Floodplain fever: the trolley arrives in Mission Valley

There is general agreement that the trolley is a Good Thing, but lots of controversy over potential damage this Good Thing could do.

by Lori Saldaña
he next few years may find San Diegans riding an elevated electric trolley along the San Diego River after parking their cars in a new parking structure in Fashion Valley. But what economic and environmental price will we have paid for the privilege? Are the benefits of proceeding worth the costs and risks?
While few would contest the benefits of the trolley - reducing road congestion and auto pollution - there are serious objections to the current plan. And there are powerful forces at work on both sides of the issue.

Laying the track

Future trolly riders can thank a rather unusual alliance for making their trip possible: City Councilmem-bers/football fans, Fashion Valley Shopping Center owners, and the very determined Metropolitan Transit District Board (MTDB).
The football fans: In January, the San Diego City Council stated its desire to have the Mission Valley Line/West trolley line operational for the 1998 Super Bowl. Four Councilmembers - Ron Roberts, Valerie Stallings, Judy McCarty and Juan Vargas - sit on the MTDB, which is responsible for planning trolley expansion. When the development vote came before the MTDB at the September 22 meeting, all but McCarty voted to approve.
Fashion Valley expansion: Also in September, representatives of the Fashion Valley Shopping Center asked the Planning Commission for a permit to expand the mall's parking facilities. They intend to increase shopping facilities by 440,000 square feet, and are concerned about loss of parking due to the trolley track running through their southern parking lots. (The trolley will be above the lot, supported by trestles along the proposed route.) After recommending several changes, the Commission voted in October to approve the parking structure project. (The final vote will come from the City Council later this year.)
One unusual feature of the parking structure: during floods, water will be diverted through the lower levels. Presumably, shoppers will be warned before they park their vehicles and leave for a day of shopping.
Final permits for the trolley expansion project are expected to be issued before the end of the year. Bill Lorenz, the MTDB's Light Rail Transit Engineer, is confident that the permit applications are in the final stages of review by three federal agencies (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife) and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Lawsuit foiled

Were there no other considerations, the trolley project would probably see only green signals and clear track ahead. However, the proposed route is located in a flood plain and one of San Diego's few remaining wetlands. Despite a lawsuit, complaints from citizen groups and warnings and disapproval from the city's Wetlands Advisory Board, the trolley project is steaming ahead.
This rapid sequence of events is bad news for Eric Bowlby and Randy Berkman. Since 1992, they have argued that the proposed alignment of the trolley should be moved out of sensitive riparian wetlands areas near the mouth of the San Diego River. In 1992, they helped form the River Valley Preservation Project, and in September 1993 their organization filed a lawsuit to request a supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before permits were issued for the trolley expansion.
According to Andy Uland, one of three attorneys who worked on the case, "We tried to get the Metropolitan Transit Development Board to do a supplemental EIR because, since the original EIR had been done, there had been a number of changes that people felt needed to be addressed.
"But the court said the MTDB had not made their final decision regarding the route of the trolley. Therefore, the suit was premature. We thought they were making massive changes that needed additional approval. The Judge [Jeffrey T. Miller] didn't see it our way." The suit was dismissed in June; an appeal is planned.

The price is wrong

Despite this temporary set-back, Bowlby and Berkman are continuing to work to change the project and move the trolley out of the river's wetlands. While they are not opposed to improvements in public transportation per se, they maintain that the ridership projections for this particular trolley line don't warrant its $247.5 million price tag.
According to Berkman, the MTDB can use only local funds along the proposed 6.1 mile route because "the Federal Transportation Administration wants 20,000 riders per day before they'll give funding for a project." He quotes the MTDB's own figures, which estimate Mission Valley trolley ridership levels at only 4,000 per day in the first year, expanding to 16,000 per day by 2005. They also argue that money and wetlands could be saved by moving the trolley out of the floodplain.
County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Pam Slater is also opposed to the project based on these low ridership figures. On October 28, she testified at a hearing held by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), arguing that the project "just doesn't make sense." The hearing considered a request to authorize loans for the project, and Slater is concerned that the final costs could go as high as $400 million.
"My concern has to do with cost and benefits," Slater explained recently. "If you look at the numbers of people transported it's less than 16,000. Compare that to a road that is critical - Route 56. They need $35 million to handle 60,000 average trips per day."
Slater served on the MTDB for three years and is an alternate member to SANDAG, which approved the request for the loan. She concedes that, before listening to others testify at the hearing and criticize the trolley's alignment along the river, she was not as familiar with the environmental concerns. But now she wonders if they are contributing to the budget problems. She believes "There's a lot of waste in all these budgets," and wants the project's designers to reconsider the cost of mitigation that the current route requires.

