San Diego's 'Tijuana trolley' -- no stops for US aid

The "have-nots" of mass transit are in despair. President Reagan aims to stop federal funding of new rail systems in US cities. But in San Diego, Calif., the bright red trolley cars trundling along 16 miles of track stand as evidence that even in the high-cost world of rail transit, some communities still can become "haves" without federal help.

San Diego's trolley cars are being tested on that leg of track, which comprises the nation's first new streetcar system in many years. Nicknamed the "Tijuana Trolley," because it stretches south from the city to the Mexican border, the project is scheduled to begin service in July.

Besides their red color, the trolley vehicles are gaining attention because they were bought without federal money. Typically, cities receive 80 percent of the cost of building new rail transit systems from the federal government.

San Diego opted to build its $98 million transit project without federal help because it felt it could do the job faster and cheaper by avoiding regulations that go with assistance from Washington. Indeed, the project may not even have qualified for federal aid.Federal funding in recent years has tended to go to more ambitious projects in cities with higher populations densities.

Federal transportation officials and members of the mass transit industry have viewed the project as an interesting experiment that would be difficult to repeat in other cities where proposed rail transit systems may carry much higher price tags.

However, the Reagan proposal to halt federal funding of new rail starts has forced transit planners in some other cities to begin thinking about the feasibility of building new rail systems on their own, or with less federal help.

In Houston, a $1 billion rail transit project now ready for preliminary engineering has ground to a halt because of uncertainty about federal aid. Because of the possibility of losing that support, the city is studying whether it could build the project solely with local funds.

Although still hopeful that Congress will provide some federal help for new transit rail starts, a Houston transit official voices confidence that "one way or other, this project will be built."

Los Angeles also is eager to press ahead with plans to build a rail transit system. A transit official there says that while there is no talk of funding the entire project locally, there is hope that it could survive with scaled-down federal assistance.

By rail transit standards, the San Diego project is nothing to write home about. The trolley cars, made by Siemans/duWag of West Germnay, are quite simple compared with the rapid rail vehicles found in the new US subway systems in San Francisco, Washington, and Atlanta.

The entire San Diego system is above ground, and, an one official in the mayor's office notes, "There is no new technology here, and the design is deliberately cheap."

A couple of development made the San Diego project feasible without federal help. In 1974, California voters approved a ballot measure permitting a portion of state gasoline taxes to be returned to countries exclusively for rail transit use. Those are the funds that will support the project.

Then, in 1976, a tropical storm washed out some portions of a freight railroad that extends south from San Diego. The rail operation already was marginal, and its operator decided to sell the line.San Diego got the track and rights of way for its transit project at a bargain-basement price.

One of the most innovative features of the San Diego project is its "self-service" fare collection system. Patrons will be allowed to get on and off the trolleys freely, without any proof they hold a ticket. Roving inspectors will conduct periodic checks to be sure passengers have paid their fares, and offenders will be assessed fines.

No one doubts some passengers will escape paying fares, but San Diego transit officials figured those losses would be more than offset by savings in construction costs. The system's 11 stations do not need to be enclosed because they serve no function in keeping freeloaders off the trolleys.

Passengers likely will find the self-service approach an advantage, San Diego transit officials claim. Instead of funneling riders through only one door, the San Diego vehicles will open all doors at each stop.

The San Diego Metropolican Transit Development Board estimates the trolley system will carry 30,000 riders daily by 1995. And its unique route structure -- serving not only the central city but also stretching to the US-Mexico border -- is expected to give the line an unusual ridership of about half commuters and half tourists.

The project soon may be significantly expanded. The Metropolitan Transit Development Board recently approved "in concept" an extention of the trolley line 17 miles east to El Cajon.

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