BART, BART to San Jose, Bus Rapid Transit, Caltrain, South Bay, Transit Funding, VTA

BART to San Jose (Volume 4): All’s Well As Ends Better

As things stand now, reasonably frequent rail service circles almost the entirety of San Francisco Bay. Caltrain serves the western shore of the Bay, while BART serves the eastern shore down to Fremont, and four BART routes operate in the Transbay Tube. The missing hole is the segment between Fremont and San Jose Diridon Station, and it is exactly this segment that VTA seeks to plug with the BART extension. This gap in rail service is currently bridged only by low intensity transit service: a handful of commuter trains daily and VTA express buses. It should certainly be filled with more robust rail service that runs on reasonable headways. But must the gap be filled with BART, whose technology is better-suited to subway-metro service than to regional commuter service with widely-spaced stations? What would justify constructing expensive elevated structures and subway tunnels to house BART’s broad gauge track, which would closely parallel standard gauge track already in use? Very high ridership would perhaps justify the price tag; but as we have already seen, the official ridership projections are exceedingly optimistic, and will not likely be met within the two-decade time frame.

With BART comes cost overruns; it happened with the San Mateo County extension to Millbrae/SFO, and it will happen with BART to San Jose. The difference between these two extensions is primarily in the magnitude of cost. BART to San Jose would be the largest expansion since the system originally commenced revenue service in 1972, conservatively estimated for at least $6 billion (already four times the cost of the Millbrae/SFO extension). VTA may not have a true handle on the cost, but $8-10 billion seems well within the realm of possibility. And with Measure B on the November 4, 2008 ballot, VTA is stifling the information that it has managed to piece together with regard to the extension’s increasing costs, so as to not jeopardize passage of the sales tax increase, the proceeds from which would be applied to the BART extension. But the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has allocated a limited amount of funds to transit expansion. The money for budget overruns must come from somewhere, and it will be siphoned from other transit projects. It’s not that this is a remote possibility: it is a very real danger. In fact, it’s already happening. Dumbarton Rail is a worthy plan to reinstate a southern Bay rail crossing. Had the Altamont alignment been selected for high-speed rail, high-speed trains would have used the rail bridge — but even without high-speed rail, Dumbarton Rail would connect Caltrain to rail services in the East Bay at an intermodal hub in Union City. But just last month, MTC snatched $91 million of Regional Measure 2 funds that were originally earmarked for the rehabilitation of Dumbarton Rail and tentatively reallocated it to the BART Warm Springs extension, an extension that Alameda County has supported, and which would be a first phase springboard into BART to San Jose. And if BART to San Jose commences construction, this would be only the beginning.

Other than Dumbarton Rail, what transit projects could BART to San Jose jeopardize? Besides the planned bus rapid transit and light rail extensions, foremost among the projects at risk is Caltrain electrification. Electrifying Caltrain is an overdue upgrade that is crucial to increasing ridership, establishing independence from rising fuel costs, and transforming the Peninsula commuter rail service into something closer to robust metro service. Electrification, which is to be paid for jointly by San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Clara Counties, is supported by both San Mateo and San Francisco. Santa Clara County, on the other hand, has its eyes set on the “loftier” goal of a BART extension, so it has resisted committing funds to electrification — despite the fact that electrified express Caltrain would provide superior service between San Francisco and San Jose that is superior to BART. Voters supported Caltrain electrification as part of the package of projects that would be funded with the 2000 Measure A half-percent sales tax. The BART extension is itself a 2000 Measure A project, which is the problem. Although originally intended to use only one-third of the Measure A transit funding pie that would benefit all of Santa Clara County, the BART extension threatens to consume the whole pie, to the detriment of cities located between Palo Alto and Santa Clara, who would benefit from electrified Caltrain, but not BART. It also threatens to force cuts to VTA’s already pared down bus service. In other words, transit improvements in all of Santa Clara County are being put on hold so that Downtown San Jose can finally have its own BART subway.

