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'Tijuana trolley': the streetcar returns

Can a bright red trolley car find happiness and acceptance in southern California, where two-car garages are nearly as common as runing water? Tune in around the middle of next year for an answer. That is when San Diego plans to begin operating the first new streetcar system to be built in the United States in decades. It will traverse 16 miles between this city and the mexican border, and it's projected to carry 30,000 daily riders by 1995.

The San Diego project, fondly called the "Tijuana trolley," exemplifies the popularity in many American cities of restoring streetcars, now termed "light rail" vehicles, to a greater role in urban transit. They have the advantages of moving far greater numbers of people per driver than buses -- a critical advantage, since labor costs typically represent between 65 and 80 percent of transit operating costs -- without the large capital investment necessary for new heavy-rail lines like "Marta" in Atlanta and the "Metro" in Washington. In addition, trolleys are less technologically sophisticated than heavy rail and may be more reliable.

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While the San Diego project is unsing proven technology in its German-made trolley car, in some ways it is highly experimental.

First, it is being built with no federal funds. The Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) usually gives 80 percent of the capital cost of new transit projects, but local officials here decided that regulatory string attached to the grants would delay the project and increase overall costs , now estimated at $98 million.

Second, the San Diego streetcar system will use a "self-reliance" fare collection system. This system, common in some Western European countries, allows passengers to hop on and off transit vehicles without showing a ticket. Passengers are required to hold tickets at all times; roving inspectors can levy fines against offenders.

In the united States, the legal requirement of due process does not allow an inspector or policeman to collect fines on the spot. This makes self-service fares suspect in the eyes of many US transit operators, who say that without an immediate penalty passengers would constantly try to ride for free.

But San Diego officials feel that whatever losses are incurred from freeloaders will be more than compensated with savings from not having to construct costly fully enclosed stations that prevent people from boarding the rolley without paying a fare. Also, officials here see higher overall ridership , because passengers will find it more convenient to board freely, through any door, than having to funnel through the front door and past a ticket collector.

Federal officials are watching the San Diego project closely. Theodore C. Lutz, administrator of UMTA, says the project is being built about twice as fast as project using federal grants. "It is a test case where we can make a thoughtful analysis [of the effect] of federal regulations," he says.

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