The Airport Connects San Diego to the World, But Not to the Trolley

Government

The Airport Connects San Diego to the World, But Not to the Trolley

Nearly three years after Todd Gloria urged San Diegans to stop fighting so they could figure out how to capture the elusive dream of riding a train to the airport, we aren’t especially close to doing so.

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Many American cities – despite their unique geography and circumstances – share the same serious, complex problems: things like homelessness, housing affordability, disaster preparedness and inequality. When we talk about San Diego Specials – a unique brand of problems – we’re not talking about those. Rather, the term refers to solvable, long-running issues that have festered here as a result of a lack of leadership and vision. They’re often challenges other cities (or even other San Diego communities) took action on long ago, with far less headaches. In this weeklong series, we are examining five San Diego Specials and the factors that have kept solutions out of reach.

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Connecting the San Diego Airport to the region’s rail system is not just a San Diego Special on the merits; by virtue of now-Mayor Todd Gloria using the debate over how to best do so to coin the term, it is, by all rights, the San Diego Special.

And what do you know: Nearly three years after Gloria wrote an op-ed urging San Diegans to stop fighting so they could figure out how to capture the elusive dream of riding a train to the airport, we aren’t especially close to doing so.

That’s not to say nothing has changed. The project that instigated the latest version of the trolley-to-the-airport debate is, mercifully, moving forward, with most everyone pretty happy about it. And the most high-profile idea to fix the problem – San Diego Association of Government’s Director Hasan Ikhrata’s ballyhooed San Diego Grand Central – is alive, if still awfully far off.

But it’s a San Diego Special after all, so we’ve of course had our hiccups. The biggest of those wasn’t really our fault. This damn pandemic seems to be disrupting things all over.

The problem started back in 1981, when San Diego launched the trolley, genuinely regarded as the country’s first modern light-rail system (not much of a claim to fame, since light rail has a limited record of success as a transit option, but hey, we were there first). The region did it on the cheap, opting to purchase an existing rail right-of-way, rather than charting the opportune path for the light-rail system – through all the neighborhoods where people actually lived, to all the places people actually worked, and connecting to all the destinations where people actually wanted to go – and buying all the land required to make it work.

But the rail system we bought actually ran pretty close to our regional airport then.

Forty years later, that’s as far as we’ve gone. The trolley goes close to the airport, but not right to it.

There was a period in the late 1980s, Dave Schumacher, the former San Diego Association of Governments principle planner, told us in 2013, that regional planners contemplated building a trolley spur to the airport. That idea died because light-rail tracks can’t cross the freight tracks to reach Harbor Drive, forcing the project to include a bridge or tunnel that increases costs, because the Coast Guard used to ferry an airplane across Harbor Drive that would have been tough with overhead power lines from a light-rail line, and because other lines the planners studied at the time (like the Mid-Coast Trolley line, which is ready to debut for service 34 years later) were projected to have higher ridership.

Instead, if you want to take public transportation to get to the airport, you’ve basically got two options. One is the Metropolitan Transit System’s 992 bus. It travels along Broadway downtown then reaches the airport through Harbor Drive, connecting to two downtown trolley stations. It works for some people, with a daily ridership of about 1,000 people.

Or, adventurous travelers can take the trolley to the Middletown Station, walk along Palm Street – crossing Pacific Highway with their luggage – to board a shuttle adjacent to the rental car facility. The shuttle primarily serves rental car users, but it’s technically an option for transit riders.

And soon, the airport will debut a new service: an electric shuttle from the Old Town Transit Station to the airport terminals. That’ll open in November, timed to coincide with the opening of the Mid-Coast Trolley line.

But where do the big plans stand to once and for all connect the airport to the trolley (or other regional rail lines, like the Coaster)?

SANDAG is taking the lead on the effort. It is conducting an environmental review on what it’s calling a Central Mobility Hub, a transportation center for the region’s various transit offerings with a connection to the airport. That environmental review is looking at three distinct concepts, but isn’t expected to be finished until late 2022 or early 2023.

