BART, BART to San Jose, South Bay, VTA

BART to San Jose (Volume 1): A Long-Expected Party

BART’s original planners had big dreams, envisioning a single system that would serve most cities and towns in the Bay Area with smooth, modern rapid transit. Central to that vision was that all three of the Bay Area’s major cities — San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, along with their respective airports — would be linked to each other by the planned BART system, whose reach would eventually include the full circumference of San Francisco Bay. The vision was perhaps aesthetically elegant, but it was fraught with financial and political difficulties that BART encountered then and has encountered since. BART to San Jose was envisioned as a future phase, and even now, more than one-half century after BART planning began, the perceived need to extend the system to the Bay Area’s most populous city continues to be voiced — once again, as part of that same aesthetically elegant vision, but with little consideration to the practical implications of building such an extension.

This standard map of the San Jose route
(courtesy VTA) is out-of-date; a stop at
South Calaveras in Milpitas is a future
infill station. Also, the two downtown San
Jose stations at Civic Plaza/SJSU and
Market Street were consolidated into one.

The stage for BART to Silicon Valley was set in 1992, when BART’s Board of Directors certified the Environmental Impact Report for a 5.4-mile extension of the Fremont Line to a new Warm Springs Station in south Fremont. That plan, which aims to extend BART along the former Western Pacific/Union Pacific right of way, also includes an optional infill station at Washington Boulevard that would trigger denser development in Fremont’s historic Irvington District. Despite the certified EIR, no money was available at that time to purchase the right of way and to break ground. The extension was subject to further environmental review when an elevated structure over Lake Elizabeth in Fremont Central Park was replaced with the previously considered subway option, and then again later, when the door was opened towards obtaining federal funds. In October 2006, the Federal Transit Administration finally issued its Record of Decision for the NEPA compliant project. In the year 2000, Alameda County voters had passed Measure B, the half-percent transit sales tax that would apply funding to the Warm Springs project, among others — but the funding for the $890 million project is still being lined into place. Just recently, $91 million of Regional Measure 2 funds originally earmarked for Dumbarton Rail were tentatively reallocated to Warm Springs. Construction of the Warm Springs Extension is planned to begin in Summer 2009. Once built, the extension, although wholly contained within Alameda County, will put BART within easy reach of Santa Clara County, since it is really a first phase springboard into the San Jose BART extension. Also in the year 2000, Santa Clara County voters passed Measure A, a half-percent sales tax, the proceeds of which were to be applied to ACE, Caltrain, and VTA improvements, as well as to a BART extension through Milpitas and downtown San Jose, terminating at an intermodal station at Santa Clara served by Caltrain, BART, and the planned San Jose Airport People Mover. That same year, BART and VTA carried out a joint study of just such an extension, along the Union Pacific right of way that VTA was to later purchase in December 2002. The $6.1 billion plan to extend BART south of Warm Springs has undergone phases of environmental review in the past several years, settling into a 16.2-mile route with the following six stations south of Warm Springs: (1) Capitol & Montague, (2) Berryessa, (3) Alum Rock (East Julian & North 28th Streets); (4) Downtown San Jose (East Santa Clara Street, between Market Street and 3rd Street); (5) Diridon/Arena (serving HP Pavilion and connecting to San Jose Diridon Station); and (6) Santa Clara. The plan includes a roughly five-mile tunnel (to be excavated mostly using a tunnel boring machine), with three subway stations at Alum Rock, Downtown San Jose, and Diridon/Arena. The Downtown San Jose Station is the consolidation of two formerly contemplated downtown stations at Civic Plaza/SJSU and Market Street. The plan also includes an option for a future infill station at South Calaveras in Milpitas.

Downtown San Jose. Courtesy
San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau
.

