CA: Twice as many trains? A new border express bus? Big San Diego transit plans in doubt due to state budget woes

May 9, 2024
State budget problems are jeopardizing a potentially game-changing $40 million plan to boost San Diego Trolley ridership by cutting wait times for trains in half.

State budget problems are jeopardizing a potentially game-changing $40 million plan to boost San Diego Trolley ridership by cutting wait times for trains in half.

Under the plan, which had been scheduled to take effect June 9, trains on all trolley lines would arrive twice as often during evening hours and on weekends — every 15 minutes versus 30 minutes.

And during weekday peak hours, service on part of the Blue Line connecting UC San Diego and the U.S.- Mexico border would double from once every 15 minutes to once every 7 1/2 minutes.

The proposed upgrades come with trolley ridership nearly back up to pre-pandemic levels after a sharp dip.

Speeding up transit service is critical to getting people to try mass transit instead of driving and to help achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals, Metropolitan Transit System officials said.

But MTS planned to pay for the upgrades with millions from a new $4 billion state program for transit projects and operations that is now in jeopardy because of a projected state budget deficit that has continued to widen this spring.

The state deficit is also threatening the North County Transit District's plans to use money from the new program to boost security, add wayfinding signs and add double tracking for express trains at the San Dieguito Lagoon.

State officials last week notified MTS and NCTD that allocations from the new program's first year, which had been due April 30, are frozen pending budget negotiations in Sacramento to close the projected deficit.

NCTD officials remain cautiously optimistic they will get the $54.4 million they were expecting for the upcoming budget year, said Chris Orlando, the district's chief planning and communications officer.

"We are watching closely, just like probably every other transit agency in the state," Orlando said Tuesday. "These are critical funds that transit agencies use to fill gaps."

MTS officials also hope to get the $136 million they were due to get April 30. But the MTS board's Budget Development Committee is scheduled to discuss Wednesday afternoon a proposal to delay indefinitely the trolley service enhancements.

The agency's proposed budget for the new fiscal year, which had been scheduled for adoption May 16, would use $63.3 million from the new state program, which was created by 2023 legislation known as SB 125.

That budget would spend $20 million of that funding on service enhancements — roughly equal amounts for trolleys and buses — and $43.3 million on capital improvement projects.

The $43.3 million would be part of the largest capital improvement budget in MTS history — $243 million. It would pay for 38 new buses, 22 new trolley cars and overhead charging infrastructure to support conversion to an all-electric bus fleet.

With that $43.3 million now uncertain, MTS chief executive Sharon Cooney said in a staff report that it makes sense to delay the trolley improvements and plans for an express bus between downtown and the San Ysidro border crossing.

The express bus, which would be called the 910, would operate at night when the Blue Line must be out of service because of a conflict with freight operations.

"Staff believes when the May revision of the state budget is published, it should provide some clarity on the status of the SB 125 funding," Cooney wrote in a staff report.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is scheduled to unveil his May revised budget next Tuesday. He estimated a $38 billion deficit in January, but state officials said last month they've since had to reduce revenue projections for the new fiscal year.

On April 4, Newsom and the state Legislature approved an "early action agreement" that includes $17 billion in cuts, project delays and other savings. It includes delaying, not cutting, $1 billion from SB 125.

Over the program's four years, MTS is slated to get $283 million from SB 125, while NCTD is slated to get $113 million. MTS officials plan to spend $72 million on capital improvements and $211 million on operations.

Just under $39 million of the operations money would cover the trolley service upgrades — $8 million in the new fiscal year, $9.9 million in fiscal year 2026 and $10.5 million each in fiscal years 2027 and 2028.

On the Green Line, which runs from downtown San Diego to Santee through Mission Valley and the San Diego State University campus, the improvements would affect evening hours and weekends.

Trains would continue to come every 15 minutes during the day on weekdays, but they would run twice as frequently — every 15 minutes instead of every 30 — on weekday evenings, early Saturday mornings, Saturday evenings and all day Sunday between SDSU and Santee.

On the Orange Line, which runs from downtown to El Cajon, service would shift from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes on weekday mornings, and service would be extended until after midnight on Sundays.

Service at night would also shift from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes — but only after crews complete $26 million in track upgrades that would also be funded by SB 125.

On the Blue Line, which runs from UC San Diego to the border, service would shift from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes evenings and nights. And it would shift from once every 15 minutes to once every 7 1/2 minutes during peak commute times on weekdays, but only between the border and America Plaza downtown.

MTS also plans to spend $54 million on bus route upgrades, including new routes, shorter wait times on many routes and extended service hours on some routes.

Officials said the bus and trolley upgrades were chosen based on three separate studies.

"Surveys and studies by MTS and industry-wide have shown that the single largest barrier to increasing ridership, and converting travelers form automobile to public transportation, is the transit travel time," MTS officials said of the proposed changes. "While travel time parity may be difficult to completely achieve, studies have also shown that the benefits of transit (lower cost, less stress, etc.) mean that many will accept some additional travel time to use transit."

Trolley ridership climbed back to 36 million in 2023, nearly as high as the 37.3 million in 2019 — the year before the pandemic began and commutes plummeted. Ridership dropped to 32 million in 2020 and then down to 19.5 million in 2020, before rebounding to 29.7 million in 2022.

But trolley ridership had been expected to increase sharply when an extension of the Blue Line from Old Town to La Jolla and UC San Diego began running in November 2021.

The service upgrades are part of wider campaign to boost usage that also includes added security to make passengers feel more safe.

Wednesday's meeting of the MTS Budget Development Committee is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. at 1255 Imperial Ave. downtown. It can be viewed online at

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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