The BART extension has been plagued by financial difficulty almost since voters approved 2000 Measure A. VTA simply has not had (and still does not have) the financial wherewithal to finance construction and operation of this expensive project, no matter the message to the contrary that it would like to send to voters. In 2002, the agency slashed bus service while facing a $6 billion budget deficit over a couple decades, but still refused to give up on BART. In 2004, and again in 2005, the extension suffered a blow when it was not recommended for federal funding, in the absence of proof that VTA could afford to operate the extension. In 2005, VTA itself recognized the difficulty and temporarily withdrew its request for federal funds, but later still continued to persevere. In 2006, another transportation tax was placed on the ballot, which voters defeated. In 2007, VTA received a scathing audit report from the Hay Group, in response to which VTA launched the so-called “New VTA” campaign that basically amounted to a reallocation of resources to higher ridership corridors. And now, in 2008, VTA is once again asking voters for more money, with the eighth-percent sales tax in Measure B. The agency has alleged not only that the tax will be sufficient to cover the BART operation and maintenance subsidy without jeopardizing existing service — it even alleges that there would be a $154 million surplus by the year 2036. Unbelievable? BayRail Alliance thought so, scrutinized the balance book, and found that under the terms of VTA’s Comprehensive Agreement with BART executed in 2001, there was no surplus to be found: only more deficits.

In light of both this troubled past and probable troubled future of the BART to San Jose extension, the very least that VTA owes South Bay residents is a serious, rational, and unbiased discussion of the Valley’s transportation future; but this discussion has been stifled by VTA and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. In particular, VTA’s unwillingness to consider attractive standard-gauge alternatives is troubling. In 2005, BayRail Alliance proposed the Caltrain Metro East plan, which is a serious alternative that is in many ways superior to the proposed BART alignment. Caltrain Metro East would use electric multiple units capable of traveling faster than BART trains, and with standard gauge, it could be built at far lower cost than BART; stations were proposed for Milpitas, North San Jose, Mineta San Jose International Airport, and then joining the main Caltrain line at San Jose Diridon. Although Caltrain Metro East would not directly serve Downtown San Jose, the alignment instead directly serves Mineta and North San Jose’s Golden Triangle, which is a larger job center than downtown; it is also a region of San Jose that is targeted to substantially grow and change in the future. (The BART proposal, on the other hand, directly serves downtown, but Golden Triangle-bound riders would still have to transfer to light rail at the Montague/Capitol station situated next to the Great Mall.) Caltrain Metro East would also not serve the transit-dependent neighborhoods of East San Jose, but light rail would actually do a better job of serving that area than the single token BART station that has been proposed at Alum Rock.

The decision to build (or not build) BART to San Jose will greatly affect the future of Valley transit in the upcoming decades. The question is: do we plunk down all the money for a single BART corridor, or do we apply funds throughout VTA’s service area? Doing the latter would result in less snazzy transit than BART, but it would at least allow for construction of projects approved by voters in 2000 Measure A, and many others still. Not just Caltrain electrification, but also: (i) a complete Vasona Junction light rail extension; (ii) Capitol Expressway light rail extension that loops around to Guadalupe, absorbing both of the proposed incremental extensions to Eastridge Transit Center and Nieman; (iii) the Downtown-East Valley light rail extension; and (iv) an extensive bus rapid transit portfolio that would improve service on several key corridors, including El Camino Real, Stevens Creek-San Carlos, Sunnyvale-Cupertino, and Monterey Highway. Some key BRT corridors could later be upgraded to light rail as demand requires. But rather than just listing projects, it’s perhaps most powerful to have a visual tool. Below are two maps that I made using the Google satellite maps:

  • The map on the left depicts the BART alignment. The assumption there is that constructing BART will use all available funds (and then some), thus jeopardizing the many worthy projects listed earlier. Although we might get BART on the chosen corridor, there will be little improvement — indeed, quite possibly, service cuts instead — on many of the other corridors that crisscross the sprawled Valley.
  • On the right is the Caltrain Metro East alternative, complete with the light rail and rapid bus extensions that could then be built with funds that would have been swallowed by BART. These include 2000 Measure A projects, projects that been conceived since 2000 Measure A, and a couple other corridors I have inserted as potential enhancements after the busiest corridors have been upgraded.

There is a pronounced difference between the two scenarios:

Color scheme in the maps: blue = standard gauge heavy rail (Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE);
red = BART; green = VTA light rail; yellow = bus rapid transit.

