“This is the largest single grant we've every gotten for a light-rail project,” said Gary Gallegos, executive director of San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the region's transportation planning agency.
Pointing out the overall cost of the trolley project is a little more than $2 billion, Gallegos noted, “You can't build a $2 billion project for $1 billion,” underscoring the significance of federal funding.
Recently, an agreement was signed to provide 50 percent of the funds to extend service in the Mid-Coast Trolley Extension from Old Town to UCSD, Westfield UTC Transit Center and the University City community. The roughly five-year construction project will extend the existing Blue Line, building nine new stops along the north coast of San Diego including near Mission Beach, Pacific Beach near Balboa Avenue, the VA Medical Center, the UCSD campus, and the dense residential and commercial areas along Genesee Avenue.
“The Mid-Coast Trolley will bring fast, reliable transit to the places where it’s most needed, including our largest research university and biggest employment center (UTC),” said Ron Roberts, SANDAG chair and San Diego County Board of Supervisors chair. “At the same time, it is an outstanding example of our ability to leverage the region’s local TransNet dollars to bring in outside money to complete major transportation projects.”
The San Diego region was able to garner the 50 percent match for the Mid-Coast Trolley in large part because it has a dedicated local source of funding that provided the other 50 percent match for the project. Revenues from TransNet, the existing countywide half-cent sales tax for transportation, are covering half of the approximately $2.1 billion total project cost.
Addressing criticism that light-rail is an expensive transportation alternative, Gallegos replied, “It's true light-rail has high up-front capital costs. It's obviously cheaper to buy a bus than build a trolley rail line. But in the long haul, the rail line is more cost-effective over its life cycle. If you buy a new bus you have to hire a new driver. With a trolley, you can always just add more cars.”
There are other reasons for choosing light-rail as a viable transportation alternative, Gallegos noted.
A ceremonial signing of the Full Funding Grant Agreement – dedicating approximately $1 billion to the Mid-Coast project over the next 10 years subject to annual Congressional approval – took place recently on the campus of UCSD where the future Pepper Canyon Trolley station will be built. As part of the ceremony, Roberts was handed a symbolic $1 billion check.
Gallegos said groundbreaking for the 11-mile, Mid-Coast Trolley extension is on Oct. 22.
“Construction will take about 56 months,” he said adding, “This is considered to be a mega-project with a lot of bridge and concrete work, and the railway going across freeways.”
The good news though is that “for the most part, the project is in the public right-of-way,” Gallegos added.
SANDAG's chief said the trolley extension will be an important transportation cross-connector. He noted the Trolley Blue Line extension will connect the San Diego region's two largest employment centers (downtown and UTC) with the rail networks in South Bay and East County.
Pre-construction activities for the Mid-Coast project, primarily the relocation of underground utilities out of the project alignment, are already under way. Once the extension is built, transit riders will enjoy a one-seat ride from San Ysidro to University City.
According to SANDAG, construction of the Mid-Coast project is expected to produce more than 14,000 new local jobs. Even after construction is over, the Mid-Coast project will have an estimated $116 million of annual economic impact on the region by reducing congestion, reducing parking needs, and increasing access to jobs. The Mid-Coast corridor supports more than 325,000 jobs. Planners estimate the trolley-extension project will provide more than 20,000 new transit trips every weekday.
“The grand vision is to try and give San Diegans more transportation options and better choices,” Gallegos said. “This gives San Diego commuters working in the two largest employment centers something to do other than just drive (alone).”
The Mid-Coast Trolley project’s groundbreaking celebration will take place 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 22 on the grass at the Preuss School field (3750 Voigt Drive) and will include a picnic, free food, live music, a commemorative gift, and fun family activities.