Long-awaited Balboa Avenue trolley station set for Nov. 21 opening
After years of anticipation and development, the Balboa Avenue transit center is slated to open Nov. 21 as part of SANDAG’s $2.1 billion Mid-Coast Trolley extension project.
As one of three new stations added to the Metropolitan Transit System trolley’s Blue Line, the Balboa Avenue station is the closest to Pacific Beach, connecting the coastal community with a one-seat ride to downtown San Diego and University Town Center.
Officials have said they expect the extension project to help add 20,000 new weekday transit riders, according to a pre-COVID-19 estimate. Ridership during the pandemic has decreased dramatically, and it is unclear how this estimate will be met.
Ahead of the Balboa station’s opening, project shortcomings are being worked out. Ramon Ruelas, SANDAG project director for the Mid-Coast extension since January of 2020, is confident that revenue ridership will be available despite some project items that have yet to be completed.
“There’s a fair amount of work that needs to be done before then,” Ruelas said. “Everybody is doing everything they can to make this the best that it can be.”
Among the unfinished business, some materials for sound paneling and elements of elevators for the station’s raised platforms have not yet been delivered. Ruelas said that while he expects to complete these items before opening for ridership, there are alternate materials that can be used so as not to impede service.
Other projects that do not obstruct trolley service will linger beyond the November opening, such as nearby street improvements and the upcoming neighborhood shuttle to and from the
trolley station, expected to launch by spring of 2022. SANDAG is still in the process of procuring a contractor to operate the neighborhood shuttle program in Pacific Beach.
As part of SANDAG’s draft Regional Plan for 2021, a “mobility hub” concept was developed for stations in the Mid-Coast extension. Mobility hubs are a sustainable community strategy that
mixes infrastructure and amenities to increase transit options in communities with a high concentration of people, destinations and travel choices.
SANDAG has designated Pacific Beach as a “transit-priority” area. Some of the features of the Balboa Station mobility hub include designated pedestrian walkways, mixed-use trails, bicycle lockers, and an upcoming electric vehicle charging station.
The Balboa station will have 230 parking spaces, a drop-off-pickup bay, a bus bay, facilities for bicycles and micro-mobility vehicles like scooters, and new ticket vending machines to
accommodate the PRONTO regional fare program run through MTS.
“At the Balboa station specifically, 100% of amenities, short of EV charging facilities, will be done,” Ruelas said. “That station, for all intents and purposes, if you went out today and looked at it, it’s very close to being 100% complete. The EV charging probably won’t be in place for another year, hopefully sooner. SANDAG is currently looking for a vendor.”
The project has already had an influence on nearby traffic. Previously, there was direct on-ramp access from eastbound Balboa Avenue to southbound Morena Boulevard, and this ramp was closed during construction of the station. Modifications to the intersection of Morena and Balboa include a new loop-ramp specifically for the purpose of access to Morena, and a
pedestrian bridge has been constructed over Balboa. The new traffic signal at the northbound off-ramp to Balboa is also one of the features included in this project.
The Pacific Beach Planning Group, a community advisory group on land use, has been involved in the planning around the trolley station area in anticipation of the opening of the station, said Karl Rand, chair of the group. In 2017 the group unanimously approved the zoning changes proposed in the Balboa Station Area-Specific Plan.
While some are questioning the estimates of ridership numbers, Rand, who rents some rooms of his house to students at UC San Diego, said that because of parking and housing shortages on campus, local students will perhaps see the most benefit from the opening of the station.
“We’re hoping that they will be able to take the neighborhood shuttle to the trolley station and take the trolley all the way to the middle of campus [at UCSD] and avoid traffic and parking issues,” he said.
Weighing both the benefits and complications to the station’s opening, Rand said he foresees an uncomfortable transition into trolley service for the nearby community.
“I am extremely excited about the opening of these stations,” he said, “but there are definitely going to be growing pains.”
Among the issues are station access from Pacific Beach, a potential impact in local traffic, and the gap between the station’s opening and the launching of the neighborhood shuttle, he said.
“All these stations are only as good as your ability to get to and from it,” Rand said.
The Balboa trolley station is on the opposite side of Interstate 5 from Pacific Beach, which Rand sees as a barrier for local pedestrians.
“The interstate is almost like this huge wall separating us from the station,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to link it and get access.”
As a potential solution, Rand mentioned a previously discussed idea of either a pedestrian bridge or a tunnel, similar to the one at the Old Town station, that takes pedestrians below the tracks.
Ruelas said he was aware of the community’s interest in a plan to allow pedestrians to go over the interstate.
“That’s not included as part of our project,” he said. “That’s not to say that there isn’t already pedestrian access, but it requires them to go under the interstate by way of the sidewalk.”
Rand said that having the underpass as the exclusive access point to the station may prove troublesome.
“Any pedestrian or scooter access to the station is through the underpass [on Balboa Avenue],” Rand said. “To call it a bottleneck is an understatement. We desperately need another access
route. I think the SANDAG folks acknowledge that.”
City Council President Jen Campbell, representative for the district including Pacific Beach, said her office has made funding for a pedestrian bridge over the I-5 a “day one” priority.
“SANDAG has told us that they are in the process of obtaining funding from state programs that are designed to bring people to mass transit stations,” Campbell said. “SANDAG is also making electric shuttles available to transport travelers in and out of Pacific Beach as we await the construction of the bridge. Greater access to the station can reduce traffic, increase safety, help us reach our climate goals and provide financial savings to individuals and families.”
Despite his hesitations, Rand said he views the station as a long-term benefit to Pacific Beach.
“Because we’re anticipating these growing pains, people haven’t gotten super excited about it,” he said. “It’s a missing piece of the puzzle. Once it gets in place, then the station is going to be fully integrated into the community and it will be viewed as an essential part of PB. There will be some immediate benefits, but the real benefits from this station will be more long-term.”
1995 - The Pacific Beach Community Plan, mentioning the opening of a trolley station at the intersection of Morena and Balboa, is adopted by the San Diego City Council,
2014 - Adequate funding and environmental approval are acquired for SANDAG’s Mid-Coast Trolley Extension Project
2016 - Construction begins
2017 - PB Planning Group unanimously approves zoning proposals in Balboa Area-Specific Plan
2020 - Coastal Commission approves the plan, adding the requirement for a neighborhood shuttle
2021 - Balboa Transit Center slated to open for service Nov. 21