And so, to finally close off this somewhat lengthy, rambling series of posts on BART to San Jose, I would like to leave readers with the following three questions:

1. Which of the above two maps would likely result in more stations around which to focus more widespread transit-oriented development, so as to help transform the overwhelmingly suburban, auto-oriented South Bay into a denser, more livable place?

2. Which of the above two maps provides better and more equitable transit coverage, so that a greater number of people are closer to a superior transit option? and,

3. In the end, isn’t that really the point?

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Discussion

24 thoughts on “BART to San Jose (Volume 4): All’s Well As Ends Better

  1. My issue? Only one of those maps shows a single-seat ride from downtown San Jose to downtown San Francisco, and it’s not the one on the right.

    The one on the right requires not just one, but *two* transfers.

    If/when the Caltrain/HSR subway to the transbay terminal gets built, it will still require a transfer unless a Caltrain subway is also built from Diridon to downtown San Jose.

    Posted by JimS | 27 October 2008, 2:25 pm
  2. Jim: but you’re expressing a different priority. Downtown SJ is not the destination that SVLG would have us believe it is, especially per capita. Is a (slow) one seat trip on BART from downtown SF to downtown SJ worth monopolizing billions worth of transit funds? Is it worth sacrificing a true network of reliable transit in the South Bay? It depends on your priorities.

    Furthermore, VTA must prove it can afford to subsidize BART operations and maintenance (even if Measure B passes), which it has so far been unsuccessful at doing in the years it has been pushing the project. It’s not like sufficient funding is just sitting around available to use.

    Posted by Eric | 27 October 2008, 2:35 pm
  3. I have several friends who live in the South Bay all of whom think extending BART to SJ is a mistake. In spite of traffic congestion, it’s still much faster to drive from point A to point B.

    What I cannot stand about BART is that outside of the core SF and Oakland downtown areas most stations are too far apart from each other and require additional means of getting to them (driving, bus, etc.). In a sense, the South Bay extension will be like any other suburban BART line in that it will be a commuter line between downtown SF/Oakland and SJ.

    The SJ extension is reflective of the myopic transit mentality that plagues this region. I live in the Sunset region of SF, 2 blocks from the L-Terrible. It’s hard enough getting to downtown SF in a reasonable amount of time on MUNI…tunnel delays, infrequent trains, etc. I want a faster system in place in SF where density warrants more subway lines, not wasting money building a Caltrain wannabee.

    Posted by Mark | 27 October 2008, 2:57 pm
  4. You have hit this issue right on. BART to San Jose is deeply flawed. I just wish you would have highlighted the intense issues in VTA such as the most pitiful light rail system in the country. Their entire network of LRT has less daily boardings than Downtown Berkeley BART. Its apparent that the argument of more LRT being built in San Jose is flawed. If no one rides it now, why would they if the system is doubled in size?

    The root of both of these problems, BART to San Jose and the ineffectiveness of VTA Light Rail both stem from the FTA’s overzealous attitude in handing out rail subsidies. Because the feds subsidize the construction of expansive new rail lines, with little insight into ridership and profitability, agencies like the VTA get poorly planned billion dollar systems and can’t pay to operate them when they are only ridden by 1100 a day per mile. Thankfully the FTA has not approved BART to San Jose. To put 20 miles of expensive, custom, broad gauge in VTA’s hands is a death sentence for the extention. Look at what SamTrans did to BART to SFO, cutting service to 4 trains per hour, even during peak hours.

    Basically thanks Eric for writing these articles and this blog. You hit it right on with this series.

    Posted by KarlT | 27 October 2008, 4:18 pm
  5. Thanks, KarlT for your thoughts, and for raising the VTA light rail issue. The stat about Downtown Berkeley boardings vs. VTA light rail is a bit of an exaggeration: apparently VTA light rail has now hit around 37K daily riders, which is an improvement over previous abysmal years. But your point is well-taken that this is terribly under-performing for a rail system with over 40 miles of track. The fact that Rod Diridon both masterminded VTA light rail and has thrown his support behind BART to SJ should make us immediately suspect of the efficacy of the BART extension. Effective transportation is not the goal of either project.

