Coaster, Solana Beach Station. "The Coaster is not a solution to the County's transportation problems. It's not a partial solution. It's not even a potential solution."
For nine years, the Coaster ran 100 feet from Mitchell Reiss's bedroom window in Carlsbad. Two months ago, Reiss moved from his proximity to the Poinsettia station to the South Bay "to get as far away from the Coaster as possible." The noise drove him away, as well as "other nuisances" from the trains' headlights and gathering passengers. Despite his entreaties to the North County Transit District for relief, officials continually told Reiss there was no noise pollution at the Poinsettia station.
Reiss learned everything he could about the Coaster, and his preoccupation convinced him that the rail line is bad for taxpayers and bad for San Diego County commuters. He made his case in a late-February letter to the editor to the San Diego Union-Tribune. At 2500-plus words, his statement was long for a letter; the Union-Tribune declined to publish any part of it.
In his letter, Reiss charges that since 1996 the Union-Tribune has reprinted glowing accounts of the Coaster's performance by the North County Transit District and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). As the most recent example, he cites the March 20 story by Lola Sherman titled "Coaster Trains Growing Along with Ridership." In its third paragraph, the article states, "Ridership is averaging 5122 passengers on weekdays, up from 4500 at this time last year." The story touts the Coaster's acquisition of six new $2 million coaches to handle the increase; it also quotes North County Transit District spokesman Tom Kelleher as saying that now "every coach and locomotive is in service."
"Deeply embedded on the SANDAG website," writes Reiss, "are the actual passenger tallies for the Coaster, never published in the Union-Tribune." The link to this data (http://cart.sandag. cog.ca.uspcpguest.asp.) leads Reiss to the average number of daily Coaster passengers between 1996 to 2003 (2004's averages are not yet available). In a simple table, he displays the average daily passengers from a low of 2793 in 1996 to a high of 5802 in 2003.
The Union-Tribune seems to have understated the 2003 figures in the article: 4500 average daily passengers versus the transit district's 5802. But in his letter, Reiss argues that the real problem comes from the paper repeating (from statements made by the transit district and the association of governments) daily passenger totals rather than more specific data on northbound and southbound riders. If the numbers for 2003 are checked on the "deeply embedded SANDAG website," the figures indicate 2929 northbound passengers and 2873 southbound passengers.
Even 4500 average daily passengers, though lower than the website's number, indicates greater Coaster success than the 2929 northbound and 2873 southbound passengers posted. Reiss writes that San Marcos councilman Mike Preston "inadvertently...let the cat out of the bag" by suggesting why the more "accurate" numbers aren't on the site.
From the February issue of the Union-Tribune, Reiss quotes, "Coasters carry more than 5600 passengers a day, San Marcos Councilman Mike Preston noted at a meeting of the [North County Transit District Board of Directors] monitoring committee yesterday. But he said those figures include everyone boarding in both directions, so probably only half that number of separate individuals rides the train daily."
Returning to his own commentary, Reiss asks, "Are the directors of NCTB really unaware that the vast majority of people who take the Coaster are, and have always been, round-trip commuters?" Perhaps "this is the first time an NCTD or SANDAG official has publicly revealed this complicated insight, or...it's the first time the Union-Tribune has seen fit to print it.
"The Union-Tribune, following NCTD's lead, has been engaged in word games for close to a decade," continues Reiss. "They throw around the biggest numbers they can, as shown above, and leave it to the reader to divine the distinction between a passenger and a person. Sometimes they go too far. An editorial advocating $18 million in fixes for the system (May 20, 1999) contained this statement: 'Almost 5000 commuters now use the Coaster. That's a lot of cars that are no longer traveling on Interstate 5.' "
In Reiss's next paragraph, he wraps up his argument: "The Coaster load figures as reported in the Union-Tribune have been systematically camouflaged by a factor of 2 since the Coaster went into service. The reality is that in 2003 (the Coaster's best year) less than 2900 people took their cars off the freeway and rode the Coaster instead."
The May 20, 1999, Union-Tribune editorial also noted that without the "almost 5000 commuters now [using] the Coaster," the 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. backup of traffic to Encinitas on I-5 would extend up to Carlsbad. But Reiss thinks that the true figure of "less than 2900 people [taking] their cars off the freeway" is a "drop in the bucket," especially in light of the 260,000 cars Caltrans says go through the I-5/805 merge every weekday. He remembers a story the Union-Tribune ran on February 20 of this year, titled "I-5/805 Merge Among Nation's Most Clogged." Nowhere in the article, he writes, was the alleviating effect of the Coaster mentioned.
Thus, Reiss argues in the letter's conclusion, "The Coaster is not a solution to the County's transportation problems. It's not a partial solution. It's not even a potential solution." And, for that reason, he thinks the Coaster is a waste of money, especially when that money might be spent in better ways.
But in a phone interview, Garry Bonelli, director of communications for the San Diego Association of Governments, says that only lack of parking in the I-5 corridor is preventing the Coaster from "tripling the number of its riders." He mentions 6000 as the number of passengers the line now serves but acknowledges that number to be the total of south- and northbound commuters.
Bonelli remembers that the Coaster project got started in 1995 with an original investment of $243 million, $90 million of that from TransNet funds from a half-cent sales tax approved in 1987. According to the North County Transit District website (www.gonctd.com), in fiscal year 2003, the rail line's operating budget had total expenses of $58.5 million. Fiscal year 2004's expenses are projected to be $61.9 million.
Of the Coaster's $61 million revenues for 2003 ($62.9 million estimated for 2004), $12,916,070 came from passenger fares. Most of the rail's remaining revenues came from the state Transportation Development Act tax ($27.6 million) and the TransNet tax ($4,118,870 million).
The fate of the TransNet tax is currently deadlocked at the association of governments. The tax is scheduled to expire in March 2008 but will be eligible for extension approval in this November's election. According to a March 11, 2004, Union-Tribune article by Jeff Ristine and Lola Sherman, the North County Transit District now suggests that "less money be given to streets and roads and environmental mitigation projects and more to traffic-congestion relief, including transit projects."
But according to the article, county supervisor Dianne Jacob is resisting that idea. So far, her lone vote -- against representatives of 18 municipalities at the San Diego Association of Governments -- is stalling a $9.5 billion spending plan. Jacob wants at least 28 percent of the TransNet tax's $42 million devoted to local streets and roads.
Four days later, on March 15, the Union-Tribune reported that Jacob (representing the county's Board of Supervisors) was sticking to her guns. "Jacob argued that the current TransNet spending formula...has failed to limit congestion. 'The congestion problems today...are on our roads and highways,' she said. 'That's where a majority of the money should go.' "
Mitchell Reiss can relate. "Freeway capacity provides 24-hour availability and true point-to-point access," he observes in his letter. "Contrast that to the heavily restricted and inflexible nature of the Coaster. That, of course, is one of the main reasons no one wants to ride it. A dollar spent on a freeway buys something vastly different from a dollar spent on a train."
More than a year ago, a Union-Tribune editorial (March 6, 2003) did seem to "get it," writes Reiss. The paper's editorial-board members "indicate that not every alternative to the automobile is worth pursuing, depending on the cost. [Their] best comment? A subsidized system 'ridden by next to nobody is a subsidy wasted' ... Only one problem -- the article was about the Wave, the pilot ferry project from Oceanside to San Diego, not the Coaster. It turns out that the editorial board of the Union-Tribune isn't stupid. They aren't oblivious to the issues. They can count. They can evaluate the situation, do an analysis, reach critical conclusions, and identify poor decisions. They only do their job selectively."