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TRANSPORTATION–Coaster Celebrates 5 Years of Business Commuting



Plans for Expanding Coastal Train

The Coast Express Rail , more commonly known as the Coaster , recently marked its fifth anniversary of getting people to work by holding a series of f & #281;tes at several of its train stations.

Now begins the nitty-gritty work of pushing to make the next five years a success.

Speeding along at up to 90 mph, the familiar double-decker commuter train began carrying passengers Feb. 27, 1995, with its 43-mile inaugural run from the Oceanside Transit Center to San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot.

Since that time, the Coaster has grown to carry more than 1.2 million passengers annually, while covering more than 1 million miles of track , enough mileage for two round trips to the moon, said David Druker, chairman of the North County Transit Development Board.

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That makes the Coaster a success story for local public transit, Druker said.

“Only 24 percent of North County residents had used transit in the past year (before the Coaster). Since the Coaster debuted, that percentage has doubled,” he said. “In five short years, the Coaster has exposed the virtues of public transportation to a vast new market of people.”

Phyllis Hall, spokeswoman for NCTD, noted the Coaster has more than tripled its ridership in the past five years , from 1,500 people a day to 5,000.

For Hall, it’s easy to see why. Riding the Coaster to work has a number of benefits to both employees and employers, she said.

Saves Time, Wear And Tear

For North County workers, it reduces the wear and tear on their automobiles, and actually saves time that might otherwise be spent stuck in the Interstate 5-I-805 merge on the return trip. Since they don’t have to drive, they have what Hall calls “quiet time.”

For employers, it reduces the stress on parking, and employees arrive at work more relaxed, Hall said.

Many businesses in San Diego subsidize the cost of their employees riding the Coaster. Employees can receive up to $65 a month to apply to Coaster travel, while the company can claim a tax deduction for it, Hall said.

Pharmingen is one such company. The La Jolla-based civil engineering firm provides up to $65 a month for people who car pool, ride the Coaster or use other forms of public transit, said Megan Jones, who founded the subsidy program about a year ago.

The firm, with 350 full-time employees, had a tangible reason for creating the program.

“We have about 90 people every day who don’t have a parking space,” Jones said.

Other reasons include improving the air quality and reducing stress levels as employees no longer have to combat rush-hour traffic, she said.

Drivers Adapting

Formerly automobile-dependent employees have adjusted to the change, said Jones, despite the challenge found in going out for lunch, or leaving work early.

“They’ve found it’s not so difficult to compromise, as far as sharing the vehicle with somebody else during the day,” Jones said.

More San Diegans will learn to adjust, predicts Hall, of the NCTD. She points to new housing developments in San Diego, centered around light rail and Coaster stops, that should make commuting easier.

The Coaster has additional benefits, as well. As word gets out, the train will also be seen as a resource to benefit the tourist industry, Hall said.

“(They’re) going to utilize this to their advantage. I don’t know where else you can spend a day, for $7 round trip, to go up and down the coast of San Diego,” she said.

“If the cities and the merchants all take advantage of this opportunity, to use that as part of their promotion, I can just see it bringing in some extra resources for everyone.”

Druker, meanwhile, expects even more riders in the future.

“The Coaster continues to exceed our projections for ridership and enhancing regional mobility,” Druker said. “It will be our challenge to keep this service as convenient and dependable as possible as we experience future growth.”

Coaster Expansion

To make that happen, NCTD has several projects in the works.

The Coaster will acquire a new locomotive in July, and four more passenger cars by the year 2004. This will increase the overall flexibility of the system and could pave the way for more frequent service.

Also, the rail will be double-tracked in several key locations , north of Oceanside; from Sorrento Mesa to Miramar; and between Interstate 8 and Balboa Avenue.

This will improve the overall on-time performance of the Coaster, Druker said.

Construction has been completed on a second train track at the Solana Beach station. In late January, Coaster trains began running on the second track, which allows for two trains to meet and gain access to the station at the same time, improving the operation and reliability of rail service, Druker said.

It also allows the NCTD to make minor shifts in the Coaster’s timetable. Starting in May, the new schedule will speed up the Coaster’s run by two to three minutes.

Parking is also being expanded at several stations, starting with Encinitas later this year. Next year, a new parking lot will be built at the Sorrento Valley stop, while expanded parking is also on tap for Oceanside, Carlsbad and Solana Beach.

That’s crucial for the continued success of the Coaster. As more people choose to take the train to work, parking is becoming squeezed at the stations. Unless more spaces become available, that will limit the number of people who are able to board the Coaster, said Ron Barrow, construction services supervisor for NCTD.

Barrow would like to see ridership double in the next five years. But if limitations on parking continue, then average daily ridership will increase by a smaller amount , to about 6,500 passengers.

NCTD is up to the challenge, Druker said.

“Our devoted customers have made a tremendous contribution to our success during the first five years of operation,” Druker said.

“With their continued support and patronage, we look forward to providing increased and improved service to both our current and future riders.”

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