shortfall and justified public mistrust, and needs to find places to cut costs, preferably without cutting useful scope. The tram-train permits cutting scope that, while useful, is primarily there because of past federal regulations that are already being reformed.

Alon Levy is a Paris-based mathematician and public transportation policy writer.

    This article relates to: Government, Public Transportation, SANDAG

    Written by Alon Levy

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Perhaps sme decision history helps to see why roads have not kept up:

    By the 19950-60s, autos had completed domination of urban transportation.

    Mass transit remained in some dense areas where activities were high, or wher service was continued mostly for non drivers, a few with good access.

    Auto exhausts were creating serious pollution problem, especially to health

    Auto industry, with government pressure, started to market all new care in 1974 that cut fuel use and undesirable emissions nearly in half. Improvements are continuing, electric autos have been introduced and another MPG doubled becomes the standard in 2025.

    Unfortunately, edicts in mid 1970s were issued to discourage auto use, expecting  significant numbers would return to mass transit. Believing the only avenue then, leadership and advocates continue without numerical support, to believe that will happeneven though after $ billions spent, mass transit has never achieved 2% of trave.

    The expectations: Future growth in travel would be absorbed by mass transit, and road expansion plans could be nearly eliminated.

    Results; 95% of travel growth was absorbed by autos instead.

              Mass transit collected 1 million passenger-miles daily, roads, nearly 40 million. Fuel wasted in congestion increased by a factor of 4.

                 Air  quality standards met up to 2035, are projected 95%  a result of auto fuel and emissions reductions. Also projected 2.5+million gallons saved daily, compared to approximately 50 thousand.

    Yet mass transit advocates continue to cling to a 40 year old flawed belief; mass transit is the only way to save the environment.

    As early as 1998 a true survey that asked for 50% funds for highways effort was declared "close  enough" to the arbitrary 33% assumed. For transportation in the current regional plain the opposite; 50% for new and augmented mass transit with optimistic projection for only 10% of growth.

    The public continues to say; on demand personal same vehicle to actual destination. Evidence; nearly 90% of travel  is by auto.

    Uber experience shows the above can be extended to all travelers, especially non drivers."Doorstep" pickup eliminates mass transit access deficiency. An objejective review or roles and missions, emphasizing mode strengths seems essential.

    Jay Berman
    Jay Berman

    I don't see how this solution is practical to let alone possible.  The trains used on this line are tall, the 2 decker passenger trains and the very tall car carriers.  How can you put the overhead electric infrastructure in?  Why are we running a parallel line anyway?  The Coaster could have a rail spur to a new station at UTC, that section of track needs to be straightened out anyway.  This is an unbelievable waste of money that should be stopped immediately.  For $11B you can probably build 4  general purpose lanes on I-5 from SR56 to SR78 ...  and still have money left over.

    Besides, you won't get people out of cars, public transit is slow and inefficient, we don't have the density.  Our topology is hilly, we are spread out with each city and county having their own industrial/commercial/residential areas.  Less than 4% use public transit.  Look around, mostly empty buses on the road all day and night.  

    Uber and self-driving cars are still cars on the road.  Time to stop this madness and fix our highways, roads and streets ...  

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Jay Berman   Who will pay?

    For a typical 8 mile trip, the O&M is about $6. Add 2.1 billion amortized 50 years costs $8.  Against the total of $12, fares will be in the 1 to 2 dollar range. Dif is subsidy.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Good to see thoughts about making transportation cheaper and meeting public's preferences.

    Professor Jerry Schneider, maintains a compilation of many new transportation concepts. Most depart from what is called mass transit, such as Mid Coast. They follow public's preference for on demand personal same vehicle direct to actual destination, the basis for autos vast majority use.

    Generally narrow guideways instead of roads, 4 to 6 seat vehicle, driven directly and automatically. Usually called "Personal Rapid Transit", PRT. Advocates believe it more likely to replace cars, using less fuel and land.A 1/10th scale system was operatiing in the 1970s. it had off main line load/unload stations.

    There has been considerable analysis of the road and track "dual mode" concept, though not railcar size.

    There are no large installations. U. of West Virginia campus transportation has been provided for about 30 years with this automated approach.

    The same on demand direct to destination principles motorized vehicles, driven or later automated, now with production cars, later probably much smaller and more efficient.

    You probably know "Uber". Very likely it will replace most mass transit, especially for non drivers. Thus another reason not to spend $2.1 billion on Mid-Coast.

    $$$$$/rider is an interesting way for an approximate comparison.

    Another option is a freeway comparison. In passenger-miles, the 35,000 rider equivalent is about 14 freeway lane-miles. Allowing for inflation etc., assume $50 million per lane mile, $700 million/35,000 riders = $20,000. Mass transit agencies would argue in this case, a transfer would be needed.

