CA: New NCTD executive outlines plans for growth. 'We want to be more than a transit agency.'

Jan. 3, 2024
Relationships will drive the future of the North County Transit District, the agency's new chief executive officer, Shawn M. Donaghy, said Thursday soon after the board unanimously confirmed his appointment.

Relationships will drive the future of the North County Transit District, the agency's new chief executive officer, Shawn M. Donaghy, said Thursday soon after the board unanimously confirmed his appointment.

Transit officials must work with cities, the county, and regional, state and federal agencies to get the support and funding needed for projects that will carry public transportation into the future.

" North County has done a good job in prioritizing projects," Donaghy said. "Relationships are a big part of that."

The district's priorities include double-tracking of the 60-mile rail corridor from downtown San Diego to the Orange County border, also the 22-mile Sprinter rail between Oceanside and Escondido. Two sets of tracks allow trains to pass each other, which eliminates bottlenecks and speeds up service. Almost half of the Sprinter route has been double-tracked so far, and about three-quarters of the Coaster route.

Also high on the list is the transition to zero-emissions locomotives and buses. California has deadlines of 2030 for passenger trains and 2040 for buses.

One of the biggest projects facing NCTD and the San Diego Association of Governments, the area's regional planning agency, is a proposal to move about 1.6 miles of the train tracks off the eroding coastal bluffs in Del Mar.

The most likely new route is a tunnel to be bored beneath the small town at a cost of well over $4 billion. Transit officials say the realignment is essential to maintain reliable rail service, but some people — primarily a few residents of Del Mar — oppose the idea.

"It goes back to getting everyone in the room," Donaghy said. "It's important for people to put their issues on the table, whether we agree or not. We need to make sure the right people are in the room, and explain the long-term effects of not having public transit available."

Many people stopped riding trains and buses when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 and health restrictions kept people at home. Afterward, bus riders returned fairly quickly, but train passengers have been slower to get back on board and still have not reached pre-pandemic numbers. Many continue to work from home.

Part of the problem may be that daily peak passenger times have changed, and train schedules are yet to be adjusted, Donaghy said. More trains later in the day or earlier in the morning or afternoon could boost the number of riders.

An increasing number of people use the train for recreational trips such as Padres baseball games, Del Mar horse races, the San Diego County fair or shopping ventures. That's another avenue to be promoted.

"Also, post-pandemic we want to make sure that the disadvantaged neighborhoods that need service the most still have access to it," he said.

Another way the district is trying to increase riders is by working with developers to build affordable apartments on property the agency owns at its rail stations. The proposed multi-story, mixed-use projects include units reserved for low-income tenants, who are more likely than others to use conveniently located mass transit.

"It's critical to the success of the agency," Donaghy said of the transit-oriented development. "It really creates livability. It's huge for us ... we want to be sure that within that residential project there is affordability and access to transit."

A robust rail and transit system reduces freeway traffic and air pollution. That is important not only to riders and the environment, but to the area's overall economic development.

"We want to be more than a transit agency," he said. "We want to be a force for the success and economic development of all the county."

Donaghy's appointment as chief executive officer ends a four-month national search by the board that produced 46 applicants, of whom six were interviewed. He has more than 25 years experience in public transit, most recently as CEO of C-TRAN in Vancouver, Wash. His first day at NCTD will be March 1.

NCTD's former CEO, Matt Tucker, announced in August that he would retire Sept. 1 after nearly 15 years with the agency and 30 years in public transit.

Since Tucker's retirement, the district has been led by interim director Paul Ballard, who took the job after serving in similar roles at Trinity Metro-Fort Worth Transportation Agency in Fort Worth, Texas, and at the Regional Transportation District in Denver.

Ballard said Thursday he's known Donaghy for a long time and that he would be "a fantastic match" for the district.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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