Photo by Robert Burroughs
Slow routes are often profitable, but they discourage new riders.
If you’re looking around the San Diego area for a camper shell for a pickup truck, it’s hard to avoid going to El Cajon. El Cajon has the greatest concentration of camper shell dealers in the county — four — not to mention several RV dealers who occasionally sell camper shells on the side. Why this should be — whether El Cajonians have an affinity for camper shells the way woodpeckers favor certain trees — 1 couldn’t say; all I know is, I needed one, but I just wanted to look, at least at first. And I thought, why not ride out to El Cajon on the bus? Why not save some gas?
I will have spent at least two and a half hours riding the bus between Hillcrest and University Towne Centre.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
So I called up San Diego Transit Corporation to find out the fastest way to get there. The woman who answered told me I could take the 115 bus via El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego State University, San Carlos, Fletcher Hills, and on to the Parkway Plaza shopping center in El Cajon; or I could take the 15 bus downtown and transfer to the 90 express, which would take me out to Parkway Plaza via Highway 94, Lemon Grove, and Grossmont Center.
Roger Snoble: “The creation of MTDB itself caused friction.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“They both take about the same amount of time?” I asked.
“Fine,” I said. I decided to try the 90 express. It was a Friday afternoon, I had to be back by six o’clock to meet some friends for dinner, and I liked the sound of that word “express.”
Tom Larwin: “If we disagree on something, we have our staffs work it out before the public ever finds out about it."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
1:46 p.m.: I arrive at a bus stop near the intersection of El Cajon and Park boulevards. It is a windy but warm day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. According to the printed schedule of this route put out by San Diego Transit, the next 15 bus should be stopping here at around 2:15.
A major fare increase in 1978 and another in 1979 (fare for local service is now fifty cents) caused a decline in the number of riders.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
(In order to be certain I make my connections and return in time for dinner, I have borrowed from a friend a Seiko quartz crystal watch, a watch that is supposed to lose less than one second a month. Since my friend hadn’t checked it tor a few months, I called time before I started out just to make sure. It was off by one second. Great watch.)
Lee Hultgren: "the most significant act for transit in San Diego,” is when the law extended sales tax to gasoline.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
2:15: No bus. No bus at 2:20, no bus at 2:25. 1 have been joined at the bus stop by an elderly woman and a teen-age Chicano, and all of us grow increasingly fidgety as we peer down El Cajon Boulevard for the overdue vehicle.
Most who ride the bus in San Diego are “captives” — they don’t have access to a car.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Things to do while waiting for a bus near the intersection of El Cajon and Park boulevards: Give directions to a woman in a car who wants to know how to get to Balboa Park; watch the people going in and out of the Middle Eastern grocery store across the street; look at the cars streaming up and down El Cajon Boulevard; be thankful it isn’t raining.
2:27: The bus arrives. “Wasn’t there supposed to be a bus closer to two o’clock?’’ I ask the woman driver. “That’s me,” she replies grimly. I drop my seventy-five cents (the going rate for express bus service, which I will be transferring to downtown) into the fare box and look for a seat. But the bus is full, and I resign myself to standing, along with a few other people, for the ride down to Horton Plaza.
2:40:1 get off the bus at Horton Plaza. A quick scan of my schedule reveals I have missed my connection to the 90 express; it departed at 2:30. I decide to wait for the next one, particularly since (I am getting crafty now) my original connection might show up anyway, behind schedule.
All around me people stand in groups of twos and threes, keeping a nervous eye on the arriving and departing buses. Horton Plaza is San Diego Transit’s main transfer point, and on this Friday afternoon it is crowded with blacks, whites, Chicanos, students, seniors, young mothers with kids. But no one seems too sure about which bus goes where, or what the scheduled arrival or departure times are. Adding to the confusion is the heavy traffic . along Fourth and Broadway; there is no off-street parking for the buses, so that when they pull up to take on passengers, they simply block lanes.
Things to do while waiting for a bus at Horton Plaza: Look at the pigeons feeding on the grass; look at all the people and read their T-shirts; read the marquee at the Cabrillo Theater; watch the pigeons feeding on the grass.
3:05: I decide I have definitely missed my connection to the 90 express. The next one is due to depart at 3:30, but considering it will take an hour to get to El Cajon, and at least an hour to return, that leaves me an estimated one-half hour to spend shopping for camper shells. My decision to ride the bus to El Cajon is beginning to look like a mistake.