Mitigating circumstances

Bill Lorenz agrees with Berkman and Slater's ridership numbers of 16,000 per day, and admits that the project will require $8.7 million in wetland mitigation expenses. The mitigation plan involves the purchase of 34 acres of land in western Mission Valley that will be permanently set aside. This is intended to compensate for the loss of riparian and open water marsh habitat at the site of the trolley line. The mitigated areas will be monitored for two years to ensure they keep up with the plan's biological requirements.
Lorenz believes that the initial loss of wetlands will actually result in a long-term improvement to the local environment. "What we've heard from the [permitting] agencies is that we have prepared an excellent mitigation plan," he maintains. "It will be a tremendous asset to the community. We've gone out of our way to develop the best mitigation plan we can that meets the state and federal requirements."
However, the city's Wetlands Advisory Board doesn't think development in a known floodplain makes sense, even when it's mitigated. While the final votes have yet to be passed, and the permit requests are still being evaluated, the Advisory Board has recommended that both the Fashion Valley expansion and the placement of the trolley line be reconsidered.
In a memo sent to the City Planning Department, dated June 9, 1994, the Advisory Board wrote:
"The location selected for this [parking expansion] project is inappropriate for reasons of wetland protection, wildlife impact, public safety, flood damage, and protection of river viewsheds. We recommend that the project be relocated out of the floodplain, at least north of the Broadway store. Similarly, we would advise that the trolley line also be relocated to a route out of the floodplain.
"The flood damage in the Santa Margarita, Tijuana, Mississippi, and Ohio River valleys are the most recent reminders of the immense cost to the public and to property owners of building in flood plains. United States policy has shifted from facilitating construction within flood plains to relocating existing improvements to locations outside of flood plains. The public cannot afford this type of development environmentally nor economically."

Water softeners

The San Diego area Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) is also concerned about the mitigation and flood control aspects of this plan. At their November 11 meeting in Encinitas the Board heard a report on the project and voted to recommend that the State Water Resource Control Board issue what's known as a "Section 401 Water Quality Certification" permit so it could continue. However, they outlined three conditions in this recommendation.
According to Greig Peters, an Environmental Specialist for the RWQCB, the first condition requires the MTDB to develop a monitoring program for the mitigation plan to record the dissolved oxygen levels in the river near the proposed channel project. There have been fish die-offs in other parts of the San Diego River that are part of the First San Diego River Improvement Project (FSDRIP), and some people believe these deaths are related to low dissolved oxygen levels. The MTDB also must develop a plan that would be put into effect should oxygen levels drop and create conditions harmful to aquatic life.
As a second condition, the RWQCB will notify the city of San Diego and the MTDB that the proposed trolley alignment may preclude other alternatives to channelization and flood control near Fashion Valley. According to Peters, "If and when they want to make it so floods don't traverse the [Fashion Valley] parking lots, how will they make the river wider? If the trestle is along the river's south edge, it will make it harder to expand." Peters points out that this notice is an official public record, confirming that the planners have willingly made potential flood control alterations much more expensive.
Peters also explained that this section of the river is only half as wide as the river east of Fashion Valley. When the water moves from the wider channel to the narrow area, it invariably floods the Fashion Valley parking lot.
Thrid, the MTDB must come up with a satisfactory mitigation plan for the riparian and wetland habitat that will be disturbed. Says Peters, "We're certain that wildlife and habitat will be protected in this project, but it is conditioned on the fact that agreement will be reached" between the MTDB, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California State Department of Fish and Game.
When Supervisor Slater heard about the permit recommendation, she remarked that she hoped "Fish and Wildlife and Fish and Game are as tough on them as on other people." She now favors aligning the trolley closer to residential areas along Friars Road, away from the river, rather than near the retail businesses and hotels in the floodplain.
It remains to be seen if the trolley and parking structure projects will receive final approval. But as the trolley moves east through Mission Valley, controversy seems to be riding along.

Lori Saldaña, a regular contributor to the Earth Times, is a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental issues.