Jim Mills admits that he wanted to build a small, low-cost stretch of trolley first and worry about finishing the rest later.
The most successful failure in the history of San Diego,” laughs Dick Brown. The San Diego Trolley, to which Brown refers, is not accustomed to such derision, at least not recently. But the former county supervisor is a veteran of the losing side of a mostly forgotten political war from which today’s trolley finally emerged. And Brown has a long memory. "There is another side to this,” he muses. "You just never get to see it. If you asked people, 'Do you ride the trolley?’ almost everybody would say no. But it’s very popular. They’ve done a terrific PR job.”
At city hall, Pete Wilson remained officially on the fence.
What began in 1977 as a much-maligned $50 million effort to build a 16-mile, light-rail trolley line between downtown and the border, using abandoned railroad tracks, has burgeoned into a daunting public transportation empire. At its core is the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB), with direct control of the trolley, the buses of San Diego Transit, and a public bus company and with veto power over most of the region’s other mass-transit decisions. Even San Diego cabbies, who used to be a fiercely independent brethren, have been brought to rein under the strict regulation of MTDB.
Trolleys run from downtown San Diego both south to the border at San Ysidro and east to El Cajon, with new lines planned for Santee and Old Town. MTDB is also eager to start work on new lines north to University City and east through Mission Valley, and a battery of MTDB planners is busy creating more routes. A soon-to-be-released consultant’s report, for example, calls for two additional trolley lines, one through Balboa Park and University Heights to Mission Valley and another to Mission Beach.
Inside trolley car. "In order to get the ridership on the trolley, they forced Greyhound out and cut bus service."
Since getting the go-ahead to build its first line in 1978, MTDB has spent more than $300 million, not counting operating costs, to build its popular system of bright-red trolleys. The proposed new trolley lines will increase the tab by least another $734 million, not including operating subsidies and replacement costs. By the year 2010, the grand total will likely exceed $1.5 billion. And MTDB officials candidly admit that the expanded system alone will not eliminate the region’s impending freeway gridlock.
Worm's eye view of a trolley car. "People have a more favorable reaction to rail service than to bus service."
Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth? Dick Brown, who says he finds himself in a distinctly unvocal minority, proclaims, ’’The popularity of the trolley is based on the vast majority of people saying, 'Why don’t you ride it so I can get on the freeway?’ I don't think it can possibly handle more than three or four percent of the total trips. When you look at those percentages and the percentage of money to be spent, it just doesn't make sense."
Maureen O'Connor - ally of Mills on the transit board
More common is the praise lavished on the trolley by establishment figures like James Schmidt, vice chairman of Great American First Savings Bank, which will make its headquarters in a 34-story downtown office tower currently under construction at the foot of Broadway, above a modern, crescent-shaped, glass-sheathed trolley station and shopping galleria. Schmidt, for years known as an avid booster of freeway construction and a one-time trolley opponent, says he’s had a change of heart. "We need it for the city’s future growth," he argues. "It’s going to be well worth the money."
Several special freeway and park-and-ride bus stations would be constructed beginning in 1982.
According to MTDB, the trolley to San Ysidro actually makes a small profit, but only in a limited sense. Passenger fares amount to about 102 percent of what the agency spends on drivers’ salaries and other operating expenses. This "farebox recovery ratio" does not cover depreciation or the hefty capital costs of building and upgrading the system. Yet, compared to the current 45 percent farebox ratio of MTDB’s bus company, the trolley’s performance appears remarkable. That relative success, along with impressive ridership growth, is often cited as the main reasons the trolley should be expanded.
Mills: "At this point, I think we need 60 miles, but it seemed like a lot then."
But if the trolley system is to grow beyond the bounds of its original railroad right-of-way, the capital costs — especially land-acquisition costs — will soar, demanding a much greater share of tax dollars from various sources. The original San Ysidro line cost $7 million per mile; future lines, MTDB now says, will cost $20 million per mile And a severe reduction of operating subsidies, already threatened by federal budget cuts, might eventually shut down parts of the system.
"For example, in Chicago they are cutting back on some of their stations," notes Trim Larwm, MTDB’s general manager. "They are actually eliminating stations due to low productivity, and there may come a day when something like that would have to be done [in San Diego). Some of the hours would have to be shrunk in the service." Thinking it over, he hastily adds, "It’s just never going to happen."
