Report: San Diego Trolley Extension Cost Double the Average for U.S. Light Rail

Experts attribute the high cost of the project to local opposition and call on state and federal leaders to give transportation agencies more authority over local jurisdictions.

January 24, 2022, 11:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


San Diego Trolley car

The Port of Authority / San Diego Trolley car

A report from UC Berkeley found that San Diego's Blue Line trolley extension cost double the per-mile average for similar projects, but was completed in half the average time. Joshua Emerson Smith outlines the findings of the study, which also analyzed four other rail projects in the state.

Ethan Elkind, co-author of the report, says the high cost of the San Diego project is indicative of the many challenges faced by rail initiatives in places like California. According to Elkind, the project was "well executed," but remains a "cautionary tale." The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) worked with local stakeholders to reduce opposition and mitigate community concerns, raising the cost of the project by promising new parking spaces in certain areas and elevating the trolley tracks on the UC San Diego campus. 

The report recommends that state and federal leaders "crack down" on local opposition to rail projects, with Elkind arguing that "we need to empower transit leaders to make decisions for the good of the region and not always give in to local demands along the route." But agency leaders like SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata are reluctant to take an aggressive approach or take away local land use authority.

Other California rail projects have shown varied results: while San Francisco's Central Subway project has encountered major delays and cost increases, L.A.'s Purple Line extension is costing 70 percent of the national average. The report calls the state's beleaguered high-speed rail project "a case study in how not to build rail," citing the project's lack of foresight in securing land acquisition before designing routes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022 in San Diego Union-Tribune

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