The San Diego Transit Corporation has 350 buses covering thirty-three routes over a total of more than 500 miles. At least 622,000 people live within one-quarter mile of one of its bus routes, according to the municipally owned corporation’s latest surveys. Yet for all that, it’s difficult to get around San Diego on public transit. Riding the bus here means agonizingly long rides with frequent stops; transferring to other routes often lengthens the time needed for travel. It’s a far cry from cities like New York, Chicago, or even San Francisco, where public transit is utilized by a high percentage of the population and provides an efficient and reasonably priced alternative to driving a car.
There are several reasons why San Diego lacks an efficient public transit system. but perhaps the most important one is the fact that the city was designed around the automobile. Back in the days when it seemed like gasoline supplies would last forever, San Diego’s planners bequeathed to subsequent generations a city of freeways, a group of small, widely scattered communities tied together with ribbons of concrete and asphalt. A city such as ours is remarkably easy to get around in by car. But it doesn’t facilitate a bus system because longer, more costly routes are required. serving relatively small numbers of people. (This trend toward a spread-out community, with its accompanying problems for a public transit system, continues today. Instead of encouraging development that would increase the density of existing areas, the city continues to channel growth to its fringes, with developments like North City West, to be built just east of Del Mar, and the communities proposed along the I-15 corridor between San Diego and Escondido.)
Lack of sufficient funds is another major reason for our relatively undeveloped public transit system, but the problem of funds is rooted in management and labor problems, and in the shifting political sands of Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Back in the early 1960s, the San Diego Transit Company was a privately owned transit operator which covered all of its costs from rider fares. But by 1966 the company had begun to falter under rising operating costs, and appealed to the city for financial aid. That same year local voters approved the city’s takeover of San Diego Transit, agreeing to fund the system with a ten-cent tax override on property taxes. Unfortunately, before the takeover took place, the old management signed a costly new contract with its drivers, which promised among other things yearly cost-of-living increases that would keep pace with inflation. When inflation skyrocketed a few years later, the drivers reaped the benefits, soaking up money that could more effectively have gone for improvements or expansions of service. In April of last year, when San Diego Transit’s drivers agreed to a temporary freeze of wage increases (their average salary was $9.68 an hour, compared to a countywide average for bus drivers of little more than six dollars an hour), the personnel payroll of the corporation comprised an incredible eighty-six percent of its total operating cost.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, the nation’s legislators were coming to view public transit not as a money-making operation but as a public service, to be provided despite its cost, in the manner of fire and police protection. In order to qualify for state and federal subsidies, transit companies were made to cover their service areas more thoroughly. The result, at least for San Diego Transit, was an increase in routes and operating costs — but not an equal increase in ridership. The corporation went from covering all of its operating costs in the 1960s io covering less than a third of its operating costs in 1977. In other words, for every dollar taken in in fares that year, San Diego Transit needed two dollars more from the government just to keep its buses running.
“New routes take time to develop; they’re not as productive at first,” explains Roger Snoble, general manager of San Diego Transit, when asked why government subsidies of public transit rose so dramatically in the 1970s. “The pressures to expand service and keep fares low are what caused those subsidies to rise.” Snoble, along with Tom Larwin, general manager of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, and Lee Hultgren, transportation director for the Comprehensive Planning Organization, is one of the key figures behind local public transit. He claims that, while the bus system here soaked up unprecedented amounts of government funds in the early and mid-1970s, the scenario is changing now. When Proposition 13 was passed in June of 1978, the San Diego City Council re-examined its budget priorities and decided to discontinue the bus subsidy from local property taxes (the ten-cent tax override approved by the voters eleven years earlier). The resulting loss of three million dollars yearly forced San Diego Transit to eliminate or cut back its least profitable routes, including much of its night service. On the negative side, the cutbacks caused further erosion of the bus company’s already rather quirky service; but on the positive side, it meant San Diego Transit no longer had to throw away money on routes few people were using. A major fare increase in 1978 and another in 1979 (fare for local service is now fifty cents) caused a decline in the number of riders, but since then ridership has begun to creep upward again, and with the driver's wage increases now held to a more realistic level, San Diego Transit is now meeting about forty percent of its total operating costs through fares.
