Op-Ed: A Freeway-Divided Neighborhood Fights for Better Transit Connections

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The Works

Op-Ed: A Freeway-Divided Neighborhood Fights for Better Transit Connections

Residents of City Heights, San Diego were promised better transit connections back in the 1980s.

Rendering of a bus station to be built in City Heights, San Diego. Credit: City Heights CDC

Imagine that an infrastructure project promised to your community 30 years ago is finally coming to fruition. You’ve had decades to picture what could have been. Would you be frustrated about the wait? Excited about the result? This is how residents of San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood feel now, after a long-awaited transportation project recently received the funding needed to go forward.

In the 1980s, Caltrans — the state agency responsible for development and maintenance of highways, bridges and railways — split the City Heights community in half with the construction of a new freeway, Interstate 15. To compensate the neighborhood, officials promised a rapid bus line, known as the Centerline, which would end up costing $45 million. It took until last year for the remaining funds to be identified.

“We went through a lot,” said City Heights advocate Maria Cortez. “I’ve been on this since 1985. We want them to know we need our transit, we need it to improve… and we need the Centerline to go onboard.”

City Heights, which covers part of southeastern San Diego, has been a fast-growing community since the 1960s, when many of the neighborhood’s original single-family homes were replaced with multifamily apartment complexes. This increase in density aimed to fulfill new housing demands throughout the area. As the population grew, so did the proportion of low-income residents. The city decreased investment in the neighborhood as a result, and crime rates increased. Businesses began closing their doors.

Two decades later, Caltrans approached the community with what seemed like a good deal: If residents supported the construction of a new freeway through the middle of their neighborhood, Caltrans would work with the City Heights Community Development Corporation to establish a plan for compensating the community. Known as the Visions Project, the proposal submitted to Caltrans called for an eight-block cover over the freeway. The development was to include a town square with shops, restaurants, markets, a library and a community center.

The 1980s redevelopment plans also promised an express bus lane that would run parallel to the new freeway, connecting City Heights to job centers across the San Diego area. The community’s rate of transit ridership is four times the national average, so the Centerline was set to become an important tool for economic development and expansion.

Caltrans rejected the freeway cover but agreed to fund the Centerline, recognizing how it would improve the regional transportation network. More than 20 years later, the agency has finally found the funds to give the Centerline the green light, with expected completion in 2015.

Located at freeway level, the Centerline bus would load City Heights passengers from two stops linked to the neighborhood by elevators. According to the City Heights CDC, the Centerline will have a huge effect on work commutes, decreasing travel times and increasing job options available to residents.

“City Heights is the San Diego region’s most walking-, biking- and transit-dependent community. It has the lowest automobile ownership and the highest transit ridership,” said Randy Van Vleck, transportation manager for the CDC. “This is an enormous accomplishment for the community.”

Today the City Heights and the CDC can breathe a sigh of relief. Yet for some neighborhood advocates, the Centerline is just the first of many accomplishments to come. Community members will now focus on incorporating the work of local artists into the design of the Centerline stops. They will also advocate for the extension of the San Diego trolley to one of the Centerline stops, further increasing the neighborhood accessibility.

“They told us that we were going to have the trolley,” said Cortez, the community advocate. “Then all of a sudden they said it wouldn’t be feasible for City Heights to use the trolley, so they told us no.” She explained that many residents “stayed together and fought and argued and determined that yes, we need the trolley.”

This determination to fight for better local infrastructure is once again paying dividends. According to Cortez, “the trolley is back on the drawing board again.”

The Center on Policy Initiatives, a grantee of the Surdna Foundation, is a nonprofit research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic equity for working people and diverse communities throughout the San Diego region.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationthe worksbuseshighwaysbus rapid transitsan diegocommunity development corporations

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