    The SamTrans experience is so fresh in our memories, it’s frustrating that VTA so willingly ignores such a pertinent and immediate example.

    Posted by Eric | 27 October 2008, 4:31 pm
  6. I’m just approaching South Bay BART from my perspective — admittedly it would serve my particular needs more than others.

    The fact is, however, that outside of express hours, the single-seat BART ride to San Jose (circuitous route and all) would be significantly faster than the transfer-laden trip from my home in SF to Caltrain, to VTA light rail or bus.

    There are four things San Jose needs to do to be successful with transit. First, they need to change zoning/activity requirements and put a freeze on new developments that do not build with density in mind. Removing minimum paring requirements would be part of this. Downtown San Jose can CERTAINLY be a high-profile destination if they encourage more development of human-oriented commerce downtown. This means more people living downtown, and more business downtown at more hours of the day. Presently San Jose has a dire lack of nightlife and that needs to change (in addition BART needs to run later, a serious problem in SF. =P )

    Second, they need to make sure they have direct integration with the major bay area transit sytems. They already have Caltrain, BART is what remains. As a transit-by-choice rider, I usually choose my car for trips to San Jose. The poor locations of 4th and King and Diridon have a lot to do with this.

    The third issue is important for local circulation. The light rail is inherently flawed due to some awful choke points. The transit mall downtown is well-intentioned, and certainly beautiful, but is a killer for cross-town travel. That section needs to be put underground, even though it will lose the charm of trains running next to cafes. The same goes for the meandering route of the Mountain View line. It simply takes too long. A surface route is fine, but it needs to be straightened a bit, with a spur to Google an d the Shoreline Ampitheater.

    The fourth issue is that heavy rail down El Camino is badly needed. So much is centered along the El Camino corridor in Sunnyvale, far from Caltrain. It screams for a subway. An extension of BART to Santa Clara could eventually be extended to turn away from the Caltrain station and head down El Camino, which it could follow until they converged again in Palo Alto. I would love to be able to take a subway to Sunnyvale Golfland (the video arcade there is legendary for its world-class players =).

    A central artery through downtown that connects the major transit systems is a fantastic first step, and would be a huge boon to east bay commuters, especially if San Jose forbids new “campus” construction in lieu of dense downtown development.

    Posted by JimS | 27 October 2008, 8:53 pm
  7. Eric,

    How many stations are planned for the SJ extension.

    You said it best:

    “BART, whose technology is better-suited to subway-metro service than to regional commuter service with widely-spaced stations”

    I couldn’t agree more, expand BART in the city and build standard-gauge rail that is much cheaper than BART in suburban-sprawly areas.

    Posted by thamsenman | 27 October 2008, 8:57 pm
  8. JimS, I agree with you that VTA light rail suffers from plenty of poor engineering decisions. Keep in mind, though, that BART to San Jose would do little, if anything at all, to help with “local circulation.” BART rarely works for local trips, because its stations are too distantly spaced. Local trips in the proposed BART service area will still mostly be borne by light rail and buses. The question is: how much of that service will remain, when VTA is forced to cut bus service to subsidize BART operations?

    I should also mention I’m not at all sold on this concept of a “one-seat” trip being the ultimate concern. There’s no shortage of people who execute cross-platform BART transfers at 12th Street Oakland, for instance. They are changing seats. The reason why that transfer works is because it’s short distance, it’s easy, and it’s timed. Much more than staying in one seat, riders are looking for transfers that aren’t a hassle. What that means is fare and timetable integration. In this sense, Millbrae has not been a complete success, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better in this respect. A solid BART/Caltrain Metro East transfer point could easily save billions of dollars.

    The other point you don’t acknowledge — and it’s key — is that BART technology just isn’t well-suited to regional rail, and the expense is simply too high for trains that would run half-empty in the South Bay. BART is best suited to crush loads in an urban environment. (I agree with you that SJ needs to densify considerably, but no matter how much it does so, there will still be large tracts of low density residential land. SJ will never have the uniform urban quality SF does; at best, it could have urban-ish districts.) Moreover, BART’s 80 mph limit is a handicap for regional rail, where there is a greater distance between stations. EMUs on Caltrain Metro East could provide faster and more comfortable service than BART. For way less money.

