Trolley butts already plague drivers at the downspout of Route 163 at the intersection of 10th Avenue and C Street.
The Blue Line and Orange Line trolleys heading west from City College to Fifth Avenue cross 10th Avenue without incident, but the city block between Ninth and 10th is short. If the trolley hits a red light at ninth, the rear 10 feet of the last car stick out into the southbound traffic, forcing a lane of cars to stop and wait while they watch their signal cycle through. Morning rush-hour drivers aren't keen to talk to reporters—they're trying to get to work, after all—but the white-knuckle grip many had on their steering wheels expressed their feelings better than any remark could.
The situation isn't unique to 10th and C. Trolleys sometimes get stuck at lights; sometimes the back end sticks out.
But it's been that way for 28 years, and most San Diegans are used to it, unless they have to get somewhere urgently. On the trolley itself, the morning rush hour means jam-packed trains as the trolley dumps 10,500 people into Downtown every weekday. In June, the trolley set a ridership record, so the cars went from jam-packed to stacked like cordwood. The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) has plans to relieve the pressure, but MTS has run into politics, and from there things only got messier.
Since 2006, MTS has been planning to replace the current trolley cars with “low-floor” cars that sit closer to the ground. The lower profile makes it easier on folks with mobility trouble to get on and off the train. They're also 92 feet long, which means they have more capacity than current trains, though that also means three in a row make for a 276-foot train. With Downtown blocks extending only 200 feet, that means a lot more trolley sticking out into a lot more intersections. To fix the problem, MTS planned to build improved stations Downtown with sidewalks that would force some streets, notably Seventh Avenue, to become narrower, but also accommodate the bigger cars.
When CityBeat last wrote about this issue in March, Mayor Jerry Sanders, City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) board chairman Fred Maas and representatives of the Downtown Partnership and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce all expressed strong disapproval of interfering with traffic flow.
At CCDC, the indecision on trolley-car length totally stopped work on the planned $100 million C Street revitalization—literally, there's been no work for at least two months. At MTS, not knowing the length of the trolley car won't stop the planning process for the $400 million rehab of the Blue Line between San Ysidro and Old Town, but it will make actually renovating stations difficult. It even complicates planning for a proposed new Civic Center, since MTS and CCDC staff hope to install a spiffy new trolley station to go with it. But how can there be a new station if no one knows the length of the cars?
The issue has become emotional for all the players. Sources at CCDC and MTS ranted to CityBeat about the ridiculousness of the other side's position (though both sides agree that they're looking for “viable solutions”).
Faulconer told CityBeat that he feels “very strongly” that trains “should work without disrupting the existing street grid Downtown.”
City Councilmember Jim Madaffer, taking a more populist tack, said, “If people have to wait 38 seconds every 10 minutes, so be it.”
In attempt to resolve the issue, Madaffer called for meetings in the Mayor's office that included Faulconer, Sanders and representatives from SANDAG, MTS and CCDC, among others. Several people present at the meetings called them “intense,” and, one source said, “no one made any friends in that room.”
Recent events in Utah, of all places, may finally solve the problem. At $3 million a piece, San Diego can afford to buy only a few trolley cars at a time. As a result, the major manufacturers will sell only cars that they're already making for other cities. But the Utah Transit Authority is on the verge of signing a contract for dozens of low-floor trolley cars that would measure only 80 feet in length. What had been a vague hope back in March is becoming an increasingly solid possibility. SANDAG inserted a line into the study for the Blue Line rehab that requires investigating the technical requirements of the trolley cars ordered by Utah.
“This is a really thorny issue, but there might potentially be a way forward now,” said John Haggerty, SANDAG's principle design engineer.
The new trains will still be bigger and add some capacity, but they would also fit inside a Downtown block, at the very least buying time for longer-term solutions. Madaffer used his position as chairman of SANDAG's Transportation Committee to push through a study that would look at developing an innovative new traffic signal system that would hopefully eliminate station-to-station driving between red lights.
“It's the biggest pet peeve I have: The light turns green, you drive to the next block and it turns red,” Madaffer said. “I see people blowing them all the time, just because they don't want to wait at another light.”
The new system would optimize traffic signals depending on time of day, major events and even change timing for the start and finish of Padres games. Even better, Madaffer said, it could optimize the flow of trolleys in and out of Downtown.
Back in March, CityBeat reported that SANDAG chief Gary Gallegos had the clever idea of putting the whole C Street portion of the trolley line underground. Alas, building San Diego's very own little subway line has not moved forward at all in the last six months, though SANDAG spokesperson David Hicks said the idea is not officially dead.
Madaffer said that the subway idea is just too expensive, though he still likes the idea of underground transit. Instead, he thinks SANDAG should consider building a tunnel for the regular passenger and freight trains that pass through Downtown every day. He thinks the property value of the land where the rails are could easily pay for such a project. He'd recently seen such a project on a trip to Italy.
“If they can do it in Italy,” he said, “they can do it here.”