"I don’t think we 'll ever get back to one hundred percent again, but this increase in itself is a very positive thing," insists Snoble. "The demand is definitely there. We’re having to pass people up during peak hours sometimes; we just don’t have the buses to carry them.” The rising price of gas is the major reason people are turning to buses, and Snoble sees irony in the fact that several proposed new state laws (including Proposition 9, often referred to as Jarvis II or Jaws II), along with the current budget-cutting mood of Congress, could mean curtailment of public transit services here just when they’re beginning to look more practical. It is also ironic that these cutbacks could come at a time when local transit leaders are in the early stages of a bold new plan that for the first time would provide San Diegans with a genuine alternative to the automobile.
3:33: The 90 express arrives at Horton Plaza. I board and take a seat near the back. The bus is full, with students and women of various ages comprising the bulk of the passengers. (Surveys have shown that the majority of those who ride the bus in San Diego are “captives” — they don’t have access to a car or any other means of transportation.) Behind me a skinny redheaded young woman wearing glasses falls into a conversation with a young man sitting next to her. As it turns out. she is in the Marines. She talks long and loud.
4:13: Some ten or fifteen stops later we pull up at Grossmont Center. The bus is running on time, but I am running out of lime; unless we arrive at Parkway Plaza ahead of schedule it looks as if I might have to cancel my plan to look at camper shells. The woman Marine behind me has been chattering almost nonstop, and I'm beginning to wonder if the gas I’m saving by riding the bus is worth the conversation I am being forced to listen to. Now she tells the guy sitting next to her about the time she not only cleaned her rifle, but repainted it, impressing her commanding officers considerably. ”I can tell I'm from a really different background than you.” he finally says when lie gets a chance. “I stood in a crowd in my high school quad and shouted. Hell no. we won’t go! But that was a long time ago.”
4:28: The bus pulls up in front of the May Company at Parkway Plaza in El Cajon. It’s on time, but now the only way I can get back home by six o’clock is to catch the 115 bus, which departs from this very spot at 4:52. That leaves me exactly twenty-four minutes to look at camper shells. The nearest camper shell dealer is a fifteen-minute walk away anyway, so I resign myself to doing nothing but waiting for the 115.
Things to do while waiting for a bus at Parkway Plaza: Avoid the glances of bored salespersons standing in the doorways of their empty shops; look at the speedboats on display in the middle of the mall; buy a small orange drink to go.
4:55: The 115 bus arrives, but as I shuffle toward it with other would-be passengers. the driver suddenly steps out with a worried expression on his face. "Transmission's out.” he informs us. "We’ll have to get another bus in here. ...”
5:10: The new bus arrives. Actually, it is a bus from another route completing its last run of the day. and our driver more or less commandeers it for his own route. More than two and a half hours after first boarding a bus. and without having accomplished what 1 wanted to do. I drop into a scat in the back for the long ride home.
San Diego Transit feels that one reason more people don’t ride the bus here is because of the age of many of its buses. There is something about an old bus or a grimy bus, or a bus with its seat covers torn, that causes some potential riders to wrinkle up their noses and go look for their car keys. Recently, though, the aging condition of the corporation’s bus fleet became a more serious concern; as part of an annual inspection, the highway patrol last month checked nineteen buses and found ten of them to have faulty brakes or steering mechanisms. Snoble claims the defects would have been detected soon in routine inspections by transit maintenance workers, but he admits that, due to the impact of Proposition 13, the inspection schedule had been slowed down to save money. "As a result.” he says, "maintenance didn't get all the attention it should have. We didn't take the good care of those coaches we should have.and we’re paying for it now.”
If the condition of its buses has caused San Diego Transit to lose some riders, the way the route system is set up has caused it to lose many more. It has long been a criticism of San Diego Transit that most of its routes begin, end. or pass through downtown San Diego. This makes sense if you are traveling, say, from Pacific Beach to Chula Vista, but in the past you were likely to pass through downtown on your way from La Mesa to UCSD, for example, or from Lemon Grove to National City. When the city’s focal point for business moved from downtown out to Mission Valley and Kearny Mesa in the 1960s, the focal point of the bus system never followed it; it stayed downtown.
