Highway or No Way: the Need for Transportation Alternatives

Article and Photos By Noel T. Braymer

Man: An argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

Other Man: It is NOT    

Man: YES It Is…  

The Argument by Monty Python

What is missing at the national level for transportation is the middle ground where most people are. The choices from some politicians seem to be between only very expensive rail projects or trying to build our way out of congestion with more roads. Neither “choice” is a viable option. Our road and highway system is suffering from almost 40 years of deferred maintenance. Current spending isn’t keeping up with required maintenance for traffic demand now let alone future growth. There isn’t enough money to build every project the backers of these projects  want. Rising energy and transportation costs are effecting almost everyone by reducing their disposable income which holds back economic growth. We need to look at a mix of economical alternatives to keep people and the economy moving.

Economically today things are more like they were a 100 years ago then the 1990’s. More people are sharing housing such as grown children staying with their parents. More people are moving to urban areas to be closer to jobs and services to save money on driving. People are walking, biking and using public transportation more to live within their means. There is a shortage of land to build new roads and more parking in urban areas. Moving people to rural areas creates problems over water and loss of farmland. Plus without jobs no one will stay the rural areas which usually have high unemployment. This is all understood by most local leaders in urban areas that the local road system can’t be enlarged enough to handle current demand and in rural areas that  better transportation  is needed to create jobs with economic growth.

The problem in this country with public transportation is that often not enough people ride it to make it economical. The reason for this is often it doesn’t take people where and when they want to go or is near where they live or work. In the 1960’s and 70’s attempts to increase use of Public Transportation concentrated on expanding transit bus service to as many places as possible. The result was expensive with lots of nearly empty buses running regularly in the suburbs. At the same time there were crowded buses running in the city. In San Diego County, North County Transit has recently in the face of tight budgets and a weak economy was able to expand service on its Coaster trains and transit buses while lowering fares and increasing revenues. Central to this is they have been adding service on their busy bus lines and trains which increased ridership. At the same time they have cut back service on some of their weaker bus lines. In some cases bus lines have been replaced with Dial-a~Ride services which pick people up and drop the off from home to where they want to go.

Central to seeing public transportation thrive in all its forms: Transit, Commuter, and Intercity trains and buses is serving markets well and carrying enough passengers to produce enough revenue to justify the service. Comparing American rail passenger service to that of most of the world ours carry very few people. Transit in general and rail in particular has very high overhead. It takes a lot of passengers traveling many miles to justify the overhead for rail service. When we look at rail service in much of the world there are many more rail cars, trains and passengers per route mile than in this country. To make rail passenger service viable we need more equipment to carry more passengers more places and further than we are now.

The area around the San Diego train station in the early 1990’s

Transportation is central to a healthy economy. Major cities are always transportation hubs. Good rail passenger service is an economical way to revitalize the economy of any town or region. It is not an issue of a technology like subways or High Speed Rail. It is rather about creating a system that works together of several parts. Take downtown San Diego for example. Back in the mid-1970s downtown San Diego had a few bright spots and some impressive new buildings. But like most downtowns it had its share of rundown areas. One such area was around the old train station the Santa Fe Depot. With only 3 round trips a day the station wasn’t very busy. Starting around 1976 extra trains where added with new equipment supported by the State of California and things started to change. It was during the late 70’s that planning began for “Light Rail” to run on downtown city streets and an abandoned railroad to the Mexican border. Like many cities San Diego had before this brought in consultants who proposed expensive “hi-tech” rapid transit systems which never got built because of the cost and local opposition. During the debate to build Light Rail the opponents called the project the “Tijuana Trolley” and the name stuck. This was the origins of the San Diego Trolley. During the planning there was disagreement about where to terminate the Trolley downtown. Some of the planners opposed building the Trolley to the train station thinking it was too expensive and wouldn’t get many riders. By 1980 3 round trips had grown to 7 round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles with ridership more than tripling to over a million riders a year. In 1981 when the Trolley opened the train station stop quickly became one of the busiest for the Trolley.

