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SANDAG approves trolley extension report

By James Palen, November 21, 2014

Work to extend the San Diego Trolley Blue Line from the international border to UC San Diego and surrounding areas is expected to start in late 2015.

The San Diego Association of Governments' board of directors Friday unanimously certified the project's final environmental impact report after last month's federal approval of environmental documents.

The $2 billion project will provide a no-transfer transit alternative to highway use for commuters between the international border and communities south of downtown San Diego to UCSD and University City.

Proponents say the line will connect residents directly to job centers. SANDAG projects it to increase daily transit ridership by 21,000 riders. The metropolitan planning organization also said construction will result in more than 14,000 local jobs.

“This project will not only provide additional travel choices for residents, it will also be a major boost to the regional economy,” said Santee Councilmember Jack Dale, chair of the SANDAG board of directors.

As much as environmental groups have asked SANDAG to focus more on transit opportunities, the Mid-Coast Trolley project is not without problems.

The Friends of Rose Canyon organization cited concerns about noise from the trolley line near sensitive habitat.

SANDAG had earlier considered extending the trolley line through Rose Canyon, instead of around it, but decided against it because of environmental concerns.

Still, Friends of Rose Canyon says the buffer between the project and canyon habitat is still too small to avoid noise and visual impact.

Everett Delano, an Escondido-based environmental attorney representing the organization, said effects to the canyon will be greater than SANDAG represented in its report.

"There's analysis in EIR ... that talks about the notion that the project is not actually within Rose Canyon," Delano said. "From the standpoint of physical boundaries, that's true, but any of you who've had neighbors who might impact you, you know you don't have to be within the boundaries of particular views in order to have impact on that view."

Delano said it appeared as though SANDAG's estimates of noise impacts were skewed because they used averages that included both times when trolleys would pass by as well as times when they would not.

SANDAG staff defended its analyses of visual and noise level impacts, stating that visually, the impact will not be significant, because the trolley extension will be built beside an existing Amtrak rail line.

SANDAG also said its noise analysis used real-time peak noise levels, known as "Lmax" levels of "A-weighted" decibels or dBa, that would be created at the moment of a trolley's passing.

"The L-max level created by either Amtrak or the commuter rail line would be 10 dba higher than the levels created by the trolley — the train operations of the trolley," Steve Wolf, a noise consultant to SANDAG stated in his description of the SANDAG analysis.

Sean Karafin, an economic policy analyst with the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said his group favors the project because taxpayers approved the extension of SANDAG's half-cent TransNet sales tax.

Now that SANDAG's board has certified the final environmental document, the next step is to seek approval from the Federal Transit Administration for final engineering, and to secure a full funding grant agreement from the FTA’s New Starts program.

SANDAG said the grant agreement will provide half the funding; the rest will be the TransNet tax.

Separately on Friday, the SANDAG board heard information on new analysis for the potential funding and planning impacts of front-loading — for the next 10 years — many long-range transit projects, some as late as 2050.

On Sept. 12, the SANDAG board accepted its preferred transportation network related to the San Diego Forward regional plan, but many transit advocates expressed disappointment that there was no option to move many of the long-range transit projects to the front of the timeline.

Though it may not necessarily change SANDAG’s direction, SANDAG said the analysis will be used for future planning and funding strategies.

Preliminary results, which will look at two "accelerated transportation scenarios," will be presented to the Transportation Committee in January, and will be discussed at the board's retreat later that month.

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