    I understand where you’re coming from, but when we come right down to it, I don’t think it’s adequate justification to spend $6-10 billion.

    Posted by Eric | 27 October 2008, 9:06 pm
  9. How many stations are planned for the SJ extension.

    thamsenman: there are currently six stations, over roughly 16 miles. There is an option for a seventh future infill station in Milpitas. Counting Warm Springs, that would be 7 (or, in the future, 8) stations for a roughly 20-mile stretch between Fremont and Santa Clara.

    Posted by Eric | 27 October 2008, 9:08 pm
  10. Agreed, the huge problem with BART is that it’s expensive. We bought into a system that does not conform with the rest of the country, and now we’re stuck with it.

    That said, we’re stuck with it, so we should make the best of it.

    One solution to this — and I’m constantly shocked at how little this is brought up — is that BART’s dimension do actually have commonality with a heavily used standard: India’s.

    India is in a rapid state of modernization, and their entire rail network is based on the same gauge as BART. Rolling stock and track made for India, in particular the Kolkata Metro, is largely compatible with BART. The Kolkata Metro rolling stock is in the process of being replaced, and would be very easy to adapt to BART. Much of the other EMU rolling stock in India is pantograph-based, but it’s not infeasable for those to be adapted to third rail (after all, they’re doing it already for the Kolkata upgrades).

    The economy of scale with Indian rail is *huge*, and they have set their sights on greatly improving its performance. BART could capitalize greatly on this. At the very least, track hardware should be purchased in collaboration with Indian networks, instead of the custom orders used today. A buy in to modernized Kolkata Metro rolling stock would be a win for both Kolkata and the Bay Area.

    Posted by JimS | 27 October 2008, 9:18 pm
  11. It’s true that India largely uses the same 5’6″ gauge as BART, and your remark is especially pertinent with respect to renewing rolling stock. But this particular project still involves grade-separated subway and el configurations that drive up the project cost. The big question is if these stations will see a passenger volume that justifies the cost. VTA claims very high ridership, but I remain skeptical, as set forth in posts 2 and 3 in this series.

    To my mind, “making the best of it,” as you put it, means restricting BART expansion to the urban core, where extra capacity is needed for the health of the system. More capacity is a proven need in the Transbay corridor. Not so for the South Bay.

    San Jose is almost entirely suburban. Building BART to the suburbs and exurbs was a mistake in the first instance. Why should we keep compounding this same planning mistake? Why not take this opportunity to correct that mistake, and stop it in its tracks? The South Bay is already served by Caltrain, and electrifying Caltrain would bring its service up to BART’s level, if not better thanks to express service. BART is a foreign element, so there’s a very good argument that Caltrain expansion makes more sense than BART.

    The BART-SamTrans fiasco demonstrates the difficulties that can occur when BART works with county transit authorities to extend BART into counties that are not in the district. Given that VTA has been in denial about its unstable finances, I am very worried about the net effect that BART could have on existing South Bay transit service. The onus is on VTA to demonstrate that it can both pay for BART and maintain existing service; the agency has yet to make that showing. If VTA riders simply move onto BART or stop riding altogether, that cannot be counted as a true victory, when our overriding goal should be to get more people out of cars and onto transit.

    Posted by Eric | 27 October 2008, 9:38 pm
  12. You’re right that BART is sub-optimal for inter-urban transit. I don’t think anyone disputes this. A true high-speed system would beat the pants off of what BART can do today. The problem is that BART currently sits on the *only* grade-separated right of way in the bay area. There is nothing else.

    Notice that nobody in their right mind proposes extending BART all the way down the peninsula. If prop 1A passes, Caltrain’s current alignment will be upgraded to a grade-separated ROW that will allow high speed EMU service between San Jose and San Francisco. Assuming a Market Street connection is added in San Francisco (and ideally a stub to the transit mall area in San Jose, though I’m probably just dreaming here), Caltrain/CAHSR will be an excellent start to fixing transit along the peninsula.

    No such plan is in place for the East Bay, particularly now with the selection of the Pacheco alignment. Even with the Altamont alignment, much of the densest parts of Alameda county would still only have the BART ROW.

