In 1987, a group of visionary local elected officials, business and civic leaders concerned with the level of state and federal funding for the region’s transportation needs, proposed a half-cent TransNet sales tax initiative that would augment existing funds for roads, freeways and light rail projects.
Voters shared in that dream and passed the tax initiative measure. That was the beginning of an incredible success story in the San Diego region — the Mission Valley East extension of the San Diego Trolley.
Now that the $500 million project is complete and exceeding all ridership projections, no one seems the least bit surprised. During the 30-year process of building the line — cutting through the heart of the city and serving massive San Diego State University — there was never much doubt that it would be a success.
But major challenges involving the route, the cost, the constructability and the potential environmental impacts all made it very difficult to make final decisions and move forward.
The Mission Valley East project completed the San Diego Trolley’s third line — the “Green Line.” It started carrying paying customers in July 2005. Beginning at the Old Town Transit Station north of downtown, the line runs east through Mission Valley and stops at Qualcomm Stadium, then detours onto the SDSU campus, links up with the Orange Line in La Mesa and traverses El Cajon before terminating in Santee.
Mission Valley East was the final section of the Green Line, filling in the 5.9-mile gap between Qualcomm and Grossmont Transit Center in La Mesa. It closed a giant loop made up of all three trolley lines.
Planners initially projected that by 2010 daily boardings would be about 7,300 at the four stations added with the Mission Valley East extension. In the fall of 2005 this number was at 4,500 and continued to grow to 5,700 in the fall of 2006 — a 25 percent increase.
It also provided immediate congestion relief on the nearby roadways, diverting 4,600 trips from automobile to transit, and reducing parking demand at SDSU by 2,000 cars per day. On July 9, 2005, when dignitaries cut the ribbon on the new section of light rail at the impressive new underground station on the SDSU campus, a reporter quoted Representative Susan Davis as saying what just about everyone else at the event said: “Wow!”
The idea of routing light rail through Mission Valley already had been in long-range plans for four years when the San Diego Trolley first opened in 1981. That year, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) started operating the first segment of light rail transit in the region, a 16-mile stretch from downtown San Diego to the international border with Mexico.
Over the ensuing 20 years, MTDB steadily expanded the network to 47 miles of track. Two separate lines were created — the original Blue Line, which now stretches from Old Town south through downtown and then along the coast to the border; and the Orange Line.
The first phase extension east from Old Town into Mission Valley was also built to connect transit riders to Mission Valley employment, residential, shopping and entertainment, including Qualcomm Stadium.
As the light rail system grew, the transit agency took pains to connect it with the regional bus network and the Coaster Commuter Rail system at key trolley stations and regional transit centers. San Diego Trolley passenger boardings in late 1999 averaged approximately 75,000 on a typical weekday and often reached 90,000 on special event dates such as Chargers football games.
Filling the Gap
Although the 20-year-old San Diego Trolley was a great success, the missing piece in Mission Valley was a gap preventing the trolley from creating a loop that would connect people in some of the busiest communities in the region, including the tens of thousands of students of San Diego State University that had to fight traffic to get to campus, and fight for parking spaces once they got there. MTDB began planning and designing the missing link in 1991. In general, the route was obvious: head east through Mission Valley, making sure to touch SDSU and continue on to La Mesa.