Rail tracks hug some of San Diego County’s busiest freeways, from the Coaster and Amtrak lines along Interstate 5 to the Sprinter rail that runs near Highway 78.
But along the county’s biggest inland corridor —- Interstate 15 —- decades-old plans for rail never picked up steam because of concerns about cost, hilly terrain and low ridership, officials in San Diego and Riverside counties said this week.
Still, in recent months, as transportation officials have hailed the opening of I-15′s new express lanes from Escondido to Kearny Mesa, some North County Times readers have asked whether planners ever considered building a commuter rail line along the busy interstate.
Some have argued that rail would have attracted more riders than the express lanes, which are free for car pools, buses and motorcycles, and open to fee-paying solo drivers.
And although some call the express lanes a success, one reader’s comment captures the curiosity, and some of the frustration, about the lack of rail. It was left online on a recent Times article about plans for rapid buses along the I-15 express lanes.
“Why won’t these people just do this right and put a rail line down the 15? Busses (sic) are considered shady and for poor people. The geniuses put in a useless east/west rail line instead of a north/south line that would actually get used by commuters,” wrote the commenter, who goes by JohnSmith11.
So the North County Times posed the same question to those in the know. Here’s how they responded:
“Back in the ’90s, we did look at that … the (I-15) corridor was a potential rail corridor,” said Dave Schumacher, a principal planner with the San Diego Association of Governments, the region’s planning agency.
Shumacher said the agency considered several options for solving I-15′s notorious traffic crunch, among them adding rail, freeway lanes or express lanes.
“We heard over and over: ‘Give us choices,’” the planner said of the forums held on the topic.
And while rail was one possible choice, it was also the most expensive, with cost estimates “in the billions of dollars,” Schumacher added.
Steep grades, low ridership
When rail was considered, concerns also popped up about the I-15 corridor’s hilly terrain and relatively low ridership projections, said Jerome Stocks, the agency’s chairman and mayor of Encinitas.
Steep grades along I-15 ruled out “heavy rail” like the Coaster and Amtrak trains, which travel at freeway speeds between Oceanside and San Diego. Trains, if ever added, would travel at roughly 30 miles per hour on the inland corridor, similar to the speeds of the San Diego Trolley or the Sprinter trains that link Escondido to Oceanside, Stocks said.
Plus the neighborhoods along I-15 were spread out, unlike the densely packed communities usually found along successful rail lines, officials said. Billions might be spent but relatively few people might ever take the train, officials said they concluded.
Riverside County rail study
San Diego County leaders aren’t the only ones who considered rail along I-15.
With a booming population that increasingly used I-15 to commute to jobs in San Diego, Riverside County officials commissioned the I-15 Commuter Rail Feasibility Study, produced in 2007.
The conceptual 66-mile rail line, the study estimated, would generate an estimated 3,000 weekday boardings, but cost more than $1.64 billion to plan and build.
By contrast, the I-15 express lanes cost roughly $1 billion. A rapid bus line project, including transit station and freeway ramp improvements, will push the express lanes’ total cost to about $1.4 billion, officials have said.
Riverside County’s I-15 rail plans never went anywhere because of a lack of funding, said John Standiford, deputy director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, which commissioned the study.
He said, however, the agency hasn’t killed the idea.
“There is a demand (for public transportation to San Diego) and it’s likely to grow,” Standiford said. “I wouldn’t rule (rail) out. I just don’t think it’s something you’re going to see in the near future.”
An I-15 bullet train?
Although commuter rail plans on I-15 never left the station, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has eyed the interstate for its bullet train project.
The high-speed network’s final leg —- from Los Angeles to San Diego —- would run from the Inland Empire south through Murrieta and Escondido along I-15 before veering west to reach downtown San Diego.
Because of exorbitant cost estimates, observers doubt the final San Diego County leg will ever be built. It’s in the early planning stages and no construction is expected for at least a decade.
If it is ever built, the bullet train will have to negotiate the same steep hills that blocked I-15′s commuter rail concept.
It also would have to contend with some unhappy local residents.
Very early plans show bullet train tunnels boring through North County communities such as Rainbow. Residents in the agricultural community expressed their ire over the blueprints two years ago, and vowed to fight the plan should it survive, as have many across California.