The situation was made worse by the transit company’s almost exclusive use of slow-moving “local" routes rather than express routes. Although the local routes are often profitable, they tend to discourage many new riders because of their long, serpentine paths, frequent transfers, and even more frequent stops. In 1974 San Diego Transit instituted an “Action Plan” which helped decentralize the route system and made it easier to transfer from route to route without going through downtown. And in recent years a few express routes (connecting downtown with El Cajon, Chula Vista, and La Jolla, for example) were added to attract riders — such as commuters — who need to get from one place to another in a hurry. But these improvements were mild medicine compared with the system of far-flung "transit centers” and long-distance express routes the Metropolitan Transit Development Board proposed a few years ago, a system which is now in the early stages of implementation.
MTDB, the new kid on the local transit scene, was formed by an act of the state legislature in 1976. State Senator James Mills pushed for the creation of MTDB and claims credit for “carrying” the legislation through the state senate and the governor’s office. “MTDB was set up to facilitate the construction of a light-rail transit system, if it was found to be practical, and to allocate money under the state Transportation Development Act,” Art Bauer, an administrative aide to Mills, said recently. “It wasn’t that we thought the San Diego Transit Corporation was doing a poor job; we just saw a need to create a regional authority to coordinate regional expenditures of transit funds.” Although MTDB is not a true regional transit authority, it does have the responsibility to coordinate transit services in the southern half of San Diego County, and transit operators within this area must apply through MTDB fora large portion of their state subsidies. Needless to say, the directors of San Diego Transit — by far the largest transit operator within MTDB’s area of jurisdiction, with ninety-seven percent of the riders — weren’t thrilled to suddenly have to apply for their funds through this newcomer. They saw MTDB trying to take over roles they themselves had previously filled, and complained of overlapping responsibilities. The friction was worse than metal wheels on metal rails; sparks flew.
“The creation of MTDB itself caused friction,” remembers Roger Snoble, who was assistant general manager of San Diego Transit at the time. “It was a whole new entity to deal with. All of a sudden MTDB was looking into fare policies, transfer policies; previously that was our territory. “Tom Larwin, who was assistant general manager of MTDB at the time, recalls there were “animosities — we were a new agency starting up, with different people and different personalities.” Says Lee Hultgren of CPO, who saw the friction developing but remained, in his own words, “on the sidelines”: “It had a lot to do with personalities.”
Hultgren’s assessment is backed up by the record. Former MTDB general manager Robert Nelson, described by his own staff as abrasive, had a hard time getting along with Tom Prior, then general manager of San Diego Transit. The result was a power struggle that brought coordination of local transit planning to a virtual standstill. When Nelson announced MTDB’s plan for long-distance express bus routes. Prior insisted it wouldn’t work. Then Proposition 13 came down the pipe, and Prior appealed to Nelson to divert some of MTDB’s funds so that bus service wouldn’t have to be cut back. Nelson said no. The dispute reached its zenith about a year ago, at which time, within the span of a few months. Prior retired and Nelson quit. They were replaced by Snoble and Larwin, respectively, and the “new actors,” as Hultgren refers to his colleagues at San Diego Transit and MTDB, have made a greater effort to work together. “We got together and said. This is ridiculous,’ ” says Snoble. “We felt we should be fighting for one thing: transit. There’s a much better atmosphere now for getting things done. It’s not that we’re all love and kisses all the time, but we are developing a good working relationship.” Says Larwin: “If we disagree on something, we have our staffs work it out before the public ever finds out about it, and that’s the way it should be.”
Even if the heads of San Diego Transit and MTDB have simply agreed not to argue publicly, they seem to agree genuinely on the best way to revitalize San Diego’s public transit system. The current system, including existing express routes (some of which are not truly “express” because of the high number of stops they make), will be replaced over the next five to ten years by a “grid” of high-speed express routes that will crisscross the region. These express routes will connect to each other at transit centers in places such as Fashion Valley, Loma Portal, Chula Vista, La Jolla, and El Cajon; slower-moving local buses will then take passengers from the centers to local destinations. Some of the transit centers will be no more than off-street parking for several buses (others will include parking lots, benches, and shelters), but in combination with the new express routes, they are expected to facilitate transfers and reduce considerably the time needed to travel from one part of the city to another. For example, the run from El Cajon to Mission Valley will take only thirty-seven minutes, compared with fifty-nine minutes today. The Tijuana Trolley, which will function as express service between downtown San Diego and San Ysidro, will reduce the time needed to travel that distance on public transit from seventy-five minutes to thirty-three minutes. The maximum waiting time for a transfer should be just five minutes.
