By David Harvey
A rapid-bus route from San Diego State University to downtown, along El Cajon and Park boulevards, is in its final design phase, with construction expected to begin in Spring 2011.
The new route will use 15 new low-floor vehicles and raised curbs at the stations to speed up boarding. Extended curbsides are also expected to save time by allowing the bus to rejoin traffic with ease. The Mid-City Rapid Bus will take approximately 38 minutes to travel from SDSU to downtown.
“Normally what we hear from people when we ask them why they don’t ride transit or why they don’t ride more often is that it’s too slow,” said Miriam Kirshner, senior transportation planner for SANDAG. “We’re doing everything that we can to make the service fast enough that it will be more attractive to use.”
The rapid-bus will run in normal traffic lanes for most of its route. However, along Park Boulevard between University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, it will maneuver in a dedicated transit lane in the center of the street. Because of this lane, SANDAG has proposed making the Lincoln Avenue intersection a four-way stop, and eliminating the ability to cross Park Boulevard at Polk Street.
SANDAG’s transit planning department is awaiting City Council approval to redesign parking spaces along Park Boulevard and three side streets: Polk, Lincoln and Centre. Angled parking spaces along Park Boulevard would be changed to parallel spots, while angled spots would be created on sections of Polk, Lincoln and Centre adjacent to Park. Of the 33 parking spaces that would be removed, 24 would be replaced.
“We’re going to be installing transit lanes in the center of the street and in order to do that, we’re going to be impacting parking on the side of the street,” Kirshner said. “To partially make up for the loss, we’d like to restripe some of the parking on some of the side streets.”
Representatives from the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement District, the University Heights Community Parking District and the North Park Planning Committee said community groups have accepted the rapid-bus installation but are unhappy with the development of the center transit lane on Park.
“There was a lot of concern about the bus going down the center of Park Boulevard,” said Rob Steppke, chair of the North Park Planning Committee. “They have to take out all that median, the landscaping, the trees—all that stuff.”
According to Jim Cooley, owner of the J.A. Cooley Museum at El Cajon and Park boulevards, those whose businesses are located on the stretch of Park Avenue where the center lane will be added are very unhappy with the project.
“They’re putting in a bus that nobody wants and nobody needs,” Cooley said. “They’re going to shove it down our throats.”
Cooley, who has operated his automobile museum from the same address since 1943, said the city should learn from its past and respect the reasons streetcars were removed in 1949.
“They hinder traffic by being in the middle of the street, they’re dangerous and they cited all the people that were hit and killed because they drop people off in the middle of the street,” Cooley said. “They said it would beautify the neighborhood by getting rid of the streetcar and I don’t think they had in mind putting in a bus.”
On the north end of the route, there are concerns that the Terrazzo—the decorative sidewalk that once marked the entrance of the historic State Theater—will be torn out to make room for a new bus station.
District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria, who has been gauging community support for the project, said he has received favorable input from those who have learned about the rapid-bus project. However, he, too, has concerns.
“It’s sad that the State Theater is no longer there, but that doesn’t mean that we should tear out the last piece of it,” Gloria said. “As much as I appreciate and support public transit, I think this is not a mutually exclusive arrangement. We can have both and I am encouraging them to work hard to create a project that can accommodate the Terrazzo.”
The total cost of the rapid-bus construction and implementation is budgeted at $40 million, half of which will come from a Very Small Starts Federal Grant—a grant dedicated to small-scale projects such as transportation routes—and the rest from a sales-tax measure that dedicated funding to public transportation. Although MTS has recently been making cutbacks, Kirshner said the rapid bus would operate independently.
“The sales tax measure that is providing 50 percent of the construction funding also provides 50 percent of the operating cost, so it is a secure source of funding,” Kirshner said. “The federal grant also requires us to operate at a certain frequency, so we’ll be tied into that.”
One of the reasons Kirshner cited for the development of the rapid-bus through North Park, University Heights and Hillcrest—in lieu of other areas in San Diego—was the potential for increased ridership between SDSU and downtown. However, opinions on potential ridership remain varied.
According to Cooley, busses near his shop are often nearly empty. However, Gary Weber, land use consultant with the El Cajon Boulevard BID, noted that SANDAG’s survey might underestimate the number of potential passengers.
“We have done a little bit of analysis … and we understand there is a real demand there for transit users,” Weber said. “We’ve been told that ridership could be even larger than SANDAG and MTS anticipate.”
If the City Council approves the changes to parking along the designated section of Park Boulevard, construction on the rapid-bus route—which could take up to a year to complete—will go forward as scheduled in Spring 2011.