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San Diego Considers $4 Billion 'Transformative' Station Project to Connect Users to Airport

Regional Planners Review Transit Options That Could Spur Nearby Development

San Diego regional officials are considering a new central station that could connect travelers to the airport. (San Diego Association of Governments)

San Diego could be in store for a $4 billion transit terminal equipped with an automated light rail system, becoming the latest U.S. city seeking to alleviate regional traffic woes and give transit riders long-sought direct access to its airport.

Regional planners are scheduled this week to discuss plans for a targeted 70-acre site that is an aging technology-research office campus run by the U.S. Navy, which is looking to redevelop the property north of the airport with commercial elements that could include offices and retail. The discussion comes just after U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer signed a memorandum of understanding calling for the Navy to work with city and regional planners on a redevelopment project that could incorporate the new transit station.

"This exclusive agreement takes our partnership with the Navy to the next level and signals a new phase for what could be one of the most transformative projects in San Diego history," San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement. Beyond the $4 billion development project, the commercial real estate industry could also benefit because fast access to and from major airports often makes a region a more appealing home for large corporate offices, which in turn can boost demand for nearby apartments, restaurants and stores in those cities.

Improving mass transit and luring more major corporate facilities are simultaneous areas of discussion among regional development officials in San Diego, the eighth-largest U.S. city that is primarily known for its growing biotechnology industry. While the city is now the third-biggest life sciences center in the country, after greater Boston and San Francisco, San Diego has been looking to draw major facilities for technology companies that have been among the biggest users of U.S. office real estate in the past decade.

San Diego residents have long sought direct access to the airport by improving upon an existing light-rail trolley system that now leaves riders seeking cab or ride-hail transportation from downtown stations several blocks from the airport. City and regional officials have been considering a transit station among other commercial uses at the aging Navy complex known formally as Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood. Old Town also houses one of the city's largest connector hubs for local trolley and bus service that would let riders from across the region use a new airport-oriented transit center.

A newly released report by San Diego Association of Governments, which works with several city and countywide agencies on regional planning matters, outlines four potential concepts for the transit station. Among the concepts is an underground, one-mile people mover that could operate nonstop between the new station and San Diego International Airport terminals, a proposal that has generally been favored by regional planners and their consultants.

People movers, automated light-rail systems that circulate between terminals and other on-site facilities, are increasingly being used by airports to ease congestion and help travelers navigate between far-flung gates more quickly. The movers are already in place in the airports of cities such as Denver and Atlanta, and are being planned in others including Chicago and Los Angeles.

The driverless transportation system is touted for its reduced carbon emissions and efficiency in transporting potentially hundreds of riders quickly. In Los Angeles, for instance, officials have said the people-mover that began construction this year is expected to have capacity for as many as 200 riders in four shuttle cars that will arrive at the Los Angeles International Airport every two minutes.

Other options for the San Diego site include an above-ground people-mover system with stops at other points including the airport’s rental car center; the addition of pickup and drop-off points in a wider area of downtown adjacent to the airport to access the transit center; and an extension of the existing San Diego Trolley light-rail system.

The San Diego Association of Governments report estimates that a new station combined with a people mover could boost current transit ridership among airport-bound travelers from the current 1% to between 15% and 34%, while significantly reducing vehicle traffic on roads adjacent to airport terminals.

The organization is scheduled to discuss the report at the agency’s Sept. 25 meeting, and plans will need to be approved by the agency’s board following environmental and other required reviews.

The naval complex employs more than 5,000 Navy personnel and Defense Department contractors in the development of cybersecurity and communications systems. San Diego Association of Governments Chairman Steve Vaus said in a statement the agreement with the Navy sets the groundwork for development that should help retain and expand those security-related operations in San Diego.

Earlier this year, San Diego International Airport operators reached an agreement with that facility’s major commercial carriers, under which the airlines will contribute more than $500 million over the next 10 years toward airport-related development projects that could include airport-adjacent transit alternatives.

Article by: Lou Hirsh, CoStar, September 24, 2019

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