18: San Diego

Light Rail
San Diego Trolley
Diesel Light Rail
NCTD Sprinter
Commuter Rail
NCTD Coaster

san diego final-01

San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
population 3,177,063 (2012)

San Diego was the first U.S. city to build a new light rail system. In 1979, local governments had the opportunity to purchase the San Diego and Arizona Eastern railroad, which ran south from downtown San Diego to the Mexican border at Tijuana, then east through the desert, with a branch line from the downtown area to the northeast. These lines provided the core of a new, low-cost light rail system built without federal funding and few frills. The trains were off-the-shelf light-rail vehicles already in use in Germany; the stations were simple; and the planners avoided expensive structures such as overpasses or tunnels. The South Line and East Line both followed the railroad tracks to the southern edge of downtown, then ran in the center of city streets through downtown to the railroad station, where Amtrak trains connect to Los Angeles.

The system succeeded immediately. The South Line ends only yards from the Mexican border; locals soon discovered they could take the trolley to Tijuana. Mexicans commuting to jobs in San Diego found it even more useful. Navy sailors from the Pacific Fleet can take light rail downtown. Park and Ride lots serve suburban commuters. The line has attracted steady ridership throughout the day, with the first train running at 4:17 a.m. and the last at 1:52 a.m. Within three years of its opening, the South Line was carrying more than twice as many passengers as express buses had previously served in the same corridor. The East Line is more commuter-oriented, and thus has more pronounced rush hours. After three years, it carried almost four times as many passengers as the buses had.

The next extensions followed active railroad tracks along the revitalized waterfront, extending light rail south to loop around downtown, and north to a major transit center. These lines serve the new convention center, hotels, and entertainment areas.

The plans then grew more ambitious. In Mission Valley, a series of shopping centers, a medical complex, Qualcomm Stadium, and San Diego State University line a narrow greenbelt floodplain — in other words, no obvious path for rail, but lots of potential ridership. Fitting in the tracks required building lengthy elevated structures, rerouting a creek, and even building a short tunnel to reach the center of the SDSU campus. The western half of the Mission Valley extension opened in time to carry crowds to the 1998 Super Bowl; the eastern half is now under construction. In addition to bus and park-and-ride commuters (the stadium parking lot, just off of Interstates 8 and 15, becomes a 17,000-space park-and-ride lot when no event is in progress), the Mission Valley line serves stadium spectators and shoppers. The Trolley is marketed as a way to park at one shopping center and shop at all of them.

Reaching the many areas still not served, particularly to the north, will be expensive. But the Trolley’s track record has provided the public confidence and political support to extend the system into more difficult corridors.