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Fault Lines Emerge in Push to Connect Airport to Trolley

A rendering of the “San Diego Grand Central” transit center concept / Image courtesy of SANDAG

This post initially appeared in the March 9 Politics Report [1]. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox [1].

Six months ago, attempts to connect the trolley to the airport were not going well. Public agencies were trading sternly worded letters [2] and discussions weren’t going anywhere.

At SANDAG’s annual retreat Friday, regional leaders spent the day breaking down the possibilities on a project that’s suddenly become a major priority, and couldn’t stop reminding one another how bad things had been.

“When we first got together in my office late last year, things were not good to say the least,” said Mayor Kevin Faulconer, about a clear-the-air summit he organized [3]. “We are not going to get things done if we’re all – city of San Diego included – in our individual silos threatening to sue each other.”

But for all the goodwill, Friday’s meeting made clear that there are still plenty of disagreements about how to best proceed.

Brass tacks: A SANDAG subcommittee is working on a plan it hopes to present by June. Faulconer and SANDAG Director Hasan Ikhrata have zeroed in on what they call San Diego Grand Central, a new transit terminal at the current SPAWAR location in Old Town that would connect to the airport terminals. SANDAG asked private companies for their ideas on the best technology for an airport-transit solution, and presented those results Friday. It’ll do the same next month with the results from a call for ideas on where and how it should build a new transit terminal.

Autonomous vehicles: SANDAG staff said one idea they latched onto was the possibility of using autonomous vehicles – possibly on a dedicated right of way – to connect a nearby transit station with the airport, rather than the more typical people-mover trains at many airports. Autonomous vehicles were a recurring conversation throughout SANDAG’s retreat, even as the industry [4] is increasingly [5] acknowledging [6] the technology [7] may be further [8] away [9] than boosters previously suggested.

Ikhrata isn’t budging: Ikhrata outlined a simple – and ambitious – result for any project: It has to be capable of getting any person in San Diego County to the airport by transit with one connection or less. Anything less wasn’t worth the effort, he said.

He has clearly already concluded that the only way to do that is by committing to his Grand Central concept.

Anytime another suggestion came up: building the station elsewhere, implementing smaller solutions first and scaling them up – he’d give it a token nod and reiterate that Grand Central would indeed take a long time and be expensive, but that’s the cost of building great things.

La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent said the priority needs to be making sure a transit connection to the airport happens – not necessarily building a new transit station as a part of the project.

“Multi-modal centers are great, but they’re gravy,” he said.

He said it makes more sense to focus on the airport building a people-mover to an existing transit station, and if Grand Central ever actually happens, the region can extend the people mover to it.

Ikhrata wasn’t biting. Even iterative steps would be expensive, he pointed out.

“Do it right, do it once,” he said. “Do not settle for easy and cheap, because we can do it in a year, I caution you strongly.”

He allowed for some smaller steps the region could take in the interim – MTS Director Paul Jablonski said the agency supported running a shuttle from the Old Town station to the airport, and Ikhrata said that was a good idea – but he kept his distance from any capital project that wouldn’t make good on his one-transfer promise.

One dust-up: Ikhrata’s insistence on focusing on Grand Central led to one testy exchange.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond said he still wasn’t convinced that Santa Fe Depot – where multiple trolley and bus lines and the Amtrak and Coaster trains already converge – wasn’t the best place to base a new airport-transit station.

He asked that next month, SANDAG include an analysis of Santa Fe Depot in its report on all the possible locations.

Ikhrata again steered the conversation back to Grand Central, arguing it alone could achieve the scale the region needed, and cautioning against anything that would lead to a half-commitment that would keep the question unresolved.

“I want Santa Fe included. I’m not asking for your permission,” Desmond said. “As a board member, I am asking for that analysis.”

Ikhrata was undeterred. He said he would, but added that for the Coaster to be a viable airport option for North County residents, it needed to run every five or 10 minutes, and Santa Fe Depot could never handle that capacity.