Dick Brown: "If you asked people, 'Do you ride the trolley?’ almost everybody would say no. But it’s very popular. They’ve done a terrific PR job.”
Trolley proponents built the first 16-mile San Ysidro route without any new taxes, using instead state highway funds already set aside for public transportation. But by 1987, the highway fund tax dollars proved inadequate to finance an ambitious 35-mile expansion plan. MTDB leaders then joined highway advocates like Schmidt in a campaign that convinced local voters to approve, by a narrow margin, a halfpercent, 20-year boost in the retail sales tax collected in the county (Proposition A on the November 1987 ballot).
During the course of that campaign, voters were told that the new sales tax money, about $2.25 billion in all, combined with the highway tax money, would be adequate both to complete the 35-mile trolley route and to finish highway projects like the long-awaited Tierrasanta-to-Santee section of Route 52. But now, two years later, MTDB says that the $375 million earmarked in Proposition A for trolley construction in the south half of the county won’t be nearly enough to finish the rail system; and Route 52, among other roads, remains uncompleted.
American First Savings Bank will make its headquarters in a 34-story downtown office tower currently under construction at the foot of Broadway, above a modern, crescent-shaped, glass-sheathed trolley station and shopping galleria.
"It was our best estimate at the time," says former state Senator James R. Mills, now MTDB board chairman, who received $18,000 from private donors to campaign for Proposition A "I think there was an expectation at the time there would be more money coming from the state. The state is in a somewhat tighter place now for highway funds than we anticipated they would be."
Trolley passing cemetery. Mills: "It’s a high-quality public transit alternative, but there's always going to be congestion.”
MTDB's general manager Larwin now says that the amount of new sales tax money that MTDB thought it needed for transit projects was understated by those who framed the ballot measure. "I also know that it really was about a penny (tax per retail sales dollar] that was needed rather than a half-cent to get all the highways and transit facilities built," he says. "There are a lot of compromises that have to do with a program like that."
Again this year, Mills and other trolley proponents are urging voters to approve new statewide transit funding plans. Among the three plans that will appear on the June 1990 ballot are one tax increase and two bond issues. The first proposal calls for a permanent doubling of the state’s basic gasoline tax, from 9 cents to 18 cents, in increments over five years. That tax hike, along with steep increases in trucking fees, would raise $18.5 billion in taxes in the first ten years to finance roads and local mass transit throughout the state.
The second proposal (also sponsored by the backers of the gas tax increase) would raise $1 billion through the sale of general obligation bonds, a type of debt that must be repaid with state tax dollars. The third fundraising measure on the ballot will be the so-called Clean Air and Transportation Improvement Act of 1990, calling for the sale of $1.9 billion in general obligation bonds, also repayable with state tax money. MTDB’s trolley system would be eligible for a portion of the proceeds from the gas tax hike and the bond issues, should they be approved.
Some critics of Mills’s gas tax hike proposal, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, claim that it would also foster "runaway government spending" by lifting the ceiling imposed on state and local spending by the Gann Initiative of 1981. "I support a gas tax increase by itself — although I think seven cents a gallon is sufficient — but there are just too many other features that are onerous," Schabarum has said.
Those reservations have not been voiced in San Diego. In fact in 1988, the San Diego Union urged the legislature to boost the state gas tax without a public vote, saying, "The only hope of relief lies in building more freeways and mass transit to meet the growing demand." And this fall, the Evening Tribune endorsed the gas tax ballot measure, calling it "long overdue," adding that the new tax would be an essential "investment in California’s future." The San Diego Chamber of Commerce recently called the measure "California’s opportunity to solve traffic congestion and air quality problems."
Things were different in 1975, when then-county supervisor Dick Brown and his allies sought to build their own version of a rapid transit system, a futuristic $1.7 billion, 60-mile heavy-rail system. The most crucial feature, he recalls, was to be an exclusive right-of-way that would have kept it off city streets. Today Brown still insists that such an arrangement, called "grade separation” in the parlance of transit engineers, would have given it a major speed advantage over the trolley and prevented the sometimes severe traffic congestion at street intersections the trolley now causes.
"Without the exclusive right-of-way, you can never make any significant difference in freeway overcrowding," argues Brown, still insistent, 15 years after his proposal met political defeat. "Even on the most productive routes, the trolley will serve a very minimal number of people while the masses pay for it."
