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San Diego Sprinter Raises Fares to Counter 4% Ridership Drop

The San Diego Sprinter and Coaster serves Oceanside and Escondido. It was launched with the same high hopes as SMART.

The San Diego Union Tribune reports that:

"The district’s systemwide “farebox recovery ratio” has hovered just above the legal minimum — between 20 and 25 percent — since 2006, according to the district’s financial report for the 2015 budget year. "

The Search for the Holy Rail - Nationwide Train System Disasters

The farebox recovery ratio is the fraction of operating expenses which are met by the fares paid by passengers. It is computed by dividing the system's total fare revenue by its total operating expenses.
The fact that San Diego's farebox recovery for systems serving a much larger population catchment than SMART is barely above the legal minimum should be setting off alarm bells.

No one should expect trains to break even - but the fact that this celebrated rail project has such low ridership that fares have to be increased should be a strong warning sign that rail is not the answer. People are not flocking to rail. It is not solving what it promised - to reduce traffic congestion. Per capita driving is actually on the increase in San Diego county despite the investment in rail.

What Impact Has Rail Had?

The Coaster opened in 1995 and the Sprinter opened in 2008 at a cost, like SMART, of billions. One might expect the impact to have been a shift from driving to transit, but precisely the opposite happened:

Transit Ridership in San Diego County Actually Dropped

1990: 3.2%
2000: 3.3%
2013: 3.10% (years after the Coaster and Sounder launched)

Conversely Commuting Driving Alone Continued to Rise
1990: 70.9%
2000: 73.9%
2013: 76%

San Diego Applies the ultimate Ridership Killer - Fare Increases
Faced with the need to survive instead of discouraging transit the train is increasing fares - serving to further diminish ridership. Even during economic growth years of 2014 - 2015 ridership dropped by 4% in a single year. A single ride from Oceanside to the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego would increase to $6.50


What is happening is that trains are being offered as solutions to traffic congestion. But they fail to deliver on this promise, instead, barely surviving and desperately cannibalizing transportation funding and pushing up fares whilst ridership is declining - defeating the very objective they were launched to solve - reduce traffic congestion.

We need to learn lessons emerging here from history and from projects that are close parallels - be it that they serve much larger population catchments - to our own train. We need to retain objectivity and data driven policy - and we need to be very wary of elected officials who have pushed for solutions that appear near certain to fail.

Who are these elected officials who misled their electorate and ignored the
history of rail? Know them before the upcoming local elections.

To others I would ask can we afford to continue to invest in transportation projects that under any scrutiny have no hope of achieving their stated goal of reducing traffic congestion?