One is the San Diego Grand Central idea that Ikhrata has championed. It proposes a massive redevelopment of the obsolete NAVWAR facility in Old Town, building a new facility for the Navy and making way for developers to build a dense urban cluster of homes, offices and retail space alongside the transportation hub. A people-mover train, like those travelers have likely taken between terminals at large airports across the country, would run from the station and around the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and airport runway along Pacific Highway before pulling up to the terminals on Harbor Drive.

“We’ve done 10, 15 studies, there’s nothing more to study,” Ikhrata said in favor of the Grand Central idea when he launched it in 2019, before the current study got underway. “It’s more comprehensive than people think, which is why it’s regional in nature. The transit option is the centerpiece. The highway option is also important. All of them as a package is going to make sure 3.3 million people in the county can access the airport with ease.”

Another option is the always-catchy Intermodal Transit Center, a scaled-back regional transit center on a 13-acre property just south of the Washington Street trolley station. It too would rely on an automated people-mover that would bend around the airport runway and approach the terminals on Harbor Drive.

The final option wouldn’t build the central transit concept at all. Instead, it would simply build a trolley spur from the existing tracks south of the airport, near Santa Fe Depot, that would bring riders to the airport terminals.

That last concept is largely the same idea that was expected to be part of a measure on the 2020 ballot asking voters to raise sales taxes for a host of transit improvements. The trolley extension polled well, but the Metropolitan Transit System finally pulled the plug on the measure in mid-April 2020 when the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic started coming into focus.

Whatever concept SANDAG settles on, it’ll still need to figure out how to pay for it. It’s included in the agency’s plan for regional transportation through 2050, which the SANDAG board could approve by the end of the year. But adopting the plan doesn’t secure any money for central mobility hub – or any other project. That would need to come from a ballot measure, which could go before voters as early as 2022. There’s a lot of political work needed before that happens.

But the region does have, essentially, a half-billion-IOU for a transit-to-airport connection burning a hole in its pocket. That was the result of a brief but intense political fight in 2018 over the airport’s plan to rebuild Terminal 1. That skirmish can claim credit for reviving the issue and getting it to the point that MTS nearly built a ballot measure around it and Ikhrata began proposing his San Diego Grand Central vision.

The San Diego International Airport has for years pursued a revamp of the small, out-of-date Terminal 1, and the airlines that operate there are happy to pay to modernize it and increase the flights it can offer. But those extra flights mean more traffic – and the airport, the Port of San Diego, the city of San Diego, SANDAG, MTS – nearly every public agency in the county, really – had to grapple with the best way to accommodate that increase. For transit advocates, and transit-to-the-airport advocates especially, it was a leverage point to force the issue.

It worked. In 2019, the airport and its airline partners announced a pact to spend $500 million on transit improvements, as part of the Terminal 1 expansion. As part of the terminal project, the airport is also building a new road for airport-goers off of Harbor Drive, on airport property, that’s expected to remove thousands of cars from Harbor Drive. So whenever SANDAG (or MTS) figures out what it wants to do and how to pay for it, it’ll have a hefty chunk of private money ready to chip in.

If the eventual airport transit plan still feels very much up in the air – as its San Diego Special distinction implies – the Terminal 1 plan is knocking on the door.

The board of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is expected to vote in October on the maximum amount it can spend to rebuild the terminal, and the Coastal Commission could approve the project around the same time. As part of that project, the airport is reserving space between the two terminals for a station for the new airport connection. If all goes well, that project could break ground as early as November.

Colin Parent, director of the transit advocacy group Circulate San Diego, has argued against the idea of locating the transit connection at the NAVWAR site, because it would force any transit trip from downtown to pass the airport to reach the new station, then double-back to the terminals on a second ride.

But he said the forces that have conspired to keep San Diego from building any sort of airport transit connection have changed, with the passage of AB 805, which consolidated regional decision-making authority with the region’s largest jurisdictions, and especially the San Diego mayor’s office.

“This is why it’s a San Diego Special – there are a whole bunch of public agencies who have to be involved in a decision like this,” Parent said. “Historically at least, they don’t all report to the same elected officials. As such, it’s very easy for status quo to prevail. Now, it’s a little different, because AB 805 means a smaller group of officials have a lot of authority in how this prevails – Mayor Gloria especially.”

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