Nothing will change San Diego’s transit system in the foreseeable future so much as the Mid-Coast Trolley line, the $2.1 billion project that will extend the light rail system from Old Town to University Town Center.

Once it’s done, regional planners at the San Diego Association of Governments and Metropolitan Transit System will have more work to do to get everything they can out of the massive investment.

The project, first approved by voters in 1988, has been a long time coming. SANDAG is now short on funds, so it will be the region’s last light-rail extension for years, unless leaders figure out how to raise more revenue for major projects.

There is, however, at least one low-cost way to make the project even more valuable to commuters – and that’s improving all the buses that feed into the new Mid-Coast line.

SANDAG and MTS can improve the timing and frequency of the east-west bus lines from the beaches and the inland areas around Clairemont that will bring riders to the new trolley line. The rail service, in turn, can bring them to jobs centers in UTC and downtown. Done right, it can improve the transit service for the entire swath of the city north of I-8 and south of La Jolla, rather than just the area along the new rail corridor.

Doing so is especially important because the Mid-Coast Corridor doesn’t fit the mold of an ideal rail corridor, despite the many jobs and amenities it’ll connect commuters to in UTC.

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That’s because an ideal candidate for rail service is any corridor that already boasts a successful bus route, said international transit planner Jarrett Walker.

“The best case for a rail project is an overcrowded bus line,” he said.

The Mid-Coast corridor is not that. The current bus route between downtown and UCSD, the 150, carried just 2,700 weekday riders as of 2015. That’s roughly a quarter the ridership of the 7 bus, which runs from La Mesa through North Park and into downtown, along University Avenue, a route that isn’t pegged for a light rail upgrade.

An MTS spokesperson, however, emphasized that ridership on the 150 has increased 47 percent in the last five years, suggesting a growing demand for transit service in the area. The combined ridership on the routes around UTC – the 201, 202 and 204 – is high, but there is little ridership between the university and downtown on the 150.

It’s not surprising that a highway bus route, like the 150, doesn’t get much ridership. Nobody likes to live, work or play directly next to a freeway. People prefer living and working a few minutes away by car, with easy access to the freeway. This means that there is little development within walking distance of a freeway bus stop. Moreover, just walking alongside the freeway right-of-way to reach the bus station is uncomfortable.

That brings up another obstacle facing the Mid-Coast extension: Most of the Bay Park and Linda Vista communities it runs through between downtown and UTC are not densely developed, offering little in the way of natural riders or additional destinations. The city is trying to increase development there, but it hasn’t been easy.

But the line has opportunities to exploit, too.

For instance, bus lines on Grand Avenue and Garnet Avenue could both become strong connecting routes for the Mid-Coast. Residents there could suddenly have a viable commute to UTC or downtown on transit, if SANDAG and MTS make appropriate improvements to the bus routes.

The current bus route on Grand, the 30, is already the fifth busiest bus route in the region, with 6,800 weekday riders (the Garnet route, the 27, has only 1,000 weekday riders). Currently, it makes stops along Grand before turning south on I-5 and heading downtown as an express route; it also turns north when Grand hits Mission Boulevard and travels through La Jolla eventually to UCSD.

But the 30’s segment on I-5 is inefficient, making the entire route cost roughly $3.88 per passenger trip, above what you’d expect from one of the city’s busiest lines.

In effect, the 30 has a strong east-west segment on Grand, where it acts much like the 7 or the other high-performance urban buses, and then a weak north-south segment on the I-5, where it acts like the 150 and the other low-ridership freeway buses.

The 27 and 30 could then become major feeders, running between the trolley’s future Balboa Avenue station (at the intersection with today’s 27 route) and the beach. The trolley will run in the same right-of-way as the Coaster and Amtrak. Since it’s near the I-5, but not right in its median as with some light-rail lines (such as L.A.’s Green Line), waiting for the train would not involve as much highway noise as waiting for a bus in the freeway.

MTS would need to change the route of the 30 to feed the Balboa Avenue station. MTS did not respond to queries, but Bruce Appleyard, a professor of city planning at San Diego State, believes changes are likely.

“The trend is toward having a seamless transit system,” meaning a system in in which buses and the trolley complement each other, with easy transfers, he said.

Likewise, Appleyard suggested making transfers between the bus and trolley easier by timing them. The trolley’s Blue Line, which is what the Mid-Coast will be part of, comes every seven-and-a-half minutes, and the 30 bus comes every 15 minutes. If the 30 were cut to only connect the Balboa Avenue station through Pacific Beach and into La Jolla, it would be easier to time its arrivals with Blue Line trolleys.

Timed connections, though, are difficult. Walker, for instance, warns against attempting to time connections on buses that only run every 15 minutes. Traffic delays are just too disruptive.

Dealing with that issue, though, could be solved by providing queue jump lanes to the buses, so they can skip backups at key intersections, Appleyard said. That’s less intrusive to cars than providing fully dedicated bus lanes, but could still increase reliability.

The main purpose of the Mid-Coast extension is not serving Pacific Beach, it’s providing faster service between downtown and the UTC and UCSD area. But Pacific Beach is an extra source of potential ridership, and improving the bus lines there could make transit usage substantially more convenient to a big chunk of the city where lots of young people live.

There is still cause for skepticism of the Mid-Coast trolley extension. The projected cost is still too high for the projected ridership, at $2.1 billion for 35,000 weekday riders. But the Mid-Coast region has a subtle strength in the layout of Pacific Beach’s street grid, which could lend itself to higher bus ridership.

The Mid-Coast trolley could be a chance to unlock that promise.

