Editorial by Noel T. Braymer
Photo by Trevor Clarke
The Coaster is the commuter rail service in San Diego County running from Oceanside on the northern edge of the county along the coast to downtown San Diego in the south. The Coaster serves downtown San Diego with good connections with the San Diego’s light rail system the Trolley. But like many metropolitan areas downtown is not the most congested or has the most jobs in San Diego.
That distinction goes to an area roughly 10 miles north of downtown near where the 805 freeway splits off of the 5 freeway. In this major employment area are Sorrento Valley along the western edge of the 805, the UCSD environs to the west of the 5 and University Towne Centre (UTC) to the east of the 5 opposite of UCSD.
Just recently the highly congested 5/805 interchange was rebuilt. Extra lanes were added including HOV lanes in an attempt to reduce the congestion. There are plans to continue this work with 4 additional lanes on the 5 all the way to Oceanside. So what is traffic like in this area now? Terrible! For far less money the Coaster could be improved to greater serve this area.
The Coaster has a station at Sorrento Valley. It is one of the busiest stations on the Coaster. Like most commercial and industrial development since World War II Sorrento Valley, the area by UCSD and UTC are very spread out and not designed for pedestrian access. Few people can walk to their jobs from the Sorrento Valley Station. The Coaster is dependent on shuttle bus service for riders at Sorrento Valley. However every time there is a budget crisis the MTDB which controls bus and Trolley service in San Diego wants to cut back Coaster shuttle bus service. It should be pointed out that the MTDB doesn’t operate the Coaster, the North County Transportation District does.
Many passengers do ride bikes from the train to work. It would be difficult to carry many more bikes on the trains. But more passengers could be encouraged to ride bikes with cooperation with their employers and by encouraging passengers to store bikes at the station. It might be possible to rent bikes for passengers to improve local access. In addition more local transit would help. One problem is the congestion on the local streets in this area is as bad as on the freeways. This discourages people from riding bikes and slows down shuttle and transit busses. Recently service was started on a bus rapid transit “Superloop” serving the UTC area and connecting it with UCSD. In the plans of over 20 years now is an extension of the Trolley north from Old Town to serve UCSD and UTC.
For the Coaster to better serve the 5/805 area it would need additional stations. Before additional stations can be added some running times would need to be reduced to keep a reasonable schedule. One way to do this is additional double tracking. The Coaster route is still mostly single tracked. The slowest section of the route is near Sorrento Valley in Soledad Canyon. RailPAC’s Byron Nordberg plotted out an alignment in Soledad Canyon over 25 years ago for a second track which would save several minutes for passenger trains. This project has been waiting for funding for years. There have also been plans for years to build 2 additional Coaster Stations, one near UTC and the other a joint Coaster/Trolley Station at Balboa Ave roughly half way between Old Town and UTC.
Now there are no plans to build any new joint Coaster/Trolley Stations. There has been little or no talk lately of building the Coaster Station near UTC. To connect Coaster passengers to UCSD and UTC the Superloop buses were to stop at the UTC Coaster Station. A few years back the promoters of the Superloop proposed raiding funds for the UTC Coaster Station in order to get the Superloop built and running. The problem, common among government agencies are turf and funding battles agencies often have. It seems that the Trolley doesn’t want competition from the Coaster for its future Trolley extension north of Old Town.
The worst traffic in San Diego is from the 5/805 area south. Much of this traffic is even coming from south of downtown. The Coaster mostly connects North County with downtown. For a passenger on the Trolley coming from south or east of downtown to UTC it will be a slow and long ride with heavy crowding in the downtown area. Caltrans has been planning to extend the Surfliner trains south of downtown San Diego to National City. A station, maintenance and storage facility is planned. Extending the Coaster to National City could also have better connections with a joint Coaster/Trolley Station south of downtown. This would tap into a large market and could prove very popular with commuters. This seems to be what the Trolley is afraid of.
The problems outlined here are not unique to San Diego. The same government agency battles, lack of coordination with rail and transit services and failure to serve the places with the worse traffic are common in California and the rest of the country.