The problem with grade separation, however, was that it would have required plenty of up-front taxpayer cash, and in 1975, Brown’s proposal to raise the local sales tax by a full percentage point was an impossible sell. Even before the success of Proposition 13, voters were resisting new tax burdens in any form, and most politicians knew it.
As late as 1977, then-mayor Pete Wilson, a rising young political star and czar of San Diego's city hall, took pains to declare, "I have some skepticism that San Diego will find itself in a position where the substantial, if not enormous, public investment that is required to construct and operate a fixed-guideway system can be justified by the public benefit it will produce.” Wilson repeatedly called for a ballot measure to allow voters to ratify any proposed new system.
More opposition to the transit plan came from the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, which, at the urging of Wilson, chartered a 20-member "citizens’ committee" to investigate the need for any kind of new public transportation in the county. Chaired by University of San Diego president Author Hughes and composed of an array of establishment figures, including Mission Valley hotel magnate Terry Brown, television station manager Clayton Brace, and Copley newspaper executive Richard Capen, the group concluded late in 1976 that there was "insufficient evidence at this time" for building rapid transit. Instead, the committee suggested that improvements in highways and bus networks would better serve the region.
These well-connected foes, along with the taxpayer rebellion that ultimately produced Proposition 13, seemed a formidable hurdle for anyone who dared suggest that San Diego’s unclogged freeways might someday become traffic nightmares. But all of the skeptics, along with Dick Brown and his expensive, politically unpalatable notions, were soon to be swept aside by a far more powerful, sophisticated, and determined political force — Jim Mills.
Democratic state Senator James R. Mills, a former teacher and local historian who has never lost his stern bearing and pedantic manner, had been elected to the state assembly in 1960 and to the state senate six years later. By the early 1970s, he was senate president pro tern, one of the state’s most influential legislators, and like Dick Brown, he had also begun to develop an interest in public transit. "I decided I would carve out for myself a small role to play. You can only take on so much," he recalls modestly "What I decided to try to do was diminish the use of the automobile in California by increasing the use of public transportation"
The first major fruit of his effort was Senate Bill 325, also known as the Transportation Development Act (TDA), which in 1971 slapped a 5 percent sales tax (now 7.25 percent in San Diego County) on gasoline. "It’s been called a tax on a tax, and that’s what it is," Mills notes matter-of-factly, observing that the TDA tax is based on the total price of gasoline, including an underlying seven-cents-per-gallon (now nine-cents-per-gallon) "motor vehicle fuel tax" the state had already levied on motorists. "That (TDA) measure produces something like $300 million a year now," Mills notes proudly. "Without that measure, there simply wouldn’t be any public transportation in California. That's what keeps the buses running in San Diego, along with federal subsidies, which are smaller. The feds are phasing out their support." Mills’s TDA tax on gasoline was considered especially ground-breaking because, before it was signed into law, gas tax revenue had been zealously hoarded by the so-called "highway lobby," mainly oil companies, wealthy road contractors, and car-insurance companies with a large financial stake in continued freeway construction. But using the momentum from his SB325 victory, Mills began to plan ways to pry the motor vehicle fuel tax money away from its original purpose of building new highways.
In 1970 Mills had sponsored a ballot measure asking state voters to divert some of this tax money away from highways and into the construction of new "passenger railways." "My argument was that money should be available to solve traffic problems in whatever is the most effective way, and if it's more effective to spend the money on railways than to spend it on highways, then that should be an option that's available."
Mills recalls that this 1970 proposal, which would have amended the state constitution, went down to resounding defeat after strong opposition from big-spending oil companies. Four years later, in 1974, the senator returned with a slightly altered proposal, but this time the political climate was remarkably different. "It was right after the OPEC (oil) embargo, and the oil companies didn't spend any money against it," he notes.
At the same time, Mills cut a deal with then-governor Ronald Reagan. "He wanted a provision that the (gas tax) diversion could only take place in counties where a vote on the diversion had been held. So that was put into (the bill). The second thing was that not over 25 percent of the money going into any county could be used for rail. That was a concession also to Ronald Reagan." As a result of the agreement, the popular Republican governor did not oppose the measure, and it won with over 60 percent of the vote in the November 1974 general election. A month later, the plans for the MTDB and the San Diego Trolley were conceived in the senator's Sacramento office.