    This article relates to: Land Use, MTS, Must Reads, Public Transportation, Transit

    Written by Alon Levy

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    The major limitation of all of the bus routes serving UCSD/UTC from the south is that they are slow and unreliable because their routes are circuitous and/or they are stuck in traffic without dedicated lanes and signal priority.  The trolley extension addresses all of those issues by providing faster, frequent, and more reliable service.  This addition will help strengthen the overall MTS network.

    But more generally, there are some things that could be done that would improve bus service across the city, some that don't cost that much nor necessarily require much political will:
    - Implement all door boarding on all buses (faster loading/unloading for faster, more reliable service).
    - Expand signal priority beyond portions of the mid-city Rapid route to to every route with more frequent service.

    And rebuild, from the ground up, the major streets that host the more frequent bus service - streets such as University, El Cajon, Broadway, and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard through Kearny Mesa, etc.  These streets are in horrid condition.  They need more than just repaving.  And such improvements would benefit all users of those streets, not just those on buses.  It's harder to argue for buses over trolleys, even if that might be a better option in some cases, if the ride quality on buses is so poor because of the condition of the streets that one risks a back injury by riding buses on those streets.  That's not something MTS controls, but the city of San Diego could and should reprioritize funding for street repairs to rebuilding major city streets instead of more frequent repaving of smaller, neighborhood streets with much less traffic.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    People don't want to take the bus to the trolley then take another bus.

    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase subscriber

    There are so many thing WRONG with the mid-coast, it's hard to fathom why it's worth more than TWO BILLION $$ (and more than twice what the original ballot measure was to pay for) to go a mere 10-11 miles - except when you understand the corruption at SANDAG - and not just the former Caltrans head of the Agency, but the Board that doesn't have any accountability for any transit performance when it comes to their elections and none of them actually have or really want to use the system.

    The policies of this region amount to: let the congestion rise and eventually people will have to take transit. Sadly, the transit system itself remains a service-of-last-resort with a few SLOW trolley "glamour" projects sucking up the funds and utterly unsuited to our hilly region. 

    For what's possible based on good planning advice, see:

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    University City to Downtown is served not just by route 150 (2,695 weekday passsengers) but also by route 30 along the coast (6,757), route 105 from Old Town (1,336), route 50 (1,040), and route 41 from Fashion Valley (4,535). (Grand total=16,363 weekday passengers.) Plus the UCSD shuttle to Scripps Mercy in Hillcrest if you count that, and the COASTER if you don't mind a little backtracking from Sorrento Valley. Ultimately, which bus to take depends on the time of day and day of the week and what kind of transit pass you have. It's all pretty complicated, and the Mid-Coast Trolley has the potential to greatly simplify transportation along the corridor.

    So yes, strengthening the east-west bus routes would allow MTS to eliminate these duplicate north-south routes and bring passengers onto the faster and more comfortable light rail line with lower operating costs than buses.

    And not just buses. It would also help to strengthen the bicycle and walking routes along the east-west roads. For example, a pedestrian bridge from La Jolla Colony (Charmant Drive) across the 5 directly to La Jolla Village Square would eliminate a very roundabout trek to Lebon Drive just to get to the Nobel Drive station. There may be other similar opportunities for bicycle and pedestrian improvements along the Mid-Coast Trolley line which MTS ought to investigate.

    It's unfortunate that MTS decided to spend our tax money building parking garages at the transit stations. That's only going to add car traffic (ironically!) to the streets surrounding the transit stations, and now the city has to think about widening those streets to cope with the additional traffic.

    Mira Mesa Boulevard very badly needs those queue jump lanes you mentioned, but that's a different story.

    Charles Smith
    Charles Smith

    The Clairemont community plan is not going anything to promote in density around the stops. The balloon heads are probably going to whine their way into blocking any height/density adjustments. 

    The mid coast trolley is already broken before it is completed, the ancillary development, which would assist with any efficient transit oriented model is being blocked. 

    The common sense solution is to create density at the bottom of the hill along morena and leave the hills behind it single family zoning. 

    Housing is a funny issue in politics. It all boils down to self interest in the end. 

    You go to a community meeting and you see mostly the elderly who are going to be pushing daisies in the next decade or two controlling plans that will impact they area long after they are gone. The younger folks who the plan will actually impact have jobs, kids, and a life to lead.  

    I have gone to planning meetings and you have Republicans opposing private property rights of land owners, and Democrats supporting inclusionary zoning policies that have a long history of racism and disproportionately impacting the underprivileged and minorities. It is like an alternate reality. 

    Personally I think the solution is greater property rights, less fees, regulations and oversight. A simplistic model like the zoning mode in Japan. It is sad that California as a whole doesn't plan coherent for the future, even in the midst of the affordability crisis it faces today.

    Hopefully with the climate action plan all this nonsense is overridden for the good of the future and we are able to urbanize and move out of the 1960's thinking when it comes to urban planning and zoning. 

    Daniel Smiechowski
    Daniel Smiechowski subscriber

    I am a candidate for SD CC D2. I have lived in Clairemont for over 50 years. I do not own a car preferring to take local buses like the number 5 and 27. As a member of the Clairemont Planning Group I often lament on the hypocrisy of public transportation in this largely provincial community built on the backs of the old Plant 19 Greatest Generation. These connector bus routes ain't going to work folks. Residents in Clairemont are a unique blend of old folks, lazy folks, privileged folks and folks that would rather be seen at a Strip Club than bus stop so stop pretending. The number 5 and 27 bus routes go largely unused during a typical workday. Honestly, I seem to be the only dummy standing in the rain waiting for a bus in my neighborhood so why do you folks continue to pretend!!  STOP PRETENDING!!  In 50 years I have yet to see my neighbors on a City Bus!!   Elect Danny D2 SD CC Danny