COAST CITIES — The Sprinter light rail system, carrying travelers along the 22-mile route paralleling Highway 78 since last March, is now the backbone for the North County Transit District, or NCTD.
A minimum of 6,000 trips have been logged every day on the Sprinter, most of them employees commuting to work. The largest constituent of riders may soon be college students. While the Sprinter opened too late to attract many students during the spring 2008 semester, there was a surge of more than 2,000 additional daily trips at the beginning of the fall semester in September. A similar increase is expected this month.
“I’ve heard very positive comments about the service,” Joe Madrigal, Palomar College’s Vice President of Student Services, said. “I’m the complaint department and I haven’t heard anything.”
According to Madrigal, it’s not just students who use the train, but also college employees. They, like the other working commuters, are drawn to the Sprinter for its reliability — the train has an on-time percentage of more than 99 percent.
People also use the Sprinter for casual travel. “We got a pleasant surprise over the summer,” NCTD spokesman Tom Kelleher said. “There were a lot of people using the Sprinter to get to the beach in the summer.”
The Sprinter became increasingly popular as gas prices soared to more than $4 a gallon. Now that gas prices have dropped, so has ridership. However, Kelleher believes people have become aware of an alternative to driving, and said he sees an average rise in daily trips.
That increase is important because the rail line is currently operating at well under the 11,000 daily trips projected before the Sprinter opened. Fare increases are part of the problem, according to Kelleher. Since opening, fares have gone from $4 to $5 for a day pass.
Kelleher said that the Sprinter could attract much more business if it increased frequency of service. Currently, the Sprinter stops at each of the route’s 15 stations every half hour.
“Long term, I see a doubling and a tripling of the ridership for the next 20 years, but … we would have to put in double tracking through the entire corridor,” Kelleher said. At present, only one-third of the route is double tracked. Improvement will be costly.
“It’s sort of a shame that somehow we didn’t have the wherewithal to do that at the outset,” Vista Councilman and SANDAG board member Robert Campbell said. “It disappoints me to think that the crossovers to the university are single track bridges.”
While public transit projects rarely pay for themselves, the more people paying fares to ride the Sprinter, the better chance it will survive the latest state budget crisis. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently proposed eliminating funding for public transportation entirely. This would amount to $3.5 million gone from the $90 million NCTD budget.
Sales taxes, comprising almost half of the revenue stream, are down, too. Kelleher said this may cause service adjustments to reduce operating costs.
“These are really tough decisions,” Kelleher said. “We’re in a tough operating environment right now. (But) all of our modes will operate. That goes for the Coaster, the Breeze, the Sprinter, our ADA service.”
More information on the Sprinter and other NCTD systems can be found online at www.gonctd.com.