    The BART ROW does, already, come tantalizingly close to San Jose. An extension of this makes sense. Caltrain Metro East completely bypasses the urban core of San Jose and suffers from an at-grade alignment — an alignment that HSR will not pay to grade separate.

    Grade separation is vital to achieve the headways needed to get people to use transit. Witness the success of BART’s move to 15 minute headways. 15 minutes is essentially the most many people are willing to wait.

    One alternative — a bold one, but one that’s probably infeasable, would be to rip out the trackage throughout the BART system and replace it with standard gauge and catenary that is compatible with the future Caltrain EMUs. Would you be in favor of this?

    BART’s speed limit is a feature of its rolling stock, and to some degree its switches. While the track design will never be able to do HSR speeds, it’s certainly capable of handling a 100mph train over much of its distance. The trainsets need to be replaced anyway so, again, a collaborative effort with India for higher performance cars would allow BART to function much better in the commuter role it serves.

    I don’t advocate expanding BART much beyond its present reach, but it does not make sense to end its ROW where it is now. Leaving it where it is is a missed opportunity. An even worse example of a similar debacle is the Green Line in Los Angeles. It’s fully grade separated, and with better equipment could go much faster than it does currently (Most LRTs have pretty anemic top speeds). It’s not worth upgrading the rolling stock, though, because the alignment ends before it reaches nearby major destinations (Norwalk station in the east, and LAX in the west). With further ROW extensions — which L.A. intends to do, its usefulness will increase dramatically.

    BART’s Fremont branch represents a similarly wasted high-quality ROW that would suddenly leap in value were it expanded. The capital outlay for this will suck, but it’s far cheaper than building an equivalent ROW from scratch.

    Incidentally, since it gets compared a lot to the SFO extension, I think the planners of that will have the last laugh someday. The great lie about the extension was that it would instantly become successful. This was obviously bogus. The neat thing about an asset like that though, is that it becomes invaluable as the community grows around it and grows used to it. Most people I know who visit SF don’t even know it exists, and they’re thankful to me when I show them. The extension didn’t do poorly because it was not useful, rather, it did poorly because people just plain didn’t know or consider it an option. This is changing.

    Building that ROW is key. Cars are successful because of freeways. We need to build freeways for trains, and the easiest way to do that is to use the “freeway” we already have. To not extend BART would be like having I-880 going no further south than Fremont on the argument that the concrete it used was too expensive.

    Posted by JimS | 27 October 2008, 10:44 pm
  13. I don’t have the chance to do a fuller answer just right now, so a few quick responses to your points:

    1) There’s no reason why Caltrain electrification should have to wait until high speed rail upgrades. Electrification is one of the Bay Area’s cheapest transit projects and yet — given the phenomenal success Caltrain has achieved within limited means — perhaps has the most promise. It would improve service and increase ridership on a faster time scale. This upgrade is long overdue, and there’s no reason why it needs to be continuously postponed while other projects get priority.

    2) I don’t agree that extending BART twenty miles through sparsely populated suburbs (for at least a few hundred million dollars per mile) qualifies as “tantalizing close” to San Jose.

    3) Using the fact that BART parallels I-880 in its northern stretch to prove that BART should parallel I-880 in its southern stretch is really a point of aesthetics, rather than sound transit policy. And it would be a moot point with a well-executed intermodal BART/CME transfer point.

    4) BART service on the Peninsula has already been embarrassed by Caltrain Baby Bullet service, in that it’s slower and more expensive. (35 min BART trip vs. 18 min Caltrain). How about when high-speed rail makes that same trip in 13 minutes? Similarly, how many people will sit through a painfully slow BART ride from SJ to SF via Fremont and Oakland, when they could take high speed rail in a little over 30 minutes straight up the Peninsula?

    Currently the Bay Area does not have high quality standard gauge rail, so by default, everyone thinks of BART when they think of good rail service. HSR and electrified Caltrain could completely revolutionize how this region thinks about “railroads.” High quality standard gauge rail I believe will convince people that using BART as long-distance regional rail is outdated thinking.

    Posted by Eric | 27 October 2008, 11:06 pm
  14. One alternative — a bold one, but one that’s probably infeasable, would be to rip out the trackage throughout the BART system and replace it with standard gauge and catenary that is compatible with the future Caltrain EMUs. Would you be in favor of this?