"I decided I wanted to immediately put things in place for the use of the funds for construction of a rail system in San Diego," the former senator says with a smile. "So I carried the legislation that created San Diego MTDB and allocated the funds for the system." Then-governor Jerry Brown signed the final bill into law in August 1975 with the inscription: "Jim — May the trains run on time! Jerry" As Mills notes today, "MTDB was something that was, effectively, legislated."
Thus did one very powerful state senator, by his own reckoning, dictate the kind of public transportation system that San Diego would build. But most of San Diego didn't know it yet. Pete Wilson, Dick Brown, the Copley newspapers, and many other influential San Diego Republicans were skeptical of Democrat Mills’s plan. And they vowed to resist. Dick Brown, of course, was still vainly pursuing his $1.7 billion heavy-rail project, which was supported by the Comprehensive Planning Organization (CPO), a public agency comprising local cities and the county. At the time, Brown was county representative on the CPO board.
At city hall, Pete Wilson remained officially on the fence. Observes Mills, "At one point, Pete was in favor of using the money for a tracked, air-cushion vehicle between downtown and the border. At another time, the city wanted to use the money for a downtown people-mover. I resisted all of those things."
In his January 1975 State of the City message, the mayor proclaimed his support for building the kind of light-rail trolley system Mills favored "as soon and as cheaply as possible." A year later, Wilson became the first chairman of MTDB, with Mills’s blessing, but he soon began voicing doubts about mass transit of any kind. The Mills-Wilson relationship quickly fell out in spectacular fashion.
Mills had "visions of sugar plums dancing in his head" and "just doesn’t live in the real world when he talks about mass transit," Wilson charged in May 1977. Mills replied in kind, asserting that Wilson should surrender his MTDB chairmanship. "I think the real problem is, he is too busy running for governor to deal with other problems," Mills claimed. "He insists on being chairman of that board, but he can't deal with it."
Today, Mills recalls the joust with particular relish. "Pete was the chairman of the agency but didn’t hire anybody, and after a couple of years, I legislatively removed him (as chairman] in order to get things moving," he chuckles. But the mayor didn’t lose his chairmanship until he helped defeat the transit plan of another Mills foe, then-county supervisor Dick Brown.
The senator began his campaign against Brown in 1975 by heaping scorn on the supervisor’s heavy-rail idea, capitalizing on its key political weakness: its embarrassingly high cost to county taxpayers. "I don't think it will have to cost $2 billion," the senator declared at a Chamber of Commerce dinner, "and I don't think they'll need 60 miles of fixed-rail system." He cited the example of Toronto. "They have the highest ridership in North America, with 25 percent of the movement downtown using the transit system, and the two subways only total 20 miles. And that's a large city of about two million people."
Mills also played down the need for new local taxes to build light-rail, claiming during one breakfast speech in June 1976 that just $25 million of state highway money, along with a similar amount of federal funds, would be enough to build "a good and useful segment" of his new system.
Recalls Dick Brown, There was a great deal of concern that what CPO was designing wasn’t affordable and couldn’t be built. I always likened it to a major construction project where dump trucks are needed, but they want to use wheelbarrows because they are cheaper."
Today, Mills says he initially underestimated the size of the trolley system required to serve the region. "It was my judgment at the time. At this point, I think we need 60 miles, but it seemed like a lot then. San Diego has grown a lot since that time." He also admits that he wanted to build a small, low-cost stretch of trolley first and worry about finishing the rest later.
"I was convinced that if we could build one line, everybody’s position would change, if they could see it," he recalls. "I had the feeling that nobody here had ever seen a modern light-rail line. They didn’t know what it was like, and they were thinking in terms of old-fashioned, noisy streetcars, and if they once saw it, they’d change."
Dick Brown attempted to strike back, using the considerable muscle supplied to him by the staff of the Comprehensive Planning Organization. "I was ready to kill Dick Huff." recalls Mills, referring to CPO’s executive director. "Just all kinds of problems coming out of CPO. They were raising every problem they could think of, even contacting people in Washington, trying to lobby them against the project."
