Foreword: This is a longer version of my press release which was published on the website of METRANS, a transportation research partnership between the University of Southern California, California State University Long Beach, the US Department of Transportation, and other industry partners. You can find my article here.
On Friday, April 7th, the University of Southern California’s Institute of Transportation Engineers chapter (USC ITE) embarked on a trip to San Diego, California to tour the Port of San Diego, learn about the San Diego Association of Government’s (SANDAG) regional mobility initiatives, and enjoy a little bit of San Diego’s exceptional nature and culture.
Port of San Diego
Our first stop after arriving in San Diego bright and early was the Port of San Diego’s 10th Avenue Terminal, where we met our expert guides: Aimee Heim, Government and Civic Relations Program Director; and Brion Bargo, a Marine Terminal Supervisor.
The Port of San Diego is a unique organization among its peers. Its maritime operations, divided among its three marine terminals, only comprise about one-third of the organization’s portfolio, although the terminals have an outsized economic impact. Most of the Port’s activities are real estate, including the hotels and entertainment venues on the land it owns. Furthermore, San Diego International Airport was formerly under the Port’s purview, although the airport’s governing body is now separate and only leases the airport’s land from the Port. This business diversity is a strength: When asked about her favorite part of her career at the Port, Ms. Heim said she “[gets] to work on lots of different things and make them come together – and that’s fun!”
As Ms. Heim and Mr. Bargo led us around the terminal, we realized that its activities are a microcosm of its parent organization’s diversity. Mr. Bargo explained that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) bases one of its newest research vessels at the terminal, and the Port is using the terminal to test the nation’s first battery electric tugboats, which are cleaner than their traditional diesel counterparts. But Dole also calls the terminal home, moving billions of bananas and pineapples through the terminal and across the western United States every year, and the terminal features extensive warehousing facilities, including a cavernous dry storage building we drove through, filled with bauxite.
After learning about the 10th Ave Terminal, we drove a short distance south to the National City Terminal. This terminal is very different: it’s a major hub for importing vehicles to the United States! In fact, about 10% of all imported vehicles in the US pass through the National City Terminal. We passed by thousands of imported cars – from Lamborghinis and Porsches to Hondas and Toyotas, and were amazed by the dozens of facilities to install accessories on these cars. Additionally, Ms. Heim explained that the BNSF railway has its southern terminus at the National City Terminal, so goods from the terminal can travel all the way to Detroit and Chicago on the rails. (Interestingly, a $325 million superyacht the US government seized from a Russian oligarch was also moored at the National City Terminal.)
Ms. Heim and Mr. Bargo notably emphasized the Port’s outstanding focus on energy sustainability. In addition to the electric tugboats, the Port is also installing 50,000 square feet of solar panels on top of its cold warehousing facilities, along with a large set of batteries to modulate the port’s electric demand during peak periods. Moreover, they’re replacing diesel-powered heavy lifters – the dirtiest equipment on port premises – with new electric lifters, and installing grid hookups that reduce the need for ships to idle. In fact, Ms. Heim provided advice to students interested in transportation, noting “the fuel shift away from carbon-based fuels is a fundamental change . . . there is a huge opportunity for young people to rethink how we’re doing business”. We also noted the organization’s attention to being a good neighbor. Port facilities border the San Diego US Navy base, so their improvements have an eye for enhancing the country’s military readiness; for instance, in addition to regulating energy demand, the Port’s battery bank ensures critical services like fuel distribution remain online in case of grid failure during a war. Additionally, the 10th Ave Terminal borders Barrio Logan, a historically disadvantaged neighborhood. As such, the Port undertakes significant community outreach and investment to understand and mitigate its activities’ impact on surrounding communities.
Naturally, as transportation enthusiasts, we also noticed the surprisingly human-centered transportation infrastructure around Port facilities, especially the Class 4 physically separated bike lanes along the marine terminals’ feeder roads. Such transportation facilities (along with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s nearby Blue Line) undoubtedly help the harbor facilities’ many employees travel to work more easily and sustainably compared to driving. The Port notices this, too: It’s currently working on a project to reimagine Harbor Drive, a major freight, rail, pedestrian, bike, and private vehicle corridor that connects San Diego’s coastal neighborhoods and the Port’s marine terminals. As part of this project, the Port is constructing dedicated lanes for freight traffic, ferrying them more quickly to freeways while reducing their risky interactions with personal vehicles, bikers, and pedestrians.
After learning about the Port of San Diego, we travelled to SANDAG’s offices, where we were greeted by a panel of the organization’s leaders: Sharon Humphreys, Director of Engineering and Construction; Danny Veeh, Senior Planner; Victoria Stackwick, Chief of Staff; and Hasan Ikhrata, SANDAG’s CEO.