“The trend towards large government subsidies for transit has bottomed out,” declares Larwin. “The emphasis now is on productivity. San Diego Transit’s figures show that, even with fare increases, more people are riding the bus. That’s a truly positive trend, and we hope to continue it. But to do that we’ve got to carry more people, and we've got to attract them with service and efficiency.”
There is an element of risk involved in implementing the new system. According to Snoble, express routes in San Diego have traditionally been the biggest money losers (because they don’t stop as often as local buses, the number of passengers carried per mile is lower). “We’d go broke quick if we didn’t make sure we had access routes developed to supply the express routes,” he says. But studies by MTDB and by transit officials in Philadelphia and Los Angeles have shown that in recent years, long-distance express routes have accounted for the major increases in bus ridership. And even Snoble admits that with a good system of local “feeder” routes already in place, the express routes should attract more riders now. “MTDB’s plan is the way to go, ” he says flatly. "We have to set our sights higher — go after the people who aren’t used to riding the bus.”
The main reason local transit leaders feel that public transit is an idea whose time has finally come to San Diego is the rapidly rising cost of gasoline. What San Diego Transit and MTDB hope to do is attract the commuter, the person who works in San Diego but who lives, say, in Penasquitos or Chula Vista or Fletcher Hills, and who won’t be eager to spend several dollars a day on gas in the near future just to get to work. At a recent MTDB board meeting, it was pointed out that by the year 2000, gas is expected to cost twenty-five dollars a gallon. “Everybody should be convinced after that information, “commented MTDB chairwoman Maureen O’Connor, “that you should-get rid of your cars!”
5:20: The nearly empty 115 winds ponderously through Fletcher Hills and San Carlos, stopping frequently to take on passengers. At each bus stop one or two people stand, their faces turned expectantly toward the approaching bus as it swings over to let them board. Many of those waiting are women — nurses, maids — but there are also college students and teen-agers on their way home from school.
5:22: We pull up at a stoplight. In a nearby gas station lines of cars are beginning to form at the pumps — commuters stocking up on weekend fuel. We roar away as the light turns green. Out the window the setting sun seems to follow us, sailing along over treetops and TV antennas.
5:23: Two girls about thirteen years old get on and slide into the seat directly behind me. “How are you going to get back?” asks one.
A pause. “Paying cab fare is so stupid,” her friend finally replies. .“I guess I should just walk.”
“Why don’t you just call your mom up and say my mom said you could stay the night?”
“What do I do if she says she wants to talk to your mom?”
5:35: We cross Interstate 8 on the College Avenue bridge. The freeway lanes below are filled with cars, and the windshield of each one glows with the gold light of the sunset. We continue on, stopping here and there to pick up more people: black college students, young boys with baseball caps and gloves, a middle-aged woman carrying shopping bags, a few elderly men. Down College Avenue to El Cajon Boulevard, down El Cajon toward Park Boulevard, we lumber past the pillars of our automobile culture: car parts stores, used car dealerships, gas stations, engine shops, tire stores, drive-in restaurants. In front of Guaranty Chevrolet, nattily dressed salesmen standing waiting for customers, glancing at us with blank expressions as we rumble by.
6:03: I get off the bus at the same comer I got on more than forty-four stops and three and a half hours earlier. The sun has set now, but purple clouds glow in the sky overhead. I walk past a Renault dealership with a sign in the window that reads, “Buy Now and Save Gas!” But I continue on. I have saved enough gas for one day.
A few days later I decide to give the bus another try. Hope springs eternal, like power from the quartz crystal in my friend's watch (I have borrowed it again). This time I plan to go from Hillcrest to University Towne Centre in La Jolla; my mission is to buy socks and a shirt.
1:05 p.m.: I wait for the bus on a bench at the comer of Sixth and University avenues. It is a windy, chilly day, and there are billowing white clouds headed this way from the north that promise rain. According to San Diego Transit, in order to get from Hillcrest to University Towne Centre I have only to catch the 25 bus to Fashion Valley, and transfer there to the 41 bus that will take me directly to my destination.
Things to do while waiting for a bus on a bench at the comer of Sixth and University: look at the people drinking coffee in the coffee shop across the street; look at the clouds headed this way; hope it doesn't rain.