Ultimately, though, Brown, CPO, and its garrison of pencil-pushers were no match for the politically savvy senator. "CPO is on shaky grounds at present," Mills warned in 1975, "and if they decided to take some high-handed action, they might lose the power to take it. CPO is not popular in the legislature." Today Mills remembers, "I carried a bill one time to effectively divest them of their authority. I was trying to get their attention."
In April 1976, Mills finally won Wilson’s assistance in forcing CPO to give up its once-coveted control of San Diego’s mass transit destiny. With the mayor’s support, the City of San Diego cast the key votes to award MTDB a virtual veto over regional transportation policy. Dick Brown called the move a "power play," but it was the end of his heavy-rail plan. "Mills simply won out with the state legislature," Brown concludes nearly 14 years later. "He had a power there that overrode anything we could do."
The trolley system that Mills had set out to build drew closer with Dick Brown’s defeat, but it would take a natural disaster to bring the senator’s dream to fruition. On September 10, 1976, tropical storm Kathleen swept out of the Pacific, raging through Baja and then north through eastern San Diego County. Among its casualties was the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad, an improbable 165-mile link between San Diego and the Imperial Valley, by way of Tijuana and the Mexican back country. It was completed in 1919 by civic booster John D. Spreckels. But by the time of the 1976 storm that tore up tracks and wiped out its rickety trestles, the SD&AE was something of a white elephant. Instead of making expensive repairs, the Southern Pacific Railroad, owner of the line. decided to abandon it.
The San Diego Chamber of Commerce, intent on saving the line and its related jobs and services, formed a task force and prepared to fight the abandonment before the federal Interstate Commerce Commission. Seizing the moment, Mills and his allies on the MTDB board, including then-city councilwoman Maureen O’Connor, began talking up the idea of buying the SD&AE from Southern Pacific and using its right-of-way to build a trolley between downtown and the border. The rest of the railroad would then be turned over to a private contractor, who would operate restored freight service at a profit for taxpayers. The entire scheme could be delivered for about $50 million, MTDB claimed in October 1977.
In June 1978, the same month voters endorsed Proposition 13. MTDB’s then-general manager Robert Nelson unveiled a revised plan to purchase the SD&AE and build the border trolley for "between $71.6 million and $83.1 million." Nelson told the Los Angeles Times, “It's affordable, it’s efficient, and we should build it now. My contention is that our project is consistent with the Jarvis-Gann philosophy. What we propose improves transit effectiveness using funds already set aside."
The summer of 1978, as it happened, marked the end of any serious political resistance to the trolley. Unlikely as it seemed, San Diego was about to build the nation’s first new urban passenger railroad in over 40 years. CPO planners, still smarting from their defeat at the hands of Jim Mills two years earlier, now trained their full fire on MTDB’s proposal.
Mills joined the fray by pointing out that the millions of dollars of state motor vehicle fuel tax money he had so carefully set aside for transit would be yanked out of San Diego if it wasn’t quickly spent to buy the railroad and build the trolley. "Almost everybody was in opposition," he says today. "But hanging out that money for them, telling them it was there if they spent it and they lost it if they didn’t spend it, I felt would be too much of a carrot for them to forgo."
By October of that year, the lure proved irresistible to a 6-to-3 majority of the San Diego City Council, led by erstwhile Mills foe Pete Wilson. A year before, the mayor had said it would be irresponsible to proceed with the trolley without a public referendum; but in mid-October, Wilson made the surprise announcement that he had cut a deal to buy the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad for $18.1 million. The mayor said he had become convinced that the trolley could be run without further tax increases and that the railroad purchase price he had negotiated was too good to pass up.
As part of the bargain, MTDB also promised a cornucopia of new transit service, from profitable operation of the SD&AE freight line to enormously expanded bus service. "The number of buses would be increased by 155, and several special freeway and park-and-ride bus stations would be constructed beginning in 1982, when money now earmarked for the trolley will be available for buses," the Los Angeles Times reported in early October. Trolley officials also predicted that a future sales-tax increase could be used to pay for even more bus service. With Mills looking on discreetly from Sacramento, Wilson was hailed as the trolley’s new hero. "I can get people on base," gushed Maureen O’Connor, "but Pete is the Reggie Jackson — he hits the home runs." By then the cost estimate for the project was in the neighborhood of $86 million.
