Elected leaders urged to move forward on long-sought transit connection to San Diego airport
Article by: Lori Weisberg
Regional planners will continue exploring an ambitious proposal to bring a people mover system to the San Diego airport, even as some of the county’s elected leaders are raising questions about the project’s high cost and the proper location of a future transit hub.
The board of the San Diego Association of Governments, which has been spearheading the airport transit effort, was briefed Friday on the latest, recently revised plans. SANDAG said it was forced to change course several months ago after the agency learned the Navy is no longer interested in locating a grand central station on its Old Town campus, known as NAVWAR.
What hasn’t changed is the planning agency’s singular focus on bringing about a fast and convenient transit link to the airport that could accommodate 37,000 to 52,000 passengers a day, similar in function to the people mover system now under construction at the Los Angeles International Airport.
“You’ve probably sensed the seriousness in our tone because this is serious,” said Colleen Clementson, director of planning and land use for SANDAG. “We’re talking about a big commitment for the region. This is a truly exciting opportunity, something this region has wanted for a long time. We have the partners to make it happen and team in place to make it a reality.”
Several SANDAG board members, however, said they felt blindsided by the change in direction that they only learned of after reading news articles last month about a new two-phase plan designed to accelerate transit to the airport.
Key to making that new idea work is routing a people mover line — both above and below ground — from a 13-acre piece of government-owned land on Pacific Highway, where the Port of San Diego’s administrative offices are located. Just half a block away from an existing trolley station and rail tracks and close to Interstate 5, the site lends itself well to providing a convenient route to the airport, with stops at the airport’s rental car center and Harbor Island, argue SANDAG planners.
The staff is also proposing a second route that would go between the airport and the Santa Fe Depot with a stop at the County Administration Center.
“I know there are still a lot of questions, there’s still a lot of analysis, a lot of cost factors, but my God, get the board more involved in this before it publicity comes out,” said Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas, who expressed concerns that staff appeared to be leaning in a particular direction for routing a transit link. “We’re still in charge of decision-making, and for God’s sake let us make an informed decision where we get the information in a timely manner so we can build that cohesiveness that we need at SANDAG.”
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey echoed her concerns, calling it “bad form” when the agency put out a news release last month announcing that it was moving forward on building a transit connection to the airport, with downtown San Diego — instead of the former Navy site — as the preferred location for a future transit hub.
“That reinforces a pattern and narrative that many, if not most, on this board feel they’re being left out of major decisions,” Bailey said.
Nearly three years ago, the SANDAG board agreed to move forward on a deeper study of various airport transit alternatives and authorized spending about $40 million for the work, which would include development of a grand central station on the Navy property.
To date, about half of that money has been spent. SANDAG staff now want to use the balance of the funds on more detailed refinements of various routing options for a people mover, as well as more intense study of where a more modest transit center could be located before pursuing a grander “central mobility hub,” which the agency has been pushing.
Clementson acknowledged that many questions still have to be answered as part of an environmental analysis that will be undertaken over the next two years. Studies looking at ridership, convenience and safety related to various routes will be done, and the idea of locating a transit center on port property will be compared to alternative sites, she said.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who had previously discussed with SANDAG staff the potential of using city properties downtown for a future central transit hub, urged the board to move forward.
“What I’m heartened by most is seemingly there is unanimous support for having a better transit connection to our airport,” he said. “From where I sit, the urgent need is to have a rail connection to our airport terminals like other big cities have. I think it’s frankly embarrassing to our region that we have a high-quality rail in the trolley that goes past our airport but doesn’t connect to it.
“It’s an expression of our failure to do things correctly the first time. And I’m of the belief that this board can fix that.”
Some board members, however, questioned the planners’ initial conclusion that the Port of San Diego headquarters property on Pacific Highway is the better site for a first-phase transit center.
County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer suggested that the Old Town rail and trolley station might be a better fit, given that Amtrak and the Coaster already stop there, which is not the case with the port property.
“This is a huge need for our region but I want to make sure we’re looking at all the information and not taking stuff off the table, especially that might be more cost-efficient or quicker,” she said. “So I do think it would be helpful to better understand the viability of Old Town as part of this system and what the tradeoffs would be. And what about the feasibility of using existing lanes that could be dedicated to an electric bus every three minutes instead of building a monorail?”
Still others questioned whether it made financial sense to also pursue a more comprehensive grand central hub, which could cost as much as $4 billion.
SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata says he is confident that SANDAG would be able to secure at least $1 billion from a $1 trillion pot of federal infrastructure funding signed into law last November, but local funding remains crucial for both phases of the project to succeed. That would have to come from a voter-approved ballot measure to raise the sales tax to fund mostly public transit projects. A coalition of labor and environmental groups announced last week that it has submitted more than 164,000 signatures to the county Registrar of Voters for such a measure, which they’re hoping to qualify for the November ballot.
“This is about a system that captures the most ridership and is convenient enough for people to leave their cars in their garages and take it,” Ikhrata told the board. “One of the big selling points for a central mobility hub is that most riders would not want to go more than one transfer to get to the airport.
“Yes, there is a cost consideration that the region will have to decide if they’re willing to pay more for more advanced state of the art ... You could keep just the buses and shuttles operating, but I don’t think that matches an international airport in a region like ours.”
While the SANDAG board was not required to take official action to authorize continued study, it was asked to vote on a separate matter involving allocating some funds from a class action settlement for work on the airport transit project.
A 2020 lawsuit against the port that challenged a fee levied for each rental car transaction in the agency’s jurisdiction has since been settled. The remaining, unclaimed funds of nearly $3 million are now available for SANDAG’s use.
While there was little discussion on the item, the vote itself — 9 in favor, 8 opposed — reflects the continuing division on the board regarding how the county should specifically address delivering a transit connection to the airport.
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