The behemoth extension of BART into Silicon Valley is the most costly transit project currently in planning for the Bay Area, and the extreme cost of over $6 billion has been justified by alleging extremely high ridership projections — on average, about 104,000 riders each weekday by the year 2030 — projections that will, in all likelihood, not be met. Nor is it even remotely clear that VTA will be in a position to fulfill its financial obligations to BART. (Stay tuned for more discussion later on those topics.) But finances, cost-benefit analysis — those are just details, right? In the minds of VTA, Rod Diridon, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, nothing short of a subway tunnel through downtown San Jose, under Santa Clara Street, will be sufficient to legitimize San Jose as a Real City. San Francisco and Oakland, both of which have lower populations than San Jose, have BART subways through their respective downtowns; Berkeley taxed itself in order to have BART trains run underground through the city limit; and more recently, the 2003 BART extension to Millbrae/SFO features a tunnel through South San Francisco and San Bruno. Surely (as their thinking goes), San Jose, the Bay Area’s most populous city, also deserves a BART subway. After all: it is simply not enough that downtown San Jose is currently served by VTA light rail and buses, and also by Caltrain, ACE, and Amtrak at San Jose Diridon Station. Nor is it even enough that the favored Pacheco alignment for high-speed rail will bypass several million people in the East Bay and North Central Valley to ensure that each and every high-speed train going between San Francisco and Los Angeles will travel through San Jose. No: nothing less than a BART subway will finally put downtown San Jose on the map. Thanks to its mostly suburban land use patterns, San Jose has the lowest transit ridership of the three major Bay Area cities. Nonetheless, political strings have been pulled to divert billions of dollars worth of high-priced transit infrastructure to San Jose — not so much to improve transit effectiveness, but rather, to correct downtrodden civic self-esteem in the hopes of creating a downtown at least as vibrant and well-regarded as that of San Francisco.

VTA light rail track in the Highway 85
median, at Snell Station, San Jose.
Courtesy Flickr user gimlack
.

Never mind that downtown is just one tiny corner of urban density in San Jose, most of whose voluminous 178.2 square miles is an auto-oriented jungle of of strip malls, complicated expressway and freeway junctions, residential cul-de-sacs, isolated subdivisions, and sprawled land use — indistinguishable from more of the same in nearby Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and Milpitas. And never mind that a BART subway through downtown will do little, if anything, to change that. Never mind that Rod Diridon, champion of the BART extension, was also the mind behind VTA’s vastly under-performing light rail system — a system that has managed to generate lower ridership than some individual Muni lines, thanks to its ill-conceived, and thus lightly-used, alignment. Never mind that terribly expensive BART infrastructure — grade-separated and customized to accommodate broad gauge — will be built next to existing standard gauge track. Despite all of the above, the BART extension to San Jose is planned to swallow at least $6 billion of precious transit expansion funds, diverted from other expansion projects, all in the name of constructing a BART subway that will allegedly prove to the world that San Jose is a City with a capital “C,” and no less so than either San Francisco or Oakland.

Will the San Jose BART extension be worth the extreme cost? To what extent will South Bay politicos go to push this project through? And finally, why is it so important to advocate for something better? Check back for upcoming installments in this series of posts, which will attempt to address those questions.

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Discussion

18 thoughts on “BART to San Jose (Volume 1): A Long-Expected Party

  1. Well put. How do those of us in parts of the bay with higher ridership speak up about this colossal folly?

    Posted by shanan | 1 October 2008, 12:44 pm
  2. What are your thoughts about these ‘new’ counties’ membership in the BART district? The complicated funding scheme with San Mateo County left BART billions of dollars in the lurch (meaning it left SF, Alameda and CoCo counties billions of dollars in the lurch). Why on earth would we repeat that mistake?

    Would it be better or worse for counties that want BART to truly join the BART district?

    Posted by Josh | 1 October 2008, 1:33 pm
  3. And by billions I mean millions :-)

    Posted by Josh | 1 October 2008, 1:34 pm
  4. So why did the VTA light rail end up on the under-performing route that it has now? Was it the same kind of political string-pulling? (Or is that a topic for another post?)

    By the way, this series of posts detailing the background for big projects is great. Thanks.

    Posted by Steve | 2 October 2008, 12:33 am
  5. @ shanan: More on this in upcoming posts, but, for now, encourage any and all friends you happen to know in Santa Clara County to vote “no” on this Measure B SJ BART 1/8 percent sales tax. VTA cannot be allowed to get its hands on any money supply that would contribute to this unfolding BART story.

    @ Josh: If I had my way, there would be no new county “memberships” because there would be no further outward extensions. Yes, the SamTrans fiasco was a mistake that VTA should ideally have eyed closely. That this BART tax has been placed on the ballot is proof positive that VTA has done no such thing. Of course, the SFO extension was another classic example of, shall we say, “generous” BART ridership projections.

