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Why the Trolley Doesn't Go to the San Diego Airport

San Diegans and visitors long have questioned why the trolley doesn’t go to the airport. It’s a question that’s bedeviled regional leaders too. Officials are now trying to come up with a solution.

The San Diego Trolley / Photo by Sam Hodgson

This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.

The question from Ann Patterson of North Park: “Why doesn’t the trolley go to the airport?”

To submit your question or vote on our next topic, click here.

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San Diegans and visitors long have questioned why the trolley doesn’t go to the airport. It’s a question that’s bedeviled regional leaders too. There is a bus connection to the airport but people still don’t understand how the trolley can pass so close to the airport without actually serving it.

Officials are now trying to come up with a solution.

So how did we get here?

Turns out that transportation planners did envision the trolley line that would run along Harbor Drive connecting to airport terminals in the late 1980s. But the concept hit three major snags.

First, there were concerns about crossing an existing freight rail line. Trolleys and rail lines can’t share tracks.

Former regional and transportation planner Dave Schumacher previously told Voice of San Diego that planners believed they’d need to build a bridge or a tunnel to go over or under that freight line.

Another wrinkle: At the time, the Coast Guard moved its own plane across Harbor Drive from its base to the airport. Literally, traffic would stop and a plane would cross. (!!)

That meant transportation planners needed to ensure trolley wires wouldn’t snarl Coast Guard operations – not an easy task.

Around the same time, several trolley lines were being debated.

Schumacher said the Harbor Drive route couldn’t match the ridership demand of other routes at the time.

The trolley-to-airport plan crumbled.

Since then, various agencies have flirted with a connection between the trolley and the airport on the other side of the airport, where the trolley line exists around the Middletown and Washington Street stops. In fact, you can actually get off at the Middletown stop, cross the street and take a shuttle to the airport – but it’s very poorly marked, and involves crossing a major roadway with all your luggage.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and others are now hoping for a broader fix.

Faulconer recently called a summit with leaders from the Airport Authority, Port of San Diego, Metropolitan Transit System and the San Diego Association of Governments after the Airport Authority’s plan to expand Terminal 1 received a boatload of criticism for failing to improve the airport’s transportation shortcomings.

Those leaders left the meeting with an agreement that’s expected to delay that terminal expansion – but that could finally lead to the trolley connection to the airport.

For now, the official plan to address the gap is the so-called Intermodal Transportation Center, or ITC, a new station at the northern end of the airport that would consolidate stops for buses, the trolley, Coaster and Amtrak. It’s included in the region’s current long-term transportation plan but there’s no plan to pay for it.

Other ideas on the table include improvements to the bus route that goes to the airport and a people mover that could link with existing trolley stations.

Expect more conversations and debates about this long-running San Diego conundrum in 2019.

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