1:11: The 25 bus arrives. I plunk down in a seat in the back, expecting a short ride to Fashion Valley. But we detour to Mission Valley Center first, swinging around the shopping center in a wide arc before pulling up first at May Company and then Montgomery Ward. When we pull away from the latter store a few minutes later, rain begins to fall, streaking the bus windows as we head back onto the freeway.
1:34: We arrive at Fashion Valley, San Diego Transit’s second largest transfer point (Horton Plaza being larger). Today about fifty people are huddled under the extended eaves of the Harris and Frank clothing store, trying to stay dry. (There are no benches or shelters at the Fashion Valley transfer point; those waiting for buses usually sit on large round cement planters when the weather is good.) I join them, watching the raindrops appear as if from nowhere out of the sky and drift silently down to the pavement at my feet.
On the wall of Tom Larwin’s office at MTDB headquarters in downtown San Diego is a huge photo-enlarged copy of a check that reads, “Pay to the Order of the Southern Pacific Transportation Company Eighteen Million, One Hundred Thousand Dollars and no/100 Cents. Note: two signatures required on amounts of $5000 or more.” Larwin’s signature is one of the two on the check, which was payment for Southern Pacific’s San Diego and Arizona Eastern railway system, including a fourteen-mile stretch of rail between downtown San Diego and San Ysidro that has become known as the Tijuana Trolley.
If there had been no tropical storm of 1976, there would very likely be no Tijuana Trolley. Kathleen, the first tropical storm to hit California in thirty-seven years, swept in over the Pacific coast of Baja, crossed the desert, and wreaked such destruction on 108 miles of Southern Pacific’s rail lines that the company found them cheaper to sell than to repair. Their relatively low asking price enabled MTDB to purchase the system in August of 1979. Much of the line, including rail links from San Diego to Tecate and Imperial County, has been leased for freight service (MTDB was recently incensed to learn that Southern Pacific, who agreed to repair the tracks between here and Imperial County as part of the sale agreement, would not have that line in working order until July or August of this year). But the main focus of attention has been on the section that will carry the trolley, a project now on schedule to be completed by the middle of next year.
There are those who say the trolley is a good example of a high-priced transit system that will only escalate the rate of government spending for transit services here. Tom Larwin, however, disagrees. He points out that the money for the light-rail system — some $86 million in all — comes from a fund earmarked by the state for nothing but fixed-rail-typc transit systems. If San Diego hadn’t gotten the money for the trolley (or some system like it), it wouldn’t have gotten it at all. Furthermore. he says, the net cost of approximately five million dollars for each mile makes the trolley one of the cheapest light-rail transit systems ever built in the United States. (The BART system in San Francisco, for example, cost $20 million a mile.)
But the questions persist: Will the trolley pay for itself? Does its cost compare favorably over the long run with the alternative of express buses? What the trolley has going for it, Larwin explains, is that although its construction costs arc higher than a bus system, its operation costs are lower. Because the cars have a higher passenger capacity than buses, they can generate more revenue per mile: also, fewer operators are needed, cutting down labor costs. It runs on electricity, not on gasoline. And its higher speed and greater comfort are expected to lure more riders than buses would. (The trolley will also free up some of San Diego Transit’s buses currently serving the South Bay; these can then be used to increase service elsewhere.) “But the bottom line,” Larwin says, “is that you’ve got to carry a lot of people. If you don’t carry a lot of people, it won’t be efficient.”
The South Bay express bus routes, which the trolley will replace, are some of San Diego Transit’s most heavily used. And Roger Snoble welcomes the idea of the trolley replacing his buses there. "The big advantage is that with a trolley, you automatically have a lot more carrying capacity,” he says. “It’s the proper tool to handle demand in that corridor. And I can see it working in other corridors, too, like the northern corridor [up I-5] or the eastern corridor ’’(out I-8 or Highway 94 from downtown San Diego to El Cajon).
With the Tijuana Trolley on schedule for completion — within its budget — there has been much talk recently about extending the tracks eastward and/or northward, making MTDB’s light-rail system the backbone of San Diego’s public transit system of the future. But in the end such talk only raises more questions: What will such a system cost? Who will pay for it? Uncertainty over funding is one of the key problems plaguing public transit.