    @ Steve: it’s an interesting question. SJ is sort of a tough nut to crack for rail because of the sprawl. Certain faults can actually be analogized to similar faults with the BART system (is it any wonder Diridon has pushed both?), although they are especially emphasized in the suburban South Bay context. The VTA light rail system is centered around downtown (where the two main lines, Mountain View and Alum Rock, join up), but downtown just isn’t the job center you’d think it might be just from looking at the light rail map. VTA light rail also runs parallel to freeway corridors, stringing together Silicon Valley office parks, but with little transit-supportive land use.

    Posted by Eric | 2 October 2008, 1:13 am
  6. This is an edifice complex and nothing more. BART to San Jose? I love BART but very few people in San Jose use mass transit. Isn’t HSR to San Francisco and a Caltrain connection enough?

    You will be able to take HSR/Caltrain to SF and then BART anywhere to the East Bay. Granted, that is not as short as Fremont to San Jose, but 6 billion for that when very few people willl ride it?

    Does San Jose have such an inferiority complex that it must have a map-friendly “world class metro”? San Jose is not San Francsico. It’s a whole different animal. It is a bigger city but not designed for subways like BART. It is not dense and it is sprawled insanity. Isn’t the “job corridor” of San Jose already served best by Caltrain?

    I would rather spend billions for a couple miles in SF because people will use it.

    Posted by thamsenman | 2 October 2008, 10:32 pm
  7. Have other counties expressed legitimate interest in having bart service?

    Posted by CD | 2 October 2008, 11:08 pm
  8. They would be much better off spending the money to put a subway under Geary or Van Ness. What’s wrong with using the existing tracks for CalTrain?

    Posted by count Z | 4 October 2008, 11:34 am
  9. @count Z,

    I remember there was a proposal for something like that, called Caltrain Metro East. I don’t think it got off the ground but it would be much cheaper than BART.

    Posted by thamsenman | 4 October 2008, 3:21 pm
  10. I’m a life-long South Bay resident with a particular interest in transit issues, so I’ll chime in with a couple of points.

    @Steve et al: Light rail was originally planned to connect the South San Jose sprawl with the North First / Golden Triangle office parks (Cisco, semiconductor firms, etc. are based there) , skipping Downtown. Civic leaders wanted to serve Downtown as well, so the alignment was designed to run in a transit mall. This is the speed bottleneck in the system — there are multiple 90-degree turns and trains are limited to 10-15 mph in downtown (the tracks aren’t grade separated). There are a lot of other 90-degree turns and poor engineering choices in the system — most due to political wrangling — but the downtown jog is the main reason why service can’t compete with travel speeds of the auto, especially with the buildout of the highway and expressway system in the South Bay.

    @thamsenman: Caltrain serves most job centers in the South Bay indirectly (through transfers to shuttles or light rail) — but for the San Francisco / Peninsula commuter only. Bart to San Jose is primarily focused on one commute pattern — East Bay to South Bay. SF to South Bay is ancillary and Bart likely won’t pick up these commuters because its non-competitive on time. This is a fairly heavily traveled pattern; one only needs to look at the gridlock on 880 during rush hour to get a sense of the amount of people that travel to the South Bay from the East Bay every day. The big question isn’t whether transit is needed for that commute pattern — it is — but what the appropriate transit mode should be built for that pattern based on non-inflated ridership numbers.

    BUT…
    If I were a betting man and the economy wasn’t in the tank, I would have put my money on this sales tax passing fairly easily. My boss supports it still, my mom will probably vote yes, and a lot of old friends will probably vote for it. They have no idea what the SVLG or Ron Diridon is, so its not like theyre voting for it out because the cognescenti is pushing the measure. The truth is that Bart is seen as more convenient vis-a-vis other transit options — 15-minute headways (“it seems like you dont have to wait as long for a train”), constant 50 mph electro-motive travel (“it feels faster”) make it a more viscerally appealing option versus a promise to create a caltrain-like metro east project on the east side of town or running express buses. Most people in the South Bay have used Bart for some reason or other and they generally have a high opinion of the system. Basically, the Bart brand is very, very strong even in a county that doesn’t have bart. That’s something that’s very hard to beat. (Also, I’d say a lot of South Bay residents don’t commute out of the area — so they view Bart as a weekend-trip system, and Bart on the weekend beats the pants off Caltrain on the weekend [1-hour headways?])

