MISSION VALLEY WEST, the latest link in the constantly expanding web of light rail lines serving California’s San Diego County, opened to traffic on November 23. First day operations were nearly flawless, with standing-room-only crowds by noon.

MVW is perhaps the most ambitious project yet undertaken by the Metropolitan Transit Development Board since revenue service began on the initial San Diego Trolley line between downtown and San Ysidro on the Mexican frontier in July 1981. During the past two decades, starting when the MTDB was founded to develop the LRT network, planning and/or construction have been virtually continuous: this is the seventh extension.

However, MVW is dramatically different and posed a significant engineering challenge to MTDB. At $220m, the price was quite high compared to the penurious standard set during the construction of previous segments, which were mostly built at-grade along existing railway rights-of-way and city streets.

’The extension represents a move away from the use and reuse of existing railroad corridors and trying to fit into existing and future developments,’ says MTDB General Manager Thomas F Larwin. ’The higher cost of this new project is going to prove to be very cost beneficial over time because of the way it fits into development. We will do more to shape travel habits … using transit in more significant ways than I think we have been able to do with existing portions of the system.’

MVW required two long and expensive viaducts, both of which include stations. They cross the sprawling car parks of the Fashion Valley shopping centre, which is also the site of a regional transit interchange, and Qualcomm Stadium, home of the city’s baseball and football teams and a projected source of substantial ridership.

The scenic route parallels the environmentally sensitive San Diego River, where a number of costly mitigation efforts were required to preserve wetlands and wildlife habitats as well as minimising potential traffic and flooding impacts. In addition, three major bridges and a road underpass were needed. Thus 40% of the 9.8 route-km is located above or below grade and there are just two level crossings.

Integrated stations

There are seven new stations which are located next to various activity venues. These include three large shopping centres at Fashion Valley, Hazard Centre and Mission Valley - the last of these requiring two bridges to take the line across the river. Other stops serve existing and future residential and commercial complexes. Sites for two more stations have been reserved, to serve the Riverwalk Golf Club and the planned Mission City development.

The $9.2m station at Qualcomm Stadium has ramps and stairways leading from ground level to a spacious mezzanine circulating area and thence to a wide centre platform and two side platforms. This, combined with sidings at each end having a capacity of 18 cars waiting for an event to end, will allow up to 6000 passengers to be removed within 30min. At other times the stadium’s spacious car park is used as a park-and-ride facility.

MVW is expected to generate an average of around 6000 daily boardings. Ridership figures had not been released when this article went to press, but just one week after the opening a November 30 football game saw more than 5 000 fans arrive by rail.

Prior to MVW, the Trolley’s average weekday ridership was nearly 56000, with Saturday and Sunday patronage around 90% and 80% of this respectively. An all-time record was reached in July 1997, when weekday boardings for the entire month averaged 62 500. Total traffic for the fiscal year to September 30 1997 was 18.3 million passengers. The Trolley’s farebox recovery rate is currently 67%, which is impressive for North America but below the legendary highs of around 90% recorded during the early 1980s when only the line to San Ysidro was in operation.

Concurrent with the opening of MVW, MTDB has initiated a colour coding of its lines. MVW forms part of the 41.1 km Blue line, which runs north from the frontier at San Ysidro via central San Diego to Old Town, then east to Mission San Diego station at the end of the new extension. The 35.8 km Orange line starts from Imperial & 12th and heads west along the Bayside route serving the downtown waterfront, where a large conference centre is located. It then loops back through the city centre and serves various eastern suburbs before terminating in the city of Santee.

The two Trolley routes meet at the former Santa Fe railway station, which now forms the city’s central transport hub. There is a cross-platform connection with the frequent Amtrak service to Los Angeles and the Coaster commuter trains to Oceanside. A few steps away are numerous San Diego Transit bus lines.

Trams generally operate on a 15min headway, although at peak hours there is a 7.5 min service on the Blue Line between San Ysidro and Old Town. The basic headway falls to 30min during late evenings and weekend mornings, and at all times on the Orange Line beyond El Cajon to Santee.

Expansion continues

Planning is at an advanced stage for two more extensions, known as Mission Valley East and Mid-Coast. The 9.3 km MVE will complete the Mission Valley route, and connect to the Orange line at Grossmont Centre station in the city of La Mesa. In October the MTDB board officially selected light rail as the locally-preferred alternative for this corridor and made it the next construction priority. With an environmental impact report already completed, the next step will be the start of preliminary engineering work later this year.

The four-station MVE has been costed at $267m. Much of this is accounted for by a 1.5 km tunnel and station beneath the San Diego State University campus, a first for the Trolley. As with MVW, there will be numerous elevated structures. Construction is tentatively set to begin in 2001 and be completed three years later, although the project might be broken into two segments depending on the availability of funding. However, Larwin is anxious to complete the line earlier if possible, and says he intends to pursue some type of public-private partnership, possibly including a design-build arrangement.

The Mid-Coast LRT project will follow the MVE, although the initial three-station segment costing nearly $91m is already in preliminary engineering. This line would leave the Mission Valley route at the San Diego River and head north 5.5 km to Balboa Avenue within the San Diego Northern railway right-of-way, already owned by MTDB. The 11.6 km second segment to University City, with a price tag of more than $264m, will follow an alignment adjacent to the Interstate 5 highway.

In the more distant future is a possible spur to the airport, which will be financed by the Port District. This will probably adopt some form of peoplemover to shuttle passengers to the nearest Trolley station. Also being studied is a long inland corridor following Interstate 15 all the way to Escondido in the north of San Diego County. Light rail or higher speed interurban trains are a possibility along all or part of the route but HOV lanes carrying express buses seem more likely, at least as an interim, given the uncertainty of funding at both local and federal levels. A preferred alternative is due to be selected in mid-1999.

Future light rail projects yet to be studied include the South Bay Extension, which would loop through National City and Chula Vista, inland from the existing Blue line to San Ysidro. This might also serve a second border crossing point to the Mexican city of Tijuana. The Mira Mesa corridor would extend the Mid-Coast line inland from University City along Mira Mesa Boulevard to meet the I-15 corridor. In a November statement MTDB confirmed its long term goal: ’by 2010, if funding permits, the San Diego region would be served by a 113 km light rail network and a 69 km commuter rail route. This network is incorporated in the Regional Rail Transit Plan, revised every two years by the San Diego Association of Governments.’

Widespread and ongoing political support of the Trolley and its programme of incremental expansion has helped lead it to success. It’s a plan which Larwin, who has been with MTDB for 18 years, enthusiastically supports. ’Yes, you make some mistakes but you get a chance to correct them’, he says. ’They’re not as big as they might be if you were to do a real big system all at once. You can learn as you grow. I think it’s proven to be very worthwhile.’


CAPTION: The inaugural SD100 LRV arrives at Qualcomm Stadium carrying VIPs to the MVW opening ceremony on November 20

Below: The ex-Santa Fe station in central San Diego is a key interchange between the Trolley, Amtrak, Coaster commuter trains and local buses

Below right: Much of the Mission Valley West line is built on viaduct to avoid environmentally sensitive areas along the San Diego River

MTDB has a reputation for keeping its Trolley cars clean and free of vandalism

Above: Keynote speaker at the MVW dedication ceremony was US Federal Transit Administrator Gordon Linton

Below left: Centre sidings east of Qualcomm Stadium can hold up to 18 cars ready to handle large crowds at the end of a game, concert or event

Below: Fashion Valley Centre station has street-level bus loading areas below the station and an aerial walkway link to the nearby shopping complex