Partnerships, Infrastructure Costs, and Owning Railroad as a Public Agency

By Shawn M. Donaghy and Mary Dover | 6/3/2024

Chief Executive Officer
Chief of Staff
North County Transit District
San Diego, CA

Last year, FRA Administrator Amit Bose wrote the Passenger Transport commentary featured during APTA’s Rail conference with a very relevant message: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) is “a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and economic competitiveness.” That statement continues to be absolutely on point. For many commuter rail agencies, the span reaches far beyond just passenger travel. These investments support equity, housing, and quality of life, but also represent resilience in economic development, movement of goods, and national security. As such, we must place a higher value on the role we play beyond just public transit, and how partnerships can forge prosperous communities at all critical checkpoints.

Here in North San Diego County, our operations are highly unique. We are one of only three public agencies in the country that operates commuter rail, hybrid rail, and bus service. Additionally, we own the railroad upon which we operate. As such, our direct customers include BNSF, Amtrak, and Metrolink, in addition to being a member of STRACNET (Strategic Rail Corridor Network and Defense Connector Lines) along the Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor, or LOSSAN, the second busiest intercity rail corridor in the nation.

Utilizing the funding available through the BIL is not only an incredible opportunity, it is necessary to ensure the continuity of all modes while also focusing on transitions to zero-emission vehicles, supporting economic development, and protecting corridors of national security. To do so effectively, we must think outside of the normal funding channels and combine these efforts with the Department of Defense and Department of Energy. All options must be on the table.

This brings a complex set of challenges—and opportunities—which can provide the industry with insight to optimize working relationships with peer agencies. NCTD is designated by FRA as the Railroad of Record responsible for maintenance of both the San Diego and Escondido subdivisions, with ownership of all rails from the county border to the San Diego city limits.

As the owner of the railroad, the District collects funds from our partners through Shared Use Agreements that govern use of the railroad. While the revenue helps NCTD maintain a state of good repair on the agency’s multiple rail subdivisions, we must continue to push projects forward with our transit partners and MPOs that will create substantial changes for the next 50-plus years. State of good repair as a standalone is a bandage at best, so we must collectively take advantage of the current funding opportunities while working in lockstep with partners for long-range outcomes.

An example of rapidly changing norms are the impacts and challenges that climate change present for maintenance of aging rail infrastructure, which for us consists of several 100-year-old wooden trestle bridges that traverse North San Diego County’s many lagoons. Rising sea levels accelerate the need to replace not only these bridges, but for NCTD and our partner to the north, the Orange County Transportation Authority, maintaining and strengthening the bluffs along the stunning California coastline will be paramount in protecting operations within the corridor. This will require significant long-term planning at a cost of billions to fully resolve. Without it, there will be future impacts on the critical movement of goods, services, millions of passengers, and national defense implications along the way.

The District, Amtrak, BNSF, Metrolink, MTS, and the San Diego Association of Governments (the MPO for San Diego County) continuously coordinate to further the priorities of the corridor. Emerging technologies such as advancements in PTC, signal crossings, and our work with communities on trenching or quiet zones can help improve not only operations but safety along the rail as well. While the reality is that there are historic funding levels, it requires all of us to ensure they are built to stand the test of time. USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg has done an excellent job of helping promote infrastructure programs for operations and safety not only in rail, but in all transportation modes, making it vital that these funding initiatives be maintained for future years.

As we continue to work with all partners to push construction timelines for projects along the corridors we serve, they must be coordinated with users to mitigate potential impacts to operations. Inconsistent service due to poor infrastructure or equipment has the greatest potential impact on ridership, economics, and the agency’s brand image. Inaction will lead to catastrophic consequences—so playing the long-game is not a viable option.

For us, working closely with the State of California to establish a service development plan will make certain that the pipeline of projects for LOSSAN are front and center in the Corridor Identification and Development Program. NCTD’s ownership of a vital portion of the corridor is integral to advancing projects necessary to improve all uses of this railway for not only us, but our partners throughout southern California.

These relationships are crucial to not only the effective management of the corridor, but the future of our railroad, economy, and national defense. As Administrator Bose noted, “we are building a pipeline of projects to deliver the 21st century rail network that Americans need and deserve.” That requires all of us to move now, without pause, to ensure that we are taking full advantage of this continued historical opportunity, supporting all our community and regional partners.