    As much as I’d like to see a purely standard gauge system in the Bay Area — it would solve so many problems — it’s really infeasible. Instead, the right approach is to leave BART where it is, leave all current terminal points right where they are, and then expand only in the urban core when the Transbay Tube reaches capacity for real, since at least we can be sure that urban expansions will be well-used.

    Posted by Eric | 27 October 2008, 11:12 pm
  15. It’s buried in my last message, but I had one question of you that I think is very pertinent, so I’ll reiterate:

    Would you be in favor of ripping out the BART trackage and using its ROW as an extension of Caltrain? Would that make things better?

    My argument here is that the problem revolves entirely around ROW. The higher cost of the broad gauge BART uses is not what makes it the more expensive alternative — it’s the cost of building the ROW. Whether we use a fast Indian train or a fast European train (or if we got our act together, a fast American train) is irrelevant.

    There’s a reason I still take BART’s circuitous route down the peninsula instead of Caltrain — even though the ROW is longer and slower, it’s of higher quality. If an express Caltrain left from a downtown station every 15 minutes, or even every 20 minutes, I’d gladly take it instead (assuming my destination was Millbrae, or hypothetically SFO if it connected). The problem is that, even with electrification, they could not maintain that headway. Can you imagine the outcry if Caltrain came zooming through its existing tracks every 7 minutes (a local and an express every 15 minutes)? Nobody would stand for it.

    When HSR gets built with a high-quality ROW, with a downtown station, I know I’ll be taking Caltrain down the peninsula a heck of a lot more.

    Build me CME to those same specifications (and extend the ROW from Diridon to at least a stub that goes to SJSU) and I’d definitely become more of a supporter, but then it wouldn’t be so cheap, would it?

    Posted by JimS | 27 October 2008, 11:32 pm
  16. Whoops, while I was typing it, you did answer my question. ^^;

    Still, do read how I expanded on it.

    Posted by JimS | 27 October 2008, 11:33 pm
  17. There are several points I’d like to make in response here, but unfortunately I am very pressed for time, and I do need to get to writing many other posts before the election, so I’m not going to be able to comment here much longer.

    There are two points I’d emphasize here with respect to Baby Bullet service, as it stands now:
    (1) During morning and evening peak, Caltrain sends out 14-15 trains over the 3-hour peak period, in each direction. On average, that’s about 1 train every 12-13 minutes, in each direction, even with current infrastructure and at-grade crossings.
    (2) Caltrain’s local service is indeed slow, but let’s do a comparison of its Baby Bullet service, which is the primary source of new riders since 2004. A Baby Bullet train executes a 32-mile trip from SF to Palo Alto in 37 minutes; meanwhile, a BART train from 12th Street to Fremont executes a 27-mile trip in 36 minutes. The BART train stops a lot more than Caltrain, but then again, Caltrain could also stop more often if it were electrified.

    Combining (1) and (2) above, we see that at least at peak hours, Caltrain manages to put out a respectable number of trains. Not at all shabby for a commuter rail line that has pulled itself out of the hole — not by demanding billions of dollars, but by exhibiting creativity and working within its means. And here’s something that cannot be overemphasized:

    Constructing Baby Bullet cost less than one-third of one mile of BART to San Jose (even at the most conservative estimate of the cost of BART to SJ).

    And yet, the service the Baby Bullet has provided is timewise very competitive with (in fact, better than) BART, even with its current infrastructure. Caltrain also provides a higher quality riding experience than BART for long distance, in terms of comfort. Of course grade separations would increase the cost of electrification, but the system can be electrified even without separation at each and every crossing. Grade separations at key at-grade crossings could be phased in on an incremental basis. CME would be a more expensive proposition, but still far less than BART. Why, then, pursue further outward BART extensions?

    I would argue that ROW quality, which you claim has a big effect on your own travel choices, does not greatly affect the travel choices of the population at large, at least with respect to BART vs. Caltrain. Caltrain riders were theoretically projected to transfer to BART at Millbrae to go downtown. These riders, in practice, stay on Caltrain because the Baby Bullet is faster. Do people think: “I should really switch to BART, because it has no at-grade crossings”? Of course not: their decision is influenced by travel time, ticket cost, and other considerations — but not ROW quality. Most riders probably don’t pay any attention at all to ROW quality, unless it has a very detrimental effect on travel time, which it doesn’t in the case of the Baby Bullet.