    Other cost comparisons Mid-Coast, 8 mile trip

    Trolley: From O&M costs,  0.77 X 8 =   $6.20

       $2.1 billion amortized 50 yrs per rider =$6.40

       Of  $12.60 total cost, fares are in the $1 to $2 range

       Remainder is subsidy paid by mostly non-user tax payers, sales and income tax, etc.

       The amortized capital cost especially is seldom offered for discussion by SANDAG. During a 10 year life automobile cost per occupant mile is below $0.50, including depreciation, taxes, parking, etc.

       On call Uber rates are less well defined.

       A baseline 8 mile trip, w/o sharing would be about $11.

    Could approach $24 during peaks, or events.

    Considering higher quality, "doorstep", speed, and flexibility of service, it seems obvious future re-distributions of rolls, subsidies, etc. should be priority issue for regional planners.

    Lew Wolfgang
    Lew Wolfgang

    Note that the San Diego Trolley shares tracks with the freight hauler San Diego & Imperial Valley Railroad between downtown and San Ysidro.  But the freight trains are absolutely forbidden to share the tracks with the Trolley at the same time and can only run for a few hours each night.  This absolute separation is mandated by Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)  and is based on safety issues.  Light rail cars filled with passengers don't fair very well in accidental collisions with heavy freight equipment.  I would also wonder about congestion.  The Trolleys would have to mix with freight trains, Amtrak, and the Coaster.  Mixing light rail with that kind of heavy traffic is a recipe for disaster.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The real deal is that whatever "we" do will have a very heavy cost. We can talk about a cut here and a reduction there and an alternative mode or route. But, the bottom line is the foot dragging that began when the glorious Interstate system was installed has been detrimental to a diverse mass transit network. There isn't anything uglier than the 405 in Orange and LA Counties. And, oil, construction, politics, and "we" are directly to blame.The automobile driven by one person with no one else in the car is not a sustainable model and, really, hasn't been for 50 years. We simple thought our "open road" was a thumb at the pedestrian thinking of Europe. And, whatever they started before WWII is now cutting edge. 

    We have good examples of cities in the U.S. that, at their core, serve the public well and get the public from point A to point B in relative good time: San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Boston. Yes, there is congestion, but the congestion is from cars, not from mass transit. 

    No. We need to bite the proverbial bullet to provide mass transportation with frequent stops and a viable network that will serve as many people as possible. 

        Our economy will suffer if we do not move and move quickly. Our distribution centers are suffering today because our truck traffic is stuck in...traffic. That adds money to the cost of goods and services. 

         Quibbling about this or that only delays the inevitable and moves us closer to total gridlock.

    Mike Burrows
    Mike Burrows

    I'm not versed in the entire project, but I cycle through that construction area multiple times a week.  I believe part of the extra cost over a typical line is in working around the rail lines, moving utilities & the inclusion of a bikeway all in a confined area.  Amtrak, freight & Coaster all use a single line for a portion of that route so adding light rail to the same track would seem to be too congesting.  Tunnel through the hill?  Yeah, that will save money.

    A real problem w/ the trolley system in SD county is that it still does not connect the airport to downtown.  Wouldn't that connection have enough ridership income to offset some cost on other expansion lines? (Including extending the airport run to Mission Beach.)

    mike johnson
    mike johnson subscriber

    @Mike Burrows 

    Agree with airport thoughts. 

     But extending to Mission Beach has been studied twice in the past 20 years. Not enough customers. During the summer weekend. Great. But during the rest of the year it would not be used. Plus during the week there would be few riders. Mission Beach used to have San Diego State renters 1970 to 1995. Which would be great for the trolley to San Diego State. Today, Mission Beach is full of USD students. San Diego States are rare.

    Jay Berman
    Jay Berman

    @Mike Burrows  Airport is an easy and cheap thing.  An elevated tram or monorail loop, one direction, automated, starts and ends at the Old Town Transit Station with stops at T1, T2, Nimitz, Rosecrans and back to Old Town.  Charge $5 ..  people will easily pay it. Probably get the private sector to do a project like this ..  

    Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

    Thanks for the attention to costs on the Mid-Coast. Thoughtfulness about our transit spending will let us build more.

    The tram-train/interurban deserves a look. With apologies for hijacking, I want to propose another savings that should be done with or without a tram-train. It's time to drop the planned Clairemont Drive trolley stop.

    Having foreclosed on meaningful growth in that area, there's little to justify a stop. The system does not need another park-and-ride. Buses can connect at Tecolote or elsewhere. Removing the Clairemont Drive station will save construction costs, but more importantly it will cut trip times, reducing headways in the process. We know that shorter headways are what make transit successful. Hurting the transit network to serve a parking lot in Bay Park makes no sense. Let's get rid of it.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Jeffrey Davis

    At; read about many Personal Rapid Transit that loads off line statiom. The vehicles that bypass are do not stop until dialed in destination under automatic control on narrow electaied very efficient guideways.

    Thus like autos, meets the public preferemce for on demand,personal same vehicle trabel to destination.