SANDAG, like the Port of San Diego, is also quite different from its peer organizations. While most other transportation administrators like Los Angeles Metro are state-mandated Regional Transportation Planning Agencies (RTPAs) that plan, fund, and construct transportation initiatives in a county, SANDAG is also a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Council of Governments (COG). This means it also has a mandate to develop solutions to other regional issues like equity, air quality, economic development, and public health.
To this end, we discussed numerous transportation improvements that serve these important goals. For example, we talked about SANDAG’s under-construction Otay Mesa East Port of Entry project, which provides a variable-priced, more advanced, and faster alternative to the frequently congested San Ysidro Port of Entry connecting the US and Mexico. This project not only enhances the flow of people and goods across the US-Mexico border, but also provides critical funding to invest in border communities in San Diego County and reduces emissions from vehicles that would otherwise be idling while waiting for processing at other Ports of Entry. Mr. Ikhrata also spoke passionately on the project’s equity angle, discussing how SANDAG will offer discounts that enable underserved populations to use the accelerated Port of Entry and benefit from the project. Ultimately, he provided straightforward and prescient advice to students: “always consider social equity in everything you do”.
Another major initiative discussed was LOSSAN, the critical rail corridor connecting Los Angeles and San Diego. Despite being the second busiest intercity rail route in the US (after the Northeast Corridor), LOSSAN is becoming increasingly unfit for service due to aging bridges, its single track, and erosion of the bluffs it sits on. Because of this, SANDAG is investing almost $8 billion over the next few years to double-track the corridor, rebuild bridges, and realign it away from the coastal bluffs. While this investment will, unfortunately, reduce LOSSAN’s spectacular Pacific views, it will also drastically improve the corridor’s capacity and travel time. Mr. Veeh hopes that the improvements mean rail service will run between LA and San Diego every 15 minutes or better, and bring trains to an average speed of over 100mph, making rail faster than driving between the two cities.
But, as with everything in policy and governance, not everything is perfect at SANDAG. While the agency is renowned for delivering its ambitious transportation projects under budget and before the deadline (in fact, Los Angeles leaders viewed SANDAG’s San Diego trolley as a model for constructing LA County’s first modern light rail line, the A/Blue Line), it still faces challenges. For instance, Ms. Stackwick discussed how the agency is trying to reap public benefits from the private gains that SANDAG investments bring. While private developers who purchase land near SANDAG projects see immediate and significant gains, SANDAG’s resources don’t increase in tandem. And funding is always difficult: local matches for federal transportation funding programs can be challenging to raise and keep, requiring extensive relationship-building. However, all four of our hosts agreed that today’s students are transportation’s future, encouraging our group to continue innovating and cultivating critical soft skills. And on a more practical note, Mr. Veeh supported internships as a way for students to gain experience.
A trip to San Diego wouldn’t be complete without a little fun, however! Between our visits to the Port of San Diego and SANDAG, we took in the beautiful murals under the I-5/Coronado Bridge overpass in Barrio Logan – the largest collection of outdoor murals in the entire United States. For lunch, our group had a hard time picking between the dozens of options at Liberty Station, a former military installation turned walkable Grand Central Market-esque food court. And to unwind in the evening, we marveled the beautiful views at Cabrillo National Monument, high on top of the Point Loma peninsula overlooking the Naval Air Station and the Pacific Ocean, and at La Jolla Village, featuring more stunning Pacific scenes and even some sea lions.
Overall, in just a day in San Diego, our USC ITE group learned so much about how mobility works in the region. From the seas of imported cars and discussion about sustainability initiatives at San Diego’s marine terminals to the LOSSAN corridor improvements, students undoubtedly gained a better understanding of how complex it is to keep San Diego moving, and moving forward. We discovered that the Port of San Diego and SANDAG are both incredibly progressive, visionary organizations devoted to making San Diego and Southern California better. But more importantly, speaking with professionals at both organizations reminded us of what transportation is really about: improving the lives of and connecting people.
And of course, thanks to David Martinez, USC ITE Vice President, for organizing this incredible trip, and Professor Shen, USC ITE Faculty Advisor, for continually supporting our organization and graciously driving our group to San Diego! This trip wouldn’t have been possible without their exceptional effort.
About the author: Alex Wang is a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Southern California majoring in Intelligence and Cyber Operations and Industrial and Systems Engineering. He is interested in urban mass transit, along with the intersection of mobility, technology, and public policy. In his free time, he enjoys trying new foods, travelling, and collecting public transit fare cards.