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Home / Articles / News / News /  Going underground
. . . .
Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

Going underground

Could a subway break a deadlock and start a C Street renaissance?

By Eric Wolff

Trash still blows across C Street. At night, the neon signs of bail bondsmen and defense attorneys continue to illuminate the gum-covered sidewalks, even as partiers hurry across dark intersections on their way to clubs and restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter. Police get more complaints from C Street than any other part of Downtown, forcing the department to start a dedicated foot patrol in January. The trolley rattles through at intervals that are hard for pedestrians to predict, and car lanes start and stop with Kafkaesque arbitrariness. The pavement is cracked and heaves into small hillocks. This is the street that runs past the ritzy Westgate Hotel and the aging City Hall; it’s where tourists wait to catch a trolley to Old Town.

Two years ago, this was all supposed to change. City officials announced the formation of a committee to write a plan to reinvigorate C Street and turn it into a new commercial core. Alas.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in a city,” said Sachin Kalbag, C Street project manager for Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), which administers redevelopment Downtown. “We’ve been deadlocked a year-and-a-half on one issue.”

That issue is the trolley. Every weekday morning, trolleys disgorge 10,500 passengers from packed cars. During peak hours, Trolleys are so full that the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), which operates the trains, suspects that some people are opting against public transit because it’s too crowded.

“We’ve been very successful. Too successful, really,” said Brandon Farley, an MTS planner.

And it’s going to get worse. A recent update of the Downtown Community Plan predicts an 183-percent peak-hour growth in ridership by 2030. To meet the expected demand, the MTS board has decided to add a third car to trains running through Downtown and buy new, bigger models. Known as “low-floor” cars because the passenger compartment is literally closer to the ground, the new cars are 10 feet longer. A train with three of these cars would extend 275 feet, roughly 30 feet longer than a Downtown city block. To squeeze into the proposed station between Sixth and Seventh avenues, the city would have to close a travel lane on each of the avenues, and red lights would occasionally need to be longer to accommodate a crossing train.

Needless to say, the Downtown powers-that-be are not happy. On its website, CCDC has posted letters from the Downtown San Diego Partnership, the Little Italy Business Association, the Gaslamp Quarter Association and Mayor Jerry Sanders opposing new limitations on car lanes.

In response, CCDC hired consultants to review what’s known as the “loop proposals,” a pair of ideas that would rejigger the system to allow for much higher frequency along C Street and 12th Avenue and maintain smaller trolley cars. On one of them, the rail line would be ripped out and replaced with a dedicated bus lane, all for $45 million plus an additional $1.8 million a year for operation and maintenance. The other, known as the Blue Line Loop, would cause the westbound Blue Line track to split when it reaches Downtown to create a loop. Half the trains would go one way around the loop; the other half would go the other way. The Blue Line Loop would cost $3.2 million every year on top of $75 million to build.

Downtown groups are willing to jump on any of these ideas, so long as cars have easy movement through the neighborhood.

“We would like to find an alternative plan,” said Todd Voorhees, a spokesman for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business group. “We don’t know what that is, but we’d like MTS to come to the table and work with us on that.”

Bill Sauls is a private attorney whose office is on C Street. “I will tell you that MTS has demonstrated a blatant disregard for traffic circulation and pedestrian activities and those of us who live and work downtown,” he said. “I just think it’s unfortunate that MTS has been unwilling to look at the rider studies that show, frankly, there are no more additional riders along C Street today than in the last seven years. C Street has been a terrible failure and they’re unwilling to address it.”

When CityBeat asked Farley, the MTS planner, about the ridership study, he acknowledged that, indeed, ridership had been constant, but he said it’s been constant almost in defiance of trends that should be pulling ridership down. The construction of Petco Park generated more parking spaces, which makes it more convenient for commuters to drive. And there are fewer commuters because of a decrease in Downtown jobs from 77,000 to 75,000. Plus, he added, the number of riders remained steady at very high levels. During the morning and evening commute, he said, the trolleys are full.

Farley said MTS doesn’t like either of the loop ideas. “They just don’t add enough capacity,” he said.

Certainly, San Diego’s environmentalists are backing the trains. In 2006, Save Our Forest and Ranchlands (SOFAR) sued the city for not offering enough transit alternatives in the Downtown Community Plan update. The group won a settlement that requires CCDC to conduct a high-level study that will consider possibilities for mass transit Downtown.

“I think we should eliminate parking downtown,” said Marco Gonzalez, an attorney for SOFAR. “We should make it so hard to park, people have to use public transit. Downtown is one place where we can truly create a livable, workable, walkable community, and we’re squandering our possibilities.”

The tug of war between these forces has stopped all planning for a C Street revitalization for almost two years. Opponents of the longer trains have taken to referring to MTS as “bureaucrats” and “obstructionists” while environmentalists have even stronger words for Downtown business interests.

City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer’s district includes Downtown, he chairs the C Street Advisory Committee, and he sits on the MTS board. No San Diego leader is in as strong a position to break the impasse. But Faulconer has not yet seen a solution he likes.

“I’m willing to consider something that works,” he said, adding that he hopes to have a solution within 60 days.

On Tuesday, March 11, Faulconer met in the Mayor’s office with representatives from MTS, CCDC, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and others. MTS agreed to move the trolley tracks to the north side of C Street, which would clear a driving lane, and consider, reluctantly, a shorter car manufactured by a Utah-based company that’s currently in the design stage. But then, SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos floated a different idea: How about putting the trolley underground?

“If we don’t have any short-term solution, maybe we should think in the long term,” he told CityBeat.

A subway would run for two miles beneath C Street or Broadway (to keep the C Street trolley running with the tunnel under construction). Trains could be three or even four cars long; they could run with just four minutes’ separation—a big improvement over the current separation of 12 minutes—during peak periods. The trolley would eventually be removed from C Street, opening the door for normal, one-way traffic and the kind of commercial district the Downtown Partnership envisions.

Everyone is nervous about the idea. Voorhees said he would be optimistic about it if funding could be secured. CCDC spokesman Derek Danziger, after talking to CCDC President Nancy Graham, said CCDC is worried about the cost.

However, the organization has already begun to consider it. A draft report prepared for CCDC struck an optimistic tone, estimating that there would be sufficient demand to justify the project. The report said parking would only get more expensive as more people live and work in the area and that trolley ridership will grow when a planned line to University City is completed. None of the current proposals for C Street, the report said, offer as much potential capacity.

Farley said he believes a subway would solve MTS’ problems, but he pointed out that SANDAG would have to take the lead on it, and that’s fine with SANDAG.

“It’s never cheap to go underground, as it’s never cheap to go above ground,” Gallegos said. “You could take the trolley underground and better utilize the space above ground. That might generate the value you need to compensate for the cost of going underground.”

Gallegos said CCDC’s transit study from the settlement with SOFAR would examine the idea of a subway for Downtown. The next step toward an underground train, therefore, will be made in May.    

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