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Clang, Clang, Clang goes the Trolley


There is romance to the rail. Trains have survived the automobile, a more personal and convenient form of travel, and trains have survived the swiftness of the airplane. Long after logic had dictated they would go the way of the dinosaur, they roll blissfully and mystically onward.

Why is it that children of all ages still list electric trains in their letters to Santa Claus? And why is that Santa so often steps out of the fireplace to find an electric train circling the Christmas tree? Doesn’t anyone ever decorate with an airport? Or model cars?
Trains, you see, have this way of reinventing themselves. They are not chameleons, because they change so much more than their colors. They change their sizes, shapes and speeds. They adapt to the needs of a community.

Trains have reinvented themselves in a small—yet big—way in San Diego. The San Diego Trolley has become a part of the community’s daily life, with thousands relying on it as a transportation staple. Those who do not ride it cannot help but notice its ubiquitous presence, either in person or as a “landmark” lead-in to one news program or another.

“It’s almost becoming San Diego’s emblem,” says Joe Martinez. “It’s big, it’s red, and it’s flashy. It’s pretty, and it’s clean.”

Martinez may be a bit biased, inasmuch as he is a trolley operator, but the trolley is much more visible than Sea World’s Shamu or the San Diego Zoo’s flavor-of-the-month animal exhibit. And his bias once again touches upon the romance of the rail.

“I’ve had opportunities to go into management,” he says, “but I’d really rather be doing this.” He toots the horn and accelerates slowly from the trolley’s Fifth Avenue stop. “This is every kid’s dream, and I’m just a big kid.”

Martinez is making the run from Centre City to Old Town, a short spit of track compared with the line that rambles eastward to Santee or the one that runs south to the border at San Ysidro.

But it’s what lies beyond Old Town that has San Diegans so curious about the trolley these days. Light-rail transit will enter—and open—a new world when the run through Mission Valley, to and beyond Qualcomm Stadium, is dedicated November 20. That extension, the Mission Valley west line, will link Centre City with the valley, uniting two of San Diego’s major convention/tourist destinations and shopping/business areas.

“I’m glad to see it’s going to be open for shoppers by the day after Thanksgiving,” says Langley Powell, president and general manager of San Diego Trolley Inc. (a division of Metro Transit). “But first and foremost, I want to see a successful operation Super Bowl week. It follows awfully close behind our opening, but a couple of Chargers games and the Holiday Bowl will help get us ready. I’d like us to come out of that week smelling like a rose.” He pauses and shakes his head, as though contemplating the intense scrutiny that comes with a Super Bowl. “Let’s just say I have roses in mind.”

A Super Bowl might cause the world to assess San Diego’s light-rail transit system as though it did not previously exist. That would be unfair, since the trolley has been rolling along an ever-expanding system since July 26, 1981.

“Since that date,” Powell says, “there has always been a construction project under way. Now we’re about to shoot out to Mission Valley West, and after that...”

unique aspect of the San Diego Trolley is what it calls its “barrier-free” system. Passengers do not enter through turnstile gates. They buy a ticket from a vending machine or a transit store and simply board the train. Security or code-compliance personnel, checking an estimated 25 percent of the passengers, periodically ask to see tickets or passes.

This quasi-honor system seems to work reasonably well; fewer than 2 percent of passengers are caught without tickets. A “free” ride can get relatively expensive: $66 for the first violation, $91 for the second and $500 or six months in jail for anyone stupid enough to think the third time might be a charm.

“Often,” explains Anne-Catherine Vinickas, marketing manager of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB), “officers will find that a person without a ticket is riding for maybe the first or second time and may be a little confused. They’ll take that person off the train and walk them through the process with the vending machine.”

That would come under the heading of public relations. The trolley people are quite conscious of image. A trolley car tainted with graffiti, for example, is taken immediately out of service. Spills, or worse, are cleaned up as quickly as the operator can get maintenance personnel on board. And in this age of rampant commercial exploitation, the trolley cars have absolutely no advertising, inside or out.

If anything could have besmirched the squeaky-clean image of San Diego’s trolley system, it was a lingering tempest over the reporting of its crime statistics. The first report on the 1996 statistics said crime had dropped nearly 75 percent from 1995, but that report led to the suspension of a security administrator amid an outcry that crime statistics had been underreported. This assertion left the impression that crime must be a problem if its numbers were being understated.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts, a member of the transit board, played a leading role in ultimately having crime statistics from the last four years expunged as inaccurate. He says crimes were definitely underreported. He stops short, however, of saying trolley passengers are at risk of becoming victims.

“My concern,” Roberts explains, “is a management issue that relates in no way to the safety of the system. I wouldn’t, and don’t, hesitate to ride the trolley.”

efore TRANSIT crime statistics ever became San Diego headlines, there was the trolley line to San Ysidro. It was erroneously dubbed the Tijuana Trolley initially, as if that were all the system did or would serve. (Technically, it’s not a trolley, either. A trolley is a short-distance, street-running vehicle; this is a light-rail transit vehicle.) The tentacles extended next to the east, reaching Euclid Avenue in 1986, El Cajon in 1989 and, finally, Santee in 1995. The bayside loop sprang from Centre City in 1990, and the north-south line reached Old Town last year.

Each of these routes serves a distinct clientele and thus seems to have a personality of its own. The international border at San Ysidro certainly gives the south line a different character than that of the east line, just as the stadium, shopping centers and hotels will make the Mission Valley line unique.

