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?