The trolley’s first leg, to San Ysidro and the border, was completed three years later for $116 million, about $30 million more than the 1978 prediction and well over double the original $50 million estimate. MTDB claimed that the trolley had been built on time and under budget. This was true, in a technical sense; a single trolley track to the border had been completed for $86 million. But by the time construction on the first track began, MTDB had already decided it needed two tracks and additional trolley cars and quickly voted to spend an extra $30 million on these enhancements, bringing the total to $116 million.
The money came from increased sales-tax revenue the state had accumulated after gas prices rose dramatically m the late 1970s. Under the terms of another Mills-introduced bill, this tax dollar windfall was set aside for a variety of new transit projects, such as new trolley cars and express bus lanes. MTDB chose to spend its share on the double tracking.
Spending this money on the trolley meant it wouldn't be available for bus system improvements. When a reporter asked MTDB general manager Tom Larwin in 1980 what had become of the board’s 1978 plan for dramatic increases in bus service, he said it had "fallen apart on faulty assumptions about the price of diesel fuel and continuance of the property tax." His counterpart at San Diego Transit was more direct: "Maybe the problem is that everyone sees the trolley as a panacea rather than simply as only a piece of the solution. But I understand that our concern isn't shared fully by MTDB. After all, they’re busy building a trolley."
Another MTDB pledge, the restoration of the SD&AE railroad’s widely coveted freight service, also went unmet. At the time the pledge was made, experts predicted the line would be unprofitable without the heavily used freight spur to the gypsum plant at Plaster City. In the end, according to Mills, the Southern Pacific refused to sell the profitable spur with the rest of the line. As it turned out, the skeptics were right; although train service now runs to Tecate and El Cajon, the full line was never reopened.
Today, MTDB general manager Tom Larwin makes no apologies for the unfulfilled promises of the past, pointing out that by purchasing the right-of-way, MTDB "preserved the opportunity" to reopen the railroad sometime in the future. "Hopefully in the next year, we'll have service restored. That [Plaster City] piece would not have made any difference."
These days, Larwin prefers to talk about the pride of MTDB, the sparkling red trolleys gliding handsomely through the concourse, ten floors below his corner office in the ten-story James R. Mills building, downtown. MTDB rents office space in the new building, complete with German-style clock tower and tape-recorded chimes, for about $1 million a year.
During its first year of operations in 1981, the trolley carried an average of 11,000 passengers a day. By 1989, average daily ridership on the south line had increased to 31,000, slightly more than MTDB’s 1980 projection. And Jim Mills boldly predicts it could surpass 50,000 a day within 15 years.
The ridership growth even surprises Larwin, who has no single explanation for it. "That’s a good question," he says. "We’ve been making improvements in the system to get out the kinks. And the economy, the lower unemployment rate, works to our advantage, so it's a combination of factors."
Most observers, including trolley critic Dick Brown, also point out that the original trolley route to San Ysidro has always been heavily traveled. "It is the best transit route in the entire county, historically," he notes. "In order to get the ridership on the trolley, they forced Greyhound out and cut bus service." Even in 1980, before the trolley opened, over 14,000 people rode buses through that corridor every day. Notes Mills, "We started with the best line, yeah, sure. The decision to build the south line was made because they felt it was going to be the most productive line."
The former senator also acknowledges that the new east line to El Cajon, which opened last spring at a capital cost of $141 million, is not carrying as many passengers as the border run. "We always figured that there would be a lower productivity on that line. We always figured it would be more of a commuter line than the south line." The east line, says Mills, "was put in because the right-of-way was there, but I think it will turn out quite well." He adds that the current daily ridership of 15,000 is higher than the initial passenger numbers carried by the south line in 1981. But East County’s farebox recovery ratio is only about 59 percent, a little more than half the ratio of the south line.
Mills is similarly sanguine about the planned extensions of the trolley to Santee, Old Town, and University City. "The I-5 line will be mixed," he says. "To the degree that it serves the university [UCSD], it will be a noncommuter line. People come and go from the university at all hours. We will be serving various major off-hour traffic generators. We’ll have service to Seaport Village, we'll have service to Old Town, service to the border, and so forth. The north line will be pretty good. It will also have bus service that connects to the beaches."