“The San Ysidro run has it all,” says Thomas F. Larwin, general manager of the MTDB. “You have tourists going to and coming from Mexico, Americans commuting to Mexico to work and Mexicans commuting to the U.S., Americans visiting relatives in Mexico and vice versa. It’s busy mornings, midday and evenings, weekdays and weekends.”

The line coming in from Santee and El Cajon does not generate such constant business. It is more likely to be busy westbound during the morning commute and eastbound during the afternoon commute, with ridership sporadic in between.

The hours of operation reflect these personalities. Most stations begin service at 4:45 a.m. Signs at north-south stops frequented by Navy personnel, such as Harborside and Pacific Fleet, warn that the last incoming trip from San Ysidro is at 1:02 a.m. That’s almost three hours after the last trolley leaves Santee, an hour later than Old Town and an hour and 45 minutes later than El Cajon.

The personality, meaning clientele, of the Mission Valley line will likely be affected by events or seasons. The event may be as gigantic and widely followed as a Super Bowl or as obscure as a small convention. A seasonal fluctuation would be caused by something like the Christmas holidays, with shoppers parking at the stadium, for example, to avoid congestion at the valley malls farther west.

Visitors may come to use and appreciate the Mission Valley extension more than locals. As far as the hotel industry is concerned, it should have opened yesterday.

“The transit people gave us a poster showing the routes and where they go from here,” explains Liz Franzese, sales manager at the Mission Valley Marriott. “That’s been a great selling tool for us. It will be so easy to get from Mission Valley to Old Town and downtown and the Convention Center. There’s no need for our guests to rent cars, because this extension ties everything together. The sooner it opens, the better.”

To complain that the new extension will serve visitors more than it serves the community is to ignore that visitors bring money—lots of money. The results of a San Diego Association of Governments study, announced in September 1996, showed that the public transit system, which includes buses as well as the trolley, boosts the local economy by $300 million.

he most visible locals taking advantage of the trolley will be those pouring off the trains at the multitiered station at the stadium itself, whether they are going to see the Chargers, the Padres or the Aztecs. Pre-game crowds arrive over a period of a couple of hours, but the post-game hordes tend to be anxious to depart. The first post-game Chargers crowd will be the litmus test, with that game (November 30, against Denver) coming on a Sunday evening.

“They’re telling us they will be able to bring 7,000 to 8,000 people to the stadium and get them out quickly,” says Bill Johnston, the Chargers’ director of public relations. “I think people will take to it. We’ve seen the huge success of the bus service. People can come in early on the trolley and tailgate if they’d like, and they can either stay after or get away quickly to maybe have dinner or meet friends in the valley.”

Peter Bride, general manager of the Hazard Center, is certainly tuned in to the role his property can play on game days and nights. “That,” he says, “is when the trolley is going to have its greatest impact. Because of the nature of our clients and our parking, we’re encouraging people to park here and take the trolley to the stadium.”

Fashion Valley, being totally retail, does not have a “down” time when its tenants are willing to sacrifice parking. A major transit center, including the trolley and seven bus lines, sits on the southern fringe of its parking lot. Fifty parking spaces have been committed to the transit center, but general manager Gene Kemp is a little concerned about possible overflow.

“We see this as the thing of the future,” he says. “I lived in San Francisco [where] everyone rides BART. For now, though, I see a benefit more to employees getting to work than I see locals shopping by trolley. But I do have this concern about our parking being impacted during busy periods.”

He may be surprised when shoppers realize there are times when they can avoid congestion by parking at the stadium. This trolley thing works both ways, because it runs both ways.

The busiest station of all, day in and day out, does not yet exist and probably won’t until the next century. The San Diego State University station, projected as the first underground facility in the system, would be part of a Mission Valley east extension, connecting with the eastern line at Grossmont Center. Because of requisite planning and reports, it may be the turn of the century before construction even begins.

“The trolley folks estimate we will generate in excess of 4,000 riders a day,” says Larry Piper, SDSU’s facilities and transportation planner. “That would make us the largest single station in the network.

“Think about it. More than 80 percent of the men, women and children on this campus arrive in a single-occupant vehicle.” Piper states: “This is definitely a commuter campus, and this is definitely an easier way to commute.”

All of this costs money, of course. The 6.1-mile Mission Valley west line from Old Town to Rancho Mission cost $220 million, and the 5.8-mile run through SDSU to Grossmont is expected to exceed $300 million. The funding comes from an assortment of local, state and federal sources.

In truth, the trolley does not pay for itself operationally, in spite of having carried 16.8 million passengers in 1996. The trains have a “farebox recovery” rate of approximately 60 percent, meaning that the 40 percent shortfall must be covered by sales tax proceeds and other sources of income. In a word, the trolleys are subsidized, as are buses. Of course, highways, the “alternate” venue for local travel, also are subsidized.

Many San Diegans, like Supervisor Roberts, make only occasional use of the trolley. Others use it daily. And many do not use it at all. Or not yet. It is, however, quintessentially San Diegan, operating—at least until that SDSU loop—in the open air. It is out-of-doors, as so many San Diegans prefer to be.

“I was in New York not too long ago,” says Joe Martinez, the ever-enthusiastic operator. “You feel like a mole riding their trains. Isn’t this better?”
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