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(courtesy VTA) is out-of-date; a stop at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.