The San Diego Trolley at the downtown train station in the ealry 1980’s

The impact of the Trolley in San Diego can be seen all over the city. In several locations new Trolley stations built on open land have become mixed housing and shopping areas. The most spectacular example of the Trolley’s effect on downtown was the construction of the new baseball stadium downtown. The location for the stadium was in the heart of skid row. It is near the junction of two Trolley Lines and 3 Trolley Stations. When the baseball stadium was proposed there were objections that there wasn’t enough parking and traffic would be a nightmare during games days. The results were that the Trolley is a popular way to get to baseball games and parking and traffic haven’t been a problem at the stadium. As part of the stadium project the area around it has seen redevelopment with new shops and housings and improvements for the Trolley which brings in more people to visit the area. The most visible impact of new rail service in San Diego is around the train station. Today up to 11 Amtrak Trains, some with service to Santa Barbara and even San Luis Obispo serve San Diego. In addition Trolley service has been greatly expanded with 3 lines serving the trains station and Coaster commuter train service has been running since 1995 from Oceanside. The area around the station, the Santa Fe Depot as recently as the 1990’s was largely open land for parking lots and for a short time a driving range next to the station. Today along the right of way to the station is a canyon of new skyscrapers. Several are office buildings but many are high priced condos. There are 4 tall condos in a row just along the west side of the right of way near the train station. If they weren’t full no one would have built a second. Not only that but more high rise condos are being built in the area. While many places may have a housing gut in this county and in California, there is demand for new housing in downtown San Diego.

Recent view of the railroad tracks leading into the downtown train station in San Diego.

Near the San Diego train station this billboard as of October 2012 makes clear expensive condos are selling near transportation.

Rail service won’t eliminate the car. But rail service for less money and using less land than roads can reduce congestion in busy areas. This has been the story with several new downtown sports stadiums around the county. This has been true in San Diego where sports fans travel to baseball games on both the Trolley and Coaster trains to downtown. While the Coaster runs mostly during rush hours and seems a small part of the total travel on the I-5 corridor, it has the effect of adding one additional lane to the freeway during rush hour. The Coaster was less expensive to start than building additional lanes. The difference at rush hour between freer flowing traffic and congestion is is often the ridership of the Coaster getting people to work on the I-5 corridor. Recent proposals to widen I-5 in northern San Diego County met with a great deal of resistance when it meant that many homes would be lost in the proposed construction. There was popular support to expand Coaster service instead of widening the freeway. Finally it was agreed to limit the freeway expansion to Car Pool lanes and to double track the railroad in San Diego County and expand Coaster service. There are plans to in the future to run the Coaster several times an hour all day 7 days a week as track improvements are made. Also proposed is extended service to Fullerton in Orange County. There are many trips between San Diego County County and Orange County that current rail service doesn’t serve. The longer trips will also improve the economic performance of the Coaster. Metrolink service will also be expand between San Diego and Fullerton with the first trains planned to run by 2014.

Rail service as this picture of the Coaster shows can carry many people during rush hour and take a major strain off of the roads.

It we wanted an example of many of the problems of building rail service, BART the Bay Area Rapid Transit service would be poster child for that. BART was very ambitious and expensive to build. Construction was way over budget, well behind schedule, had many problems when it first opened, construction had many negative impacts particularly the subway construction under Market Street in San Francisco and it was not an overnight success. Even though it is called Bay Area Rapid Transit it was mostly intended to bring commuter into downtown San Francisco and to a lesser degree to Oakland and Berkeley. Many of the suburban stations were in the middle of nowhere with large parking lots that didn’t serve the local communities. But what BART did achieve was a major change in downtown San Francisco and major construction downtown along Market Street. San Francisco was able to grow as a job center in the Bay Area without additional freeway construction which San Francisco was physically too small to handle. When the big earthquake hit the Bay Area during the World Series of 1989 BART was proven critical to the Bay Area. Because of the earthquake the Bay Bridge was closed for many months. BART was jammed but went a long way along with additional ferry service to keep the Bay Area functioning. Today travel on the Bay Bridge and BART is roughly equal between San Francisco and Oakland. Today the Bay Area would not function without BART.

We can’t afford to replicate BART all over the county let alone in California. But we need to spend money to keep our transportation system working. When there is good transportation there is a healthy economy. If you want to see poverty, just get off the beaten path and go to the middle of nowhere. We can’t build everything. But we need to fix our roads and improve them. Connections to airports are important since it is difficult to build more of them and rail can be a short distance feeder allowing airlines to expand flights for more profitable longer distance travel. We can use existing rights of way to add more rail service economically. The California High Speed Rail Project will only get built if it shares improved existing passenger railroad particularly in the urban areas. Tilt trains are useful for providing faster rail passenger service without the major expense or disruption of building all new rail lines everywhere. Rail service can’t go everywhere, but can connect with everyplace with good bus connections and parking lots. Smaller towns need long distance trains to connect to the big cities.Train stations in rural area have a strong positive economic effect. Urban areas need rail service to control congestion and support mixed development and affordable housing so people can use rail service near where they live, shop and work. Cars, buses, bikes and walking along with trains can all work together for better, more economical and less congested travel. There is a growing awareness and consensus that a mix of transportation and development is the way to go control congestion and grow the economy. What is missing is getting Washington to get the message.

Previous Post Next Post