But MTDB's ultimate vision of a vast, 130-mile trolley network has its detractors. Notable is Jose Gomez-Ibanez, an urban planning professor at Harvard University, who has studied MTDB and concluded that the huge capital cost of such a system can’t be justified. "A 130-mile trolley system for San Diego sounds like an incredible waste of money," he says. "By the time they extend that many lines, they are going to be talking about lines that are pretty silly. It also sounds like something they wouldn’t be able to build for $500 million. The good news is they won't be able to afford to build or operate it."
Gomez-Ibanez also warns against creating a permanent pot of tax money earmarked exclusively for trolley development, as San Diego voters did when they ratified 1987’s Proposition A. “By giving [MTDBj a secure form of funding, you insulate them from political pressures and common sense. It allows them to operate with no real accountability."
He maintains that ballot victories like Proposition A are often treated as mandates for future trolley expansion, even when the original tax hike fails to cover the ultimate costs. The potential capital shortfall in San Diego is currently estimated to be $500 million or higher. That total includes the lines proposed in Proposition A plus additional lines proposed since then. “They can’t fulfill their promise, so they ought to go back to the voters,” says Gomez-Ibanez. "Whether or not it’s an honest mistake, once they’ve realized it, they should come clean. But that seldom happens."
Tax dollars from many sources have helped pay for the trolley, and Mills notes that the politicians who ante up the cash can sometimes dictate its use, even if that conflicts with regional transportation priorities. For example, the so-called Bayside line, a two-mile trolley spur between Broadway and San Diego’s new convention center, was recently completed for about $45 million, although the final cost over 20 years will exceed $72 million due to the interest expenses. The line was paid for largely by the City of San Diego, which will ultimately contribute $60 million from its hotel tax fund. The San Diego Unified Port District and the city's redevelopment agency came up with most of the balance, and county taxpayers absorbed the rest.
Mills acknowledges that the Bayside line, which cost far more to build per mile than any other MTDB project to date, is not essential to meeting San Diego’s transportation needs. But MTDB was not about to turn down the job of building it when the city came up with the money. "I don’t know about the board, but it certainly wasn’t anything that I thought was a high priority for the community in terms of solving transportation problems of the San Diego area," says Mills.
The Metropolitan Transit Board itself is the target of some criticism. MTDB is run as an independent agency by a 15-member board of directors, including four council members from the City of San Diego, one council member from each of the nine outlying cities, one San Diego County supervisor, and one member-at-large appointed by the governor and representing the state. Because the board is not directly elected by local voters, some critics have claimed that it has too much autonomy.
Mills was appointed MTDB chairman in July 1985 by Governor George Deukmejian under terms of a bill introduced by Democratic state Senator Waddie Deddeh, a longtime friend of Mills. In addition to giving the governor the power to appoint MTDB’s chairman, it allows MTDB to pay the chairman a salary. The arrangement rankles Dick Brown. He cites it as another example of the loss of local control, claiming "it’s just wrong” that the chairman’s position and salary are controlled by the state legislature. Mills says this salary authorization (presently, $30,000 a year for a 20-hour week) ends in 1991, but a bill is pending in the state legislature to extend it an extra three years.
With all the attention being paid to San Diego’s high-profile trolley system, what has become of the bus routes? Harvard professor Gomez-Ibanez champions buses as the best solution for most of the San Diego region’s public transit needs. "Express buses are much more cost effective than the trolley,” he says, asserting that most routes in the county will never justify high-capacity trolley lines. "These are often done more as symbols of civic pride than transportation solutions. All of us had toy trains when we were kids, but these things are real expensive.’ ’
That position infuriates MTDB’s Larwin, who contends that the facts don’t support Gomez-Ibanez. "He’s criticizing the system using early-year numbers, and it’s a long-term investment," according to Lanvin. San Diego’s successful trolley lines, he says, have actually become the backbone for bus service, which is used to "feed" passengers to the trolley. But other critics, including the local bus drivers’ union, currently involved in a protracted labor dispute with MTDB-owned San Diego Transit, complain that MTDB favors the trolley at the expense of bus service.
They point to MTDB’s own Metro Bus Study, an ambitious 1988 program to expand express bus service in the region. The study states, "Together these [trolley and bus routes] would serve as the spine of the overall regional transit system, emphasizing high-speed, high-frequency, limited-stop service along the major travel corridors." That plan was "put on hold" last year due to "the uncertainty of federal funding," according to MTDB’s annual report. Larwin says that continuing reductions in federal transit subsidies will require that MTDB take an even more cautious approach to new bus lines in the future.