    And finally: on a purely aesthetic level, there is something to be said for having the entire Bay Area unified under a single rail system. But that is something we won’t have, nor is it something we should pursue. Moreover, we are dealing with a ballot measure, so we can’t forget the case-specific details that bring this more general discussion into the real world. VTA has been hanging off the cliff of financial ruin for years; that same agency cut bus service while simultaneously looking to live beyond its means with a BART extension that it cannot afford. In this context, I think it would be irresponsible for VTA to execute planning and decision-making on the basis of aesthetics.

    This is not to say that VTA should not pursue rail expansion in its jurisdiction. It certainly should: but it needs to pursue rail expansion that it can afford. Jeopardizing service across the whole county just so downtown SJ can have a subway is not sound planning. Sure, you can point to advantages of such a tunnel — but will it provide $6-10 billion worth of advantages? Simply put, the expense of BART is disproportional as compared to the service it provides in the suburbs. What VTA needs now is good bang for the buck, which BART is anything but.

    Posted by Eric | 28 October 2008, 9:39 am
  18. Eric,

    8 stations doesn’t include the optional one at Irvington right?

    I remember people in Fremont were pushing for an Irvington station as well as Warm Springs.

    Also new article in the examiner about “surging” ridership for BART to SFO:

    http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/BART_ridership_to_SFO_soars.html

    “on a purely aesthetic level, there is something to be said for having the entire Bay Area unified under a single rail system. But that is something we won’t have, nor is it something we should pursue. ”

    I think the unification of Bay Area rail could equally be served by TransLink, better organization in signs, etc. and not actually one physical system. If we had a system where you could use Caltrain, BART, Muni (metro and buses) for one monthly or yearly pass (anywhere and not just SF) or on a single card, I think that would solve most of the unification issues. You could just rename everything under the umbrella “translink program”

    Posted by thamsenman | 28 October 2008, 2:07 pm
  19. thamsenman, yes, that’s right. If both Irvington and South Calaveras were built, there’d be 9 stations total.

    Posted by Eric | 28 October 2008, 2:12 pm
  20. Wow. Most heated back-and-forth I’ve seen on this blog. ever. :-)

    I find points to agree with both JimS and Eric on, and I think this argument would be moot if we could get more people to think of transit as something that deserves to be funded, not something that should compete for a limited, nominal pool of funding. (because I think Eric’s argument is more that BART to SJ ain’t worth the cost, not that something like it wouldn’t be a useful addition to the BART system)

    I hate hate hate the idea that everything has to be either/or! If both projects have merit then both should be funded!

    And I think that if we, the transit geeks who read Eric’s blog, are afraid to say it’s silly to be so hamstrung then we’ll never convince policy makers otherwise. So I officially file my loony objection to pitting any two worthy transit projects against each other and instead argue that we should invest more in our transit infrastructure. Especially now that people who have a choice are really starting to ride.

    (And in the future I pledge to keep arguing at the extreme pro-transit edge, so everyone else can take comfort knowing that their views sound moderate by comparison)

    Posted by Josh | 28 October 2008, 3:21 pm
  21. BART to SJ is the the wrong answer to the problem even if money is no object. The route doesn’t go where people need to go, the system is approaching capacity at the core thus adding more long distance riders will only

    Posted by david vartanoff | 29 October 2008, 11:41 am
  22. San Jose wants a subway- why not just build one? Built a line that runs where along the east-west path proposed for BART, and maybe a cross line going north-south to other key areas. Would be a lot cheaper.

    Also, the transit systems should start showing maps that include all systems prominently, not just their own. It would help people recognize intermodal opportunities.

    Posted by MikeD | 29 October 2008, 1:32 pm
  23. How many hundreds of millions of transit dollars have been lost to the public by the California state legislature as a way to balance the state budget?
    Is there no way to stop the bleeding of money that would fund the multiple projects discussed above and others voted in by the voters over the last decade or 2?

    Posted by stevenj | 29 October 2008, 8:17 pm

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