    Now that people are very, very worried about money, I’d say that we might see the tax fail.

    Posted by Clarence | 12 October 2008, 11:35 am
  11. I, for one, *LOVE* the SFO extension. Say what you will, but it makes getting to the airport so much easier and cheaper. No crappy driving, no crappy freeway, no wasteful taxi…

    Going to/from SF I used to fly through OAK almost exclusively, since it was closest to a BART connection, but now I take great pains to make sure I can fly out of SFO due to its very easy BART access.

    I am thankful for the SFO extension every time I travel.

    I look forward to BART to San Jose, =) Getting between SF and San Jose on Caltrain is fast, but only at peak hours and only if you want to get between 4th and King and the Shark Tank.

    In real travel time from Downtown SF to Downtown San Jose, BART will be faster. A no-waiting trip.

    Posted by SFHope | 14 October 2008, 5:04 pm
  12. I have been a resident of the south bay for over 12 years. it is incredibly unfair that the north and east bays argue against this point regardless of south bay ridership statistics, as they already have their transit system in place. so light rail is not the most readily used asset. so caltrain goes up and down the peninsula (and literally kills people in the process); it takes 2 hours and only runs every hour (normally). bart runs every 15 minutes. if people want to go to sf or the east bay, they have to drive. i have been wishing for this expansion ever since i found out about bart. politicos aside, what about the people that need it? huh? what about traffic on 101 and 280? just the notion of being able to leave this sprawling metropolis on foot is inspiring to us. it’s only money. how about quality of life? oh well, i guess the people of the south bay don’t matter. what’s new?

    Posted by Lucas | 29 October 2008, 1:25 pm
  13. Lucas: please take the time to scrutinize this project carefully. I’m not sure if you read the blog regularly; just in case you don’t, my perspective is always in favor of more and better transit. That applies everywhere: not just to San Francisco and the East Bay. But it’s no accident that transit advocates are exactly those people who oppose the project! That’s a clear sign that there’s more underlying this project than just the “cool” factor of having BART in San Jose.

    You speak of quality of life. Consider what will occur when VTA is forced to cut bus service, so that funds can be moved from bus operation to cover the BART operation shortfall. What happens to the quality of life for people dependent on that bus service?

    I absolutely agree that the South Bay needs better transit. It needs better rail transit and better bus transit. But BART to San Jose is not the answer.

    Posted by Eric | 29 October 2008, 1:35 pm
  14. Eric: I appreciate your taking the time to understand my point of view. I still disagree about the BART project. When I have needed to get places within the North and East bays, I have found it to be very useful… I have even taken the BART to the South Bay via Fremont, then to wait and board a bus to get me to downtown San Jose, a trip that takes about an hour+ by itself. The fact is, San Jose should have an economic system that can sustain all modes of transportation. San Francisco can. When you consider the amount of tech work and computer-related jobs in this area and the impact of 101 and 280 for those that commute, the idea of BART sounds very appealing. Plus, who wants to wait 2 hours to get to SF? What my friends and I have talked about is implementing freeway-central platforms, like in the Llivermore area. I’m not sure why San Jose comes last in the equation, especially when the pioneering engineer of this project envisioned a unified Bay Area. All I know is that I’ve been rooting for this for over a decade and have even left for five years and still talk. If the rest of the Bay Area can enjoy this mode of transportation in their own backyard, I can promise that the people of San Jose feel nothing but left out.

    Posted by Lucas | 29 October 2008, 5:11 pm
  15. Having BART serve the entire Bay Area is one of those things that sounds like a nice idea, but it’s far from practical. The project is fraught with problems that VTA is simply trying to sweep under the rug. It’s no way to do transportation planning. You sound like you’re already sold on the extension, but I’d still encourage you to read the other posts in this series, if you haven’t already. They highlight at least some of the main problems, although there’s even still more that could be said.

    Posted by Eric | 29 October 2008, 10:17 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: BART to Silicon Valley | San Jose Metblogs - 25 October 2008

  2. Pingback: San Jose Diridon: Grand Central or Bust « Transbay Blog - 24 November 2008

  3. Pingback: BART… and you’re where? | South Bay Streetscape - 21 September 2014

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