A major portion of San Diego’s transit subsidies currently comes from the state, authorized under the Transportation Development Act of 1972. (The only other source of public transit subsidies here is the federal government; since the passage of Proposition 13, no local property taxes have been used to fund transit.) Called by Lee Hultgren "the most significant act for transit in San Diego,” the TDA extended sales tax to gasoline, with the resulting increase in revenue to the state going to fund public transit. "Before the TDA, the state used to return to the cities one cent out of every six cents collected in sales tax,” Hultgren explains. "But with the passage of the TDA, the state said, okay, now we ’ll return to the cities an extra one-quarter cent out of every six cents. That extra one-quarter cent goes to fund public transit. ” Those quarter cents add up; TDA funds accounted for nearly $13 million of the total $18.8 million in government subsidies for public transit here in 1979 (not including the trolley money, which also comes from TDA funds).
At least two proposed laws could seriously alter this state of affairs, however. One of these is Proposition 9 — Jarvis II — which would drastically reduce the amount of income tax the state could collect from its residents. Although this measure wouldn’t directly affect transit subsidies, it is not unlikely that, faced with a smaller amount of total revenue, the state’s legislators would reshuffle the budget in such a way as to cut into the money available for public transit.
The other measure is a proposition sponsored by gas station owners that would eliminate sales tax on gasoline completely. The backers of this measure, who apparently lack an efficient signature-gathering organization, haven’t yet got the required 346,119 signatures necessary to qualify it for the November ballot, but they are hopeful that they will succeed by the May 1, 1980 deadline. The measure clearly has local transit leaders worried. "If it passes,” says Snoble, whose San Diego Transit depended on TDA funds for forty-six percent of its total operating budget in the fiscal year 1978-79, "we are going to be in the world of hurt. ”
1:47: The 41 bus labors up Highway 163 towards Clairemont, its transmission grating and then — whump! — sliding into the next gear with a vehemence that makes the seats shudder. The 41 arrived at Fashion Valley at 1:38, just four minutes after I arrived on the 25 bus. Not bad.
It has stopped raining temporarily, but ominous dark clouds are bearing down on us from the north. Across the aisle from where I sit, a UCSD student (the 41 bus is one of the quickest routes from downtown San Diego to UCSD) with shaggy blond hair is reading a magazine. His girlfriend is sitting next to him.
"I don’t believe this,” he says to her, looking up from the magazine. "It says here they want to store radioactive waste in the earth, but it’s going to last for 50,000 years. Fifty thousand years. . . . You could have a whole new mountain range in 50,000 years. . . . If that stuff gets into the groundwater, it’ll poison the whole earth.”
He reads on. but soon turns to her again in dismay. "You know what they want to store it in?” he asks. "Barrels. Metal barrels, of all things. Those are going to last about a hundred years. They’re going to poison the whole earth. ...”
"They’ll figure something out,” his girlfriend says vaguely.
1:50: Instead of heading up I-805 toward University Towne Centre, as I had assumed we would, we turn off the freeway at Balboa Avenue and creep northward through Clairemont on Genesee Avenue. The bus stops often to take on passengers — students mostly — until it is about two-thirds full. Soon we arc crossing San Clemente Canyon, where I see a redtailed hawk perched on a telephone pole, eyeing the ground below for his dinner.
2:13: We arrive at University Towne Centre. Walking quickly up the stairs from the bus stop to the shopping plaza, I am chased by a few windblown raindrops. Before I reach the top of the stairs, the downpour explodes all around me and I sprint for cover. Avoiding the worst of it, I pop into Scars a few minutes later to buy socks (too expensive), and into Robinson’s for a shirt (not a big enough selection). Then it’s outside again to wait for the 41 bus for the return trip. According to my schedule, there should be one by at 3:09.
2:55: It is still raining, hard, and since there arc no bus shelters nearby, I am waiting for the bus in a partially covered stairway that seems to lead into Robinson’s basement. There are about fifteen other people waiting with me.
Things to do while waiting for a bus in a partially covered stairway at University Towne Centre: Peer out through the rain to see if any of the buses arriving and departing fifty yards away is the one you want; hope it doesn’t rain any harder.
