Sustainability: Expand the trolley system in San Diego

by Jacob Clark

Antonio Zaragoza / Photo Editor
Antonio Zaragoza / Photo Editor

Public transportation in San Diego has a rich history dating back to 1886 when the San Diego Street Car Company began to operate. Consisting of an open-air streetcar drawn by two mules, the tiny transit system took riders along Fifth Avenue for 5 cents apiece and could travel at a top speed of 5 mph.

We’ve certainly come a long way since the mule-based transit system. This July, the San Diego Trolley will celebrate its 30th anniversary and has big plans for the next few decades. The trolley currently supports three lines that run through several parts of San Diego County. The Blue Line runs from San Ysidro to Old Town, passing through downtown. The Orange Line goes from downtown to Gillespie Field in El Cajon, and travels through Lemon Grove. Most known to San Diego State students, however, is the Green Line which runs from Old Town to Santee Town Center, passing through Mission Valley and SDSU.

Although the trolley has made some significant progress with the addition of the Green Line, it has a long way to go. The main restriction on trolley expansion is funding, like everything else in today’s world. Public transportation has always been heavily subsidized and was obviously affected by budget cuts. However, the solution, is not to increase fares or borrow money from other city funds. There are some major flaws in the system that need to be fixed in order to improve the trolley system and to make it more appealing to the right people.

First and foremost: It is absurd that our main form of countywide public transportation does not reach the primary airport. A trolley stop at the San Diego International Airport would provide easier access for local fliers and open city doors to increased tourism. Travelers would be able to leave the airport faster and the trolley would allow them quicker access to downtown hotels and attractions. Creating better transportation for tourists would create more revenue from tourism.

Aside from the airport, the trolley should provide access to beaches. If there’s one thing in San Diego people can enjoy on a regular basis, it’s the beach. Not offering access to the beach is a big mistake that limits people’s interest in riding the trolley.

People aren’t going to ride the trolley unless it can get them where they want to go, and this won’t be financially possible until there is further funding. Government funding, with all its restrictions, can only go so far and puts the city further into debt. If the trolley actually catered to the people who would use it, it would be a different story. An extensive trolley system in the Chula Vista and National City areas would be able to provide enough riders to support financial demands. A line out to Eastlake, one of the county’s fastest growing areas, would provide revenue from willing riders for years to come. The trolley system is one that depends on itself: To make money, the system must attract paying riders. To attract paying riders, it must travel to more destinations. Otherwise, the system breaks down.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System has set some pretty ambitious goals to correct some of these shortcomings by 2050. The main plan is to extend trolley lines into the middle city area from SDSU down through Chula Vista and up to Mira Mesa from Mission Valley. The Blue Line will extend to Mira Mesa through UC San Diego, and a line will be added in North County from Escondido to Oceanside with a high-speed commuter rail being added to connect the line to the airport. Rapid bus routes will be put through Mid-City and Chula Vista and eventually reach Coronado, La Jolla, Oceanside and Point Loma.

Environmentally friendly commuting is a great result of riding the trolley, but it doesn’t — and won’t — convince people to ride more frequently. Convenience and cost speak louder than morals, and the San Diego MTS needs to focus its time and resources more on these demands. Gas prices are driving people to use public transit more frequently, but people shouldn’t feel they are forced onto the trolley lines as a result. Public transportation can work, even in a city as big and spread out as San Diego. It already functions well in cities such as Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. We just need to do it right.

—Jacob Clark is a biology and Spanish junior.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.