Taking the Trolley Underground : Port District should pay the extra $16 million to put project below street level

The San Diego Trolley is facing one of its toughest challenges in the Harborview-Little Italy neighborhood, the community traveled by anyone going to or from Lindbergh Field.

At issue is what's best for the trolley system and what's best for the neighborhood. Clouding the solution is the mayor's dream of a bayfront library.

Anyone driving to the airport who has had to stop for an Amtrak train understands the problem from the Metropolitan Transit Development Board's perspective. Right now, there are nine Amtrak and two freight trains that interrupt traffic each day on the two streets in question, Grape and Hawthorn. Trolleys running every 15 minutes would add greatly to the congestion.

MTDB, seeing gridlock and trolleys thrown off schedule, wants to elevate the trolley tracks.

The neighborhood, on the other hand, fears concrete pillars blocking bay views. It sees the elevated tracks as both a psychological and a physical barrier. It wants most of the trolley tracks either at or below street level.

Running the tracks at street level will slow the trolley and likely worsen congestion, even with the compromises and mitigating measures suggested by the community. This option should be avoided because the keys to public transit success are speed and reliability.

Most desirable is to run the tracks below street level. But this will cost $16 million more than elevated tracks.

The San Diego Unified Port District could solve the problem by contributing most of the additional funds. And it should.

The Port District operates Lindbergh Field and collects the revenues generated by it. Much of the traffic is created by the airport, making this a reasonable airport-related cost. A small portion of the money should be raised by the Harborview-Little Italy business interests, who will benefit both from the trolley's presence and having it below ground.

The Port District's decision should not be influenced by Mayor Maureen O'Connor's proposal for a bayfront library on Port District land. The library tops her list of projects for port support, which may have influenced her position in favor of running the trolley at street level.

But there are still many questions to be answered on the library plan.

The Port District should keep the two issues separate, and decide the trolley proposal on its merits.

Putting the trolley tracks below street level is a good investment for airport passengers and the Harborview neighborhood, and it will benefit the region by ensuring smoother trolley service.

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