What’s Needed for Rail Service to Reduce Traffic in San Diego

SANDAG , the regional planning agency for San Diego County is appealing a ruling by 2 lower courts to the California Supreme Court of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups. The lawsuit is over SANDAG’s transportation planning for the County. The basis of this lawsuit is SANDAG’s current planning expects a net increase of today’s levels of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) from increased vehicle traffic by 2050 . State Law calls for a reduction of GHG emissions by 2050 to levels lower than what they were in 1990.The plaintiff’s in this lawsuit wants SANDAG to redirect funding for major road constructions projects to increased funding of rail and bus projects in San Diego County. Over the 40 years between 2010 to 2050, spending of 214 billion dollars for transportation is projected by SANDAG in San Diego County. What then will be needed for regional rail passenger service to make a major dent in reducing auto traffic in San Diego County?

The first thing that is needed is to run more frequent trains. But to do that, what is needed is to fully double track the 60 miles of passenger railroad in San Diego County. Current plans call for 90% of this railroad to be double tracked by 2025. The last 6 miles however are the most difficult and expensive to double track. Full double tracking isn’t planned until after 2050. So what are the problems on the last 6 miles to be double tracked. The most expensive project is in Del Mar and the Los Penasquitos Lagoon wetlands. The plan is to build a double track tunnel in this area which is expected to cost at least a billion dollars. To double track most of the railroad is also costing another billion dollars. Another area which will need double track tunneling is under the UTC shopping mall in La Jolla. This will be a major transit hub with the extension of the San Diego Trolley Light Rail service to the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and UTC, connecting both to the rest of San Diego. The area around UTC, UCSD and nearby Sorrento Valley is the largest job center and heaviest traffic generator of the San Diego region.

The tracks today from Sorrento Valley south go slowly around the UTC area in a long detour through hilly canyons. This is the slowest segment of rail in San Diego County. There are plans to double track this slow segment and raise speeds from 25 miles per hour up to 40 miles per hour after 2030. If we want to make a major impact on rail travel in San Diego County, we need to tunnel under UTC, both to make a major reduction in running times with a faster, shorter railroad and to serve a major and now largely ignored activity center. A third major tunnel project that is needed, is in Orange County at San Clemente. A tunnel is needed at San Clemente both for a faster and double tracked railroad to replace the slower single tracked line on the beach. This makes the railroad vulnerable to being washed out by heavy seas or blocked by landslides from the nearby cliffs. There is a lot of traffic between Orange and San Diego Counties and beyond. These 3,one billion dollar plus a piece tunnels are needed to dramatically increase rail passenger service and reduce GHG emissions by 2050.

There are now 11 round trip Pacific Surfliner trains run by Amtrak daily. On weekdays the Coaster runs 11 round trip trains between Oceanside and San Diego. A double tracked railroad could handle these 22 round trip trains in one hour. A major freeway can carry just over 300,000 cars a day. To make a major impact on travel in San Diego County, the Coaster would need ridership alone of around 100,000 passengers a day. Between San Jose and San Francisco, a distance of 51 miles, Caltrain now carries 58,000 passengers a day and expects to go over 100,000 in the future. A double tracked railroad can carry per hour more people than a 5 lane freeway in both directions.

The main factor in carrying a large number of additional passengers is getting people in and out of stations. What is holding back ridership now is the amount of available parking at stations. More parking will be needed. But we can’t build enough parking to carry up to 100,000 passengers a day. We will also need more development with new high density housing so more people can ride buses, bikes or walk to the train stations. We will also need to upgrade local bus service to carry more people to the trains.

We will also need more stations. There are several new stations being planned. A Transit Center is being planned with a Coaster Station in Camp Pendleton near the Coaster/Metrolink Maintenance Facility. There are also stations being planned to stop at the Convention Center in downtown San Diego. This will also serve PETCO Park baseball stadium, the popular Gaslamp District and is near the 12th and Imperial Trolley Station, the hub of all three Trolley Lines. A joint Trolley/ Amtrak/Coaster and High Speed Rail train station is also planned at the San Diego Airport. A station is also proposed for High Speed Rail at UTC. Stations should also be considered south of downtown San Diego to National City and at the 32nd Street Naval Base Trolley station. this would allow faster connections for passengers south of downtown by Coaster to the Trolley Blue Line by avoiding the slow street running of the Trolley downtown.

The best way to add more stations to the Coaster is to extend some trains north of Oceanside to Orange County. There are plans to run Coaster Trains to Fullerton in the future. There are also plans to extend Metrolink trains to San Diego. To extend a significant number of Coaster trains and add more Surfliner trains will require a double tracked tunnel in San Clemente.

These improvements will cost billions of dollars. But trying to expand freeways increasingly impossible. To justify such spending for rail passenger service will require greatly expanded rail ridership. Greatly increasing the ridership is what will be needed for rail service to have a major impact on transportation in San Diego County and the greater long term reductions in Green House Gas and other emissions.

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