The next two years will see major additions to San Diego’s public transit system. Freeways will be expanded to include "High Occupancy Vehicle lanes” (for car pools and buses) on Interstate 8 between Jackson Drive and El Cajon Boulevard, and at several different places along Interstate 15. The Santa Fe train depot downtown will be restored and will become a major exchange center for buses as well as trains. Transit centers for buses will appear in Loma Portal (near the intersection of Midway and Rosecrans), in El Cajon (at the Parkway Plaza shopping center), and in Chula Vista and La Mesa. San Diego Transit expects to purchase thirty-eight new buses soon (to be funded largely through a four-million-dollar federal grant), which will help alleviate the overcrowding on many of its current routes. And if all goes well, the Tijuana Trolley will begin service in the summer of 1981.
There are many organizations working on these and other projects in San Diego, and that’s something of a problem in itself. No one organization has authority over the others, and no one organization controls the purse strings. Although MTDB controls some of the state funds for public transit, other monies are meted out by the Comprehensive Planning Organization. And most of these funds are given to the various cities in this area on the basis of population anyway, an arrangement that neither MTDB nor CPO has much to say about. Transit funds for the City of La Mesa must go for transit improvements within La Mesa’s city limits; they can’t be used, for instance, to develop bus routes serving the beach areas. By the same token, money given to San Diego Transit for the purchase of buses cannot be used to build the Tijuana Trolley. While this arrangement protects the interests of individual communities, it also makes it difficult to coordinate regional transit development. What is needed is a single organization to oversee the spending of funds. Of all the organizations with a hand currently in the public transit till. MTDB comes closest to being that regional transit authority, and there has been talk lately of a merger between them and San Diego Transit. Such a merger would put ninety-seven percent of the area’s transit service, as well as a good portion of the funds, under one roof.
“I agree there should be one overall authority, responsible for all transit in the region,” says Roger Snoble. “It’s the most efficient way to develop transit.” Snoble claims he doesn’t care who runs such an organization, but he docs say, “We feel the dollars for transit should go to the service on the street, and not to a large bureaucracy running the whole show. Not that MTDB is necessarily a large bureaucracy. . . . Anyway, they have the legislative authority to take us over, and someday that might happen. Someday we may merge.”
Insiders speculate that one reason MTDB hasn’t yet taken over San Diego Transit is to facilitate the completion of the Tijuana Trolley. First things first, they say. Larwin confirms as much when he says, “Now that the light rail is coming to fruition, we’re taking more of a leadership role.” Explaining he has no policy guidelines from the MTDB board of directors on the subject, Larwin declines to say whether or not his organization has any plans to take over San Diego Transit. But he docs comment, “We’re working towards MTDB as an umbrella group, running the whole region. It’s all moving less quickly than I would like, but step by step we’re getting there. Splintered factions have different goals; one organization controlling all the funds would be more efficient.”
Opposition to such a move could come from individual cities who would prefer to retain control of their own transit funds. But such a position might soon be a luxury that can no longer be afforded. There is change in store for our automobile culture, and there has to be. Points four and five in San Diego Transit’s service guidelines sum up the problem neatly. Outlining the corporation’s goals, the guidelines include as objectives:“ 4. To develop an effective alternative to the use of the private auto in order to help relieve air pollution and traffic congestion. 5. To maintain, as nearly as possible, a transit system that will serve a large majority of riders in light of our dwindling national energy resources.”
3:08: The 41 bus arrives at University Towne Centre, and I begin the long journey home. This trip has gone much better than the last; I have made all my connections, and haven’t been kept waiting at any one stop for more than a few minutes. Even so, by the time I reach Sixth and University again, I will have spent at least two and a half hours riding the bus between Hillcrest and University Towne Centre. That’s about one and a half hours longer than it would take to make the round trip in a car, and at $1.50, not much cheaper, either.
We wind slowly across Clairemont Mesa, taking on more and more people until the bus.is almost full. The rain has stopped for now, but the clouds remain, turning the afternoon somber and dark. From the front of the bus I hear a voice drifting back, talking in an expressionless tone about . . . public transportation! I perk up. It’s the bus driver, a dark-haired woman of about forty, wearing a haggard look as she steers the bus through the deepening twilight. “I remember all the way back when 1 was in the sixth grade.” she says to a woman passenger sitting nearby, “ they used to say that in the future they would build towers, and people would stand in them and direct traffic by pushing buttons . . . .”
“Yeah,” nods the passenger, but the rest of her reply is lost in the roar of the engine as we accelerate to get on the freeway.