“We’re very much underfunded. We probably need … if I had to just do it down to a sound bite, we’d probably need about $60 million a year in capital to maintain all of this infrastructure and we’re hovering around $30.”
Jablonski says the largest transit agencies in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have all been saying for quite some time that money needed to go toward infrastructure costs and he saw that right away when he came to San Diego.
“Our oldest U2 cars are almost 30 years old; they’ve never been through a rehab,” Jablonski says.
“Now they’ve been painted. We’ve done kind of an exterior rehab on them. And they look beautiful, but they’re 30 years old. And you know I don’t know how much longer they’re going to last.
“I mean we run into the situation a lot now where we just can’t get parts for them. We have to fabricate some body parts and things like that.”
Traveling to San Diego, I just considered it a trip to California like any other. Of course, I didn’t realize at first just how far south San Diego is and how close to Mexico MTS operates. It’s a point that Paul Jablonski says the agency must always be on top of.
“One of the things we have to be cognizant of is that we’re 15 miles away from the biggest international border crossing in the world—Tijuana,” Jablonski states.
Jablonski says the agency has a good relationship with the border patrol. The San Diego/Tijuana border isn’t just U.S. and Mexico citizens coming across, though. More people from a variety of different countries cross here than you would expect.
“Last time I looked at it, it’s like 30 or 40 countries’ passports,” Jablonski explains.
“And they’re not all like Canada and Mexico and Peru and everything from here. There are a lot of European countries and a lot of Middle Eastern countries coming through.”
In a sobering thought, Jablonski notes that one of the individuals involved with the 9/11 terrorist attacks had come through that border crossing, which causes the agency to be particularly concerned due to its proximity to the border and the sheer number of people who use its vehicles when they come through.
“The trolley is you know 75 yards from the border,” Jablonski notes.
“Just about all of the pedestrians that cross the border ride transit when they come across. I think the last number I heard was 22,000 to 24,000 pedestrians and we carry the vast, vast majority of those.”
Jablonski says the border crossing’s image has gone from one of tourists and college kids heading to Tijuana to party, to a potential entry point for those who may have harmful intentions towards the United States. Because of this, the agency has made a significant investment at the station there, including camera systems and stationary object detection software.
“We also recognize that our transportation system is good enough for somebody to walk across, get on a train, end up at a place like Santa Fe depot and then have access to the West Coast with Amtrak and things like that,” Jablonski says.
“There are two ways of thinking of it. Some people think with all of these military assets here that anybody would be reluctant to try anything here. But I guess the kind of way we look at it is with all of these military assets out here they are potential targets.”
While skyrocketing gas prices are causing considerable trouble for commuters and many transit agencies across the nation, Jablonski says it hasn’t hurt their system to a large degree because 75 percent of their fleet uses compressed natural gas (CNG) now.
“You know I think the last time I calculated it, a one-penny increase in diesel costs us about $15,000 to $16,000 a year, whereas a one-penny per therm [increase in CNG] now probably costs us $80,000 to $90,000 a year, so we look much more at CNG,” Jablonski states.
He notes that while the cost of CNG has doubled over the last three or four years, the cost of diesel has quintupled in the same time period. Jablonski says the system will be experimenting with gasoline hybrid vehicles in the near future, with 12 of those type buses arriving soon after the first of the year.