"Proposition A is a capital-oriented measure, so we’re left with the same old [operations) funding resources we had 15 years ago, plus less," he laments. "There’s very little operating money going to the trolley, so all that means is that we’re putting bus money into existing bus services rather than new bus services.” The bus drivers, however, note that when President Reagan’s administration threatened deep slashes in federal transit subsidies in 1988, MTDB proposed to eliminate 15 of San Diego Transit's 29 bus routes but leave the trolley system intact.
Larwin is well positioned to enforce his priorities. San Diego Transit was once owned by the city, and its executives regularly attacked MTDB for monopolizing public transportation money for the trolley. But such embarrassing public criticism from the bus company was silenced forever in 1984, when MTDB took over San Diego Transit under terms of a bill sponsored by state Senator Waddie Deddeh. Under the same legislation, MTDB also wields substantial authority over the area’s five other public bus companies, one private bus line (see accompanying story), and various other dial-a-ride services.
Mills makes it clear that he prefers rail to buses. "It’s improved service, so more people ride it,” he says of the trolley. “Also there's a psychological advantage. We’ve found in San Diego, as they have found everywhere that there is a public opinion sampling, that people have a more favorable reaction to rail service than to bus service That isn’t logical, but that’s what has been found in Europe and other parts of North America. Consistently, people who ride the trolley here in our public opinion samplings are in part people who wouldn’t ride the bus. My recollection is it’s about 30 percent.” The acid test of any public transit system, says the MTDB chairman, is whether it can lure people out of their cars and thus reduce freeway congestion. "The largest single category of (ridership) increase has been people who drive their cars to the stations and commute. We’re getting a larger increase in that category of patronage than any other. There's lots and lots of people who work downtown who find that it costs them $45 to buy a transit pass, and it costs them twice that much to park downtown. So the economic reason I think has contributed a lot to the increase in patronage.”
An MTDB newsletter promoting construction of the new trolley line to Old Town argues that even people who never use public transit should support the trolley: "Greater use of public transit would help make travel easier for those who must drive by removing automobiles from corridor streets and highways and by reducing the demand for scarce parking spaces in central areas.”
But Mills’s old nemesis Dick Brown comes to a different conclusion. "I don’t think anybody has done a real analysis, and they don't want to," he says. "Without the exclusive right-of-way, it can never make any significant difference in freeway overcrowding and in fact creates more congestion than it reduces. They are going to spend a lot of money with very dubious effect on our transit problems.”
MTDB's Larwin dismisses Brown’s attempt to quantify the impact the trolley has on freeway congestion. "Those are all academic exercises,” he argues. "All we care about is the fact that there are people riding the trolley who have a choice of modes, those people who, if it weren’t for the trolley, would be using their automobiles.”
Then he adds, "Yes, we are helping to relieve congestion, but that doesn’t mean that traffic is going to flow at level of service ’A.' It won’t. We will continue to have traffic congestion here no matter how big the trolley system becomes. What we are providing is a reliable, cost-effective public transportation alternative. By and large, it’s a high-quality public transit alternative, but there's always going to be congestion.”
Mills agrees. "The trolley only helps. There are no single solutions. In dealing with transportation, it’s like a lot of other things, you don't find the solution here or there. You find the solution in a combination of projects.” He cites a new trolley line proposed for Mission Valley as an example. "It’ll help, but how many people will it take off [the freeway]? I don’t know. So Interstate 8 needs the trolley and needs [the completion of Route) 52 to keep from being totally gridlocked.”
But the former senator rejects Dick Brown’s suggestion that sales-tax money now set aside for future trolley construction be used instead to finish highways like Route 52. Says Mills, "You could put it back on the ballot to do that, but it would lose. Right now, if you said you were going to take money away from the trolley to build that one section, you’d have more people opposed to it than in favor.”
Instead, the venerated father of the San Diego Trolley comes up with a familiar idea: raise taxes. "I don't want to set politics aside. I want to say on 52, some means has to be found to complete it. Whether it’s assessments on new developments or what, somebody’s got to find the money to build that freeway. That freeway is essential.”