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Does out of gas mean out of options?

La Jolla offers limited choices for transport

With gas prices topping $4.50 a gallon and no end in sight, at least one local analyst believes we’ve passed the “tipping point,” the price at which San Diegans begin to abandon solo-occupant vehicles and switch to some other transportation mode.

“What’s happened over the last five years as energy prices have been going up quite suddenly,” noted UCSD economics professor James Hamilton, “is that (gas) has become a much more significant part of people’s budgets and is beginning to impact people’s ability to pay for (other) things.

“We’ve reached the point where consumers are going to have to respond. They don’t have a choice,” he said.

Hamilton said the latest data from the Department of Transportation shows the number of cars on the road in San Diego actually declined 4.3 percent in March. That, coupled with huge drops in sales for gas-guzzling SUVs the past couple months, Hamilton speculated, is signaling that $4 a gallon might have been the “tipping point.” People may be ready to get out of their own vehicles and into public mass transit, or some other mode, or combination of different modes, of alternative transport - electric cars, mopeds, hybrid vehicles, trolleys, smart cars, even bicycles.

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Rob Schupp, marketing and communications director for the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), which operates city bus and trolley lines, agreed that the tipping point may already have been reached.

“Our bus ridership is up about five percent over the fiscal year which ends July 1,” said Schupp. “The tipping point has arrived. More and more people are looking for public transportation for a solution.”

That transition may not be quick - or easy - and certainly will not be painless, most experts agree.

Increased demand for public transport is coming at a bad time for San Diego’s already financially troubled mass-transit system.

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“About half our (MTS’s) revenues are derived from sales tax,” noted Schupp, “and when consumer spending goes down (which it is), it hurts our budget. Also, the state is having budget cuts to balance their budget, and they’re taking money away from public transportation. We’re finding ourselves with fairly large budget deficits, and we’re obligated to have a balanced budget.”

The net result, said Schupp, is that MTS has been forced to do two things: raise fares and cut services. “As our last alternative, we’ve had to cut back services,” he said, “eliminate whole routes and reduce the frequency and the span of services.”

MTS bus route 30, which goes between La Jolla and the Old Town Transit Center, is one of the routes that has had, and likely will continue to have, modification due to consolidation.

“We have a recommendation to change the routing of 30 to continue to provide service to the La Jolla Colony area,” said Schupp. “After going up to UTC, it is proposed to take a jog off of La Jolla Village Drive to include service along Nobel Drive.”

The 30 bus will also likely remain the only MTS service available to La Jolla.

An 11-mile trolley extension paralleling Interstate 5 that will link UCSD and UTC at its northern terminus with Old Town is years away.

The city of San Diego, transportation experts and community planners are still tweaking the alignment of the plan - called the Mid-Coast Light Rail Transit extension. Its northern section currently has five proposed stations at University Center Lane, UCSD West, UCSD East, Executive Drive and the UTC Transit Center. The adopted light rail alignment through UCSD provides for a West Campus station in Pepper Canyon and an East Campus station on Voigt Drive, either east or west of Campus Point Drive. However, estimates are it will take at least until 2013 before that light rail segment is up and running.

In addition to public transportation, consumers are beginning to turn to a number of alternative transportation modes. One of the best-known alternatives is electric vehicles, which are full-size cars, legal on any public road in any state. They can travel at freeway speeds and are an efficient means of getting around town. They are quiet and have no emissions. At present, however, there remains at least one major obstacle to electric cars becoming more mainstream.

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“Range is basically the limiting factor,” said Joseph Gottlieb, president of Escondido-based Electra-City Motors. With existing technology, electric cars can only go between 50 and 120 miles between reghargings.

However, Gottlieb and other electric car fans claim much of the “leg work” toward making electric vehicles capable of replacing fossil-fueled vehicles has already been done. “In the ‘90s, California automakers were mandated to have (a small percentage of) their vehicles be electric,” said Gottlieb. “All of the automotive manufacturers built them, but they pulled all those cars back and destroyed them.”

Another major transportation alternative consumers are turning more and more to is full-size hybrid vehicles, like the high-profile Toyota Prius, which have a conventional gas or diesel engine in addition to electric motors and batteries. The big advantage of hybrid vehicles is they can operate at low speed with all the quiet efficiency of a pure electric, and yet have the range of any commercial vehicle. Because the gas or diesel engine only has to be large enough to power the vehicle at near-maximum speed, the gas or diesel engine in a hybrid can be much smaller than a gas-only or diesel-only vehicle.

There are also far more exotic and speculative fuels being studied for use in alternative vehicles, employing everything from solar power and compressed air to vegetable oil byproducts from restaurant fryers.

Carolyn Chase, co-founder of EarthFair, the annual Earth Day celebration at Balboa Park which routinely features alternative-type vehicles among its array of “green” energy-saving products, agrees that gradually transitioning from gas-powered vehicles to other transportation solutions could be a bumpy ride, especially for businesses.

“For the first time in 40 or 50 years, the measurable amount of miles traveled went down last year,” said Chase. “That’s really a sea change. If it persists, a lot of business models are going to be turned upside down.”

Chase said she foresees change in our transportation future. “More and more people are connecting the dots, seeing that they’re going to have to change their habits in order to be able to afford things. The old paradigm (endlessly using fossil fuels) is running out of gas.”

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