Why does the new trolley stop 2 miles from the beach? – The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — 

Bringing mass transit close to San Diego’s famous beaches for the first time is a key selling point of the new trolley line connecting Old Town and La Jolla, but it may also end up being one of the new line’s most controversial elements.

While local officials say they’re eager to see low-income families carrying beach balls and wearing sandy flip-flops on the $2.2 billion new line, nearby residents say a major obstacle is the glaring lack of a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5.

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The Balboa Avenue station will be the prime stop for trolley-riding beachgoers, but the station is east of the freeway and passengers must navigate one of the region’s most congested intersections to access the beach and Mission Bay Park.

“It’s glaringly obvious that a bridge or tunnel is needed, and once the trolley starts running this weekend it will be even more obvious,” said Karl Rand, chairman of the Pacific Beach Community Planning Group.

Skeptics say that after walking under the freeway and then enduring long waits for “walk” signs to get across Balboa Avenue and East Mission Bay Drive, people who take the trolley to the beach will try it once and then never again.

Another challenge for beach access is that the station — one of nine on the new 11-mile line connecting Old Town and UTC mall — is located more than 2 miles from the ocean.

City officials say they expect there will be shuttles, especially on summer weekend days. And people are more willing to walk longer distances to something unique, like the beach or a waterfall, than they are to a restaurant or hardware store.

But Mayor Todd Gloria said 2 miles is still a major obstacle.

“A 2-mile walk is not world-class transit,” Gloria said. “All progress is incremental, and it’s clear that something more is needed here.”

Ride the new trolley

A new 11-mile trolley line from Old Town to UTC mall will start running early Sunday morning after many years of planning and construction.

Rides on the new line and San Diego’s other trolley lines are free all day Sunday to celebrate the new line, which has nine stops including stations in Clairemont, Pacific Beach, La Jolla and UC San Diego. A free festival with live entertainment will be held at UCSD from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

It’s notable that Mission Bay Park is only a few hundred yards from the new trolley line’s Balboa Avenue and Clairemont Drive stations.

Now both of San Diego’s two most iconic regional parks are accessible by trolley. The other, Balboa Park, can be accessed at its southwestern corner by the trolley’s Blue and Orange lines.

Gloria said despite its flaws, the new line will make accessing the beach much easier for many thousands of low-income residents living along the other lines of the trolley, which run through southeastern San Diego, National City, El Cajon and Chula Vista.

Encouraging people to use the trolley to access the beach are rules allowing surfboards and boogie boards if they aren’t longer than 6 feet. And bicycles could help solve the distance problem — one bike is allowed per trolley car during rush hour and two are allowed per car at other times.

Gloria said he’s optimistic that the danger and congestion problems near the Balboa Avenue station will be solved eventually by a bridge or tunnel — when there is enough public outcry.

“Once people see how badly it’s needed, they will demand it,” the mayor said.

The lack of a bridge or tunnel has been controversial since at least 2019, when the City Council approved new zoning plans for areas around the three southern stations on the new line — Balboa Avenue, Clairemont Drive and Tecolote Road.

Many residents balked at incentives in the plans for high-rise buildings as tall as 100 feet in some areas, incentives that were included to spur transit-oriented developments that could help solve the city’s housing crisis.

But other residents said their largest concern was the lack of a bridge or tunnel, particularly at the Balboa Avenue station.

Councilmember Jennifer Campbell, who represents Pacific Beach and the Clairemont neighborhoods most affected by the new line, requested city planning officials study the feasibility of a bicycle-pedestrian bridge or an aerial skyway.

But no study was completed, and the new line will open this Sunday with no plans in place for any pedestrian bridges.

“I think a bridge is definitely necessary,” Campbell said. “They have to work all that out.”

Community leaders would like the bridge to span from the new trolley station to Magnolia Avenue where it meets the Rose Creek bike path on the edge of Mission Bay Park.

Rand, the planning group chairman, said he thinks a tunnel might be cheaper than a bridge. Both proposals might face the hurdle that some of the needed property for a bridge or tunnel is privately owned, he said.

Planners have known for years the lack of a safe crossing was a major flaw, said Rand, noting that maps in the new zoning plans featured a rounded blank area around the station where a bridge or tunnel should be. “I call it the ‘mystery oval,’” he said.

Officials with the county’s regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, said including a bridge or tunnel in the plans for the new trolley line would have been outside their purview.

“There’s a limit to how far you can go outside the footprint of the new light rail line,” said Sharon Humphreys, SANDAG’s director of engineering and construction. “Some of these connections that are part of the greater community are the city’s responsibility. They are outside of the light-rail improvements.”

But Humphreys acknowledged the need and expressed optimism it will eventually happen.

“In the future, as more and more people come to those stations and use those crossings in their less-than-ideal circumstances, there will be more and more impetus to make those changes happen,” she said.

While no firm cost estimates exist, SANDAG officials suggested this fall that somewhere between $15 million and $20 million is a good guess for a pedestrian bridge.

Another option, Humphreys said, would be to add space for pedestrians and cyclists to use the existing road bridge. No cost estimate was available for that option.

The California Coastal Commission has also expressed concerns about the Balboa Avenue station, recently demanding that the city update its new zoning plan for the station to include a shuttle into Pacific Beach.

The commission also recommends that developers who take advantage of the new zoning should pay a special impact fee to help fund such a shuttle.

The commission also wants city officials to work with SANDAG and the Metropolitan Transit System to create a safe path over the freeway, which the commission said could be “a bridge, aerial skyway, or other means with potential connections to Mission Bay Park and Mission Boulevard.”

Trolley's Blue Line to UC San Diego opens map