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NCTD's coastal railway carries Amtrak passengers and several million tons of commercial freight annually. Photo courtesy of Amtrak
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Transit district to invest heavily in rail, city leaders mostly supportive

REGION — The regional transit district’s board of directors unanimously adopted a capital improvement program at its Jan. 21 meeting, charting heavy investment in commuter trains and buses over the next five years.

Most North County municipal legislators who commented said they believe trains and buses will remain viable modes of transportation, not least to mitigate cars’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Though district board member and newly-elected Del Mar City Councilman Dan Quirk cited declining ridership, saying “the future is moving to one of clean electric vehicles and self-driving [cars],” not rail mass transit.

The North County Transit District, or NCTD, operates rail, bus and shuttle public transit services. Its coastal railway also carries Amtrak passengers and several million tons of commercial freight annually. About three-quarters of its operating revenues come from federal, state and local subsidies, the remainder from passenger fares and other generated income. The value of the district’s capital assets, including real property and equipment, totals nearly a half-billion dollars.

The district is governed by a cross-section of North County’s local elected officials, appointed by their respective legislatures at one- to two-year intervals.

NCTD says its “state of good repair” needs over the next five years require $315 million. Another $888 million for “capacity enhancing projects” implemented by SANDAG, a separate regional agency, brings the total to $1.2 billion.

For “state of good repair” projects, funding sources worth $170 million — a bit over half the estimated need — have been identified. Of funded projects, about two-thirds are rail-related, the remainder are bus-related. “Critical unfunded projects,” according to NCTD staff, include BREEZE bus fleet and COASTER passenger train bridge replacements, as well as a new administration building, among other things.

Falling rail ridership could represent a cyclical trend, rather than an inexorable plunge, NCTD Chair and Encinitas Councilman Tony Kranz told The Coast News.

Passenger trains will remain viable if sufficient capacity exists to “attract riders,” he said. Though so-called bus rapid transit — dedicated lanes that keep buses out of gridlock — “would be a much smarter investment” than trying to build a Metrorail system as big as Washington, D.C.’s.

North County’s land use will become “denser and more compacted” and “less dependent on single-occupant vehicle travel,” NCTD CEO Matt Tucker said. “Self-driving technologies will not result in the reduction of vehicle-miles-traveled [a measure of automobile dependency], which is required under state mandates. Nor do they address social equity issues.”

Certain demographic subgroups — Black, Hispanic, recent immigrants, people making less than $25k — generally use public transit far more than others, according to a 2018 report.

“I do not know of any future technology to replace freight rail, other than discussions about ‘super trucking,’ that would add more trucks on our freeways, and could not possibly duplicate the carrying capacity of a freight train,” Tucker said.

Residents want “greater [public transit] frequency, improved reliability and the ability to get to where you need to go in a timely manner for a similar cost [as driving],” said NCTD Board Member and Solana Beach Councilwoman Jewel Edson. “There is also a great deal of interest in transit solutions that help reduce [greenhouse gases]. NCTD’s [capital improvement program] aligns with these goals.”

“Electric cars and self-driving cars are part of our future, but people want choice, and transit is a wise investment to provide that choice and provide for a greener future,” Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner said. “By providing this choice, more and more will opt for it for a regular commute or an occasional trip, thus growing ridership over time.”

“For many people, addressing climate change is a priority. A robust transit system is an essential part of addressing that concern,” Del Mar Councilman Dwight Worden said. “SANDAG’s Five Big Moves [a plan to invest in regionwide transit, highways, and next-gen transportation tech], if approved, will rebuild our transit system to make it completive with car travel time, and less expensive. That will drive ridership. NCTD’s rail and bus service will be an important part of that system. If it’s quicker and cheaper folks will use it.”

“I am generally in favor of continuing to fund public transit as we need to fund all modalities to provide the public with alternatives,” Del Mar Councilman Dave Druker said. “The major improvement needed is to remove the train from the bluff.”

“I believe most people are not aware of how truly low the [COASTER] ridership numbers are,” Quirk said. “Most critically, the tracks create physical divisions in the cities through which they run, preventing and destroying optimized urban design.”

Quirk voted in favor of the capital improvement program last week. Though he’d like ongoing spending discussions to take place “within the context of results, what we’re trying to achieve here — ridership numbers across the various modes of transportation, specifically,” he said.

Other North County councilmembers didn’t respond to requests for comment. These include NCTD Board Members Esther Sanchez (Oceanside), Priya Bhat-Patel (Carlsbad), Paul McNamara (Escondido), Sharon Jenkins (San Marcos) and Corinna Contreras (Vista).

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