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BART Extension Threatens Santa Clara County Bus Service

(An article I wrote for the Loma Prietan):

One of the key public transportation issues in Santa Clara County is whether to extend BART to San Jose. Not only is it a huge project, but it may do more harm than good.

San Mateo County’s experience with the SFO extension is illustrative. Original projections were pretty good. For $1.2 billion, 62,000 riders per day would get out of their cars. The line would have so many people it would turn a profit, and that money could be used to help fund other public transportation.

It hasn’t turned out that way. The project was two years late and $300 million over budget, and the 12,000 to 13,000 net new riders is a fraction of the predicted 62,000. Few riders means less fares, so the extension has run large deficits, forcing huge cuts to bus service in San Mateo County. Those bus service cuts have resulted in a loss of 22,000 riders per day. That loss is almost twice the anticipated gain from building the BART extension in the first place.

Low ridership, service cuts, and loss of existing systems are the reasons the Sierra Club and the Transportation and Land Use Coalition opposed the first tax to fund the proposed BART-SJ extension. Santa Clara County could suffer the same damage as San Mateo.

Just as the SFO extension has had very low ridership, the San Jose extension does not look promising. Public transit advocates at the Transportation and Land Use Coalition have raised serious doubts about the accuracy of the VTA’s projections. For example, the number of riders per station is predicted to rival that of San Francisco. With no Bay Bridge or parking shortages to limit driving, and far less office space, this seems unlikely.

Even the Federal Transportation Authority has raised doubts, openly questioning the methodology used in preparing the VTA estimates. Those doubts are the primary reason the project was withdrawn from consideration for federal funding.

The BART financing plans also threaten to damage VTA bus operations. (Buses may not be flashy, but our bus systems carry far more riders than do our rail systems.)

The contract between the VTA and the BART system grants BART $48 million per year and the right to take away VTA bus funds to get it. So far, funding has not been identified to make these payments to build the extension. The potential loss of $48 million per year is about a quarter of the VTA’s bus budget.

The other risk to VTA bus operations comes from the financing to build BART. The current plan to finance BART is to borrow against our bus operating funds. That gives New York banks the right to take our bus funds if the financing plan goes awry.

The final question about BART to San Jose is whether it would be better than the systems it would replace. There are two trains that run from Fremont to San Jose, the Altamont Commuter Express and the Capital Corridor. Both are popular and have strong ridership: actual riders, not just projections.

The sidebar highlights the top 10 commutes into Santa Clara County. Eight of these commutes represent 85 percent of the total number of commuters and have nothing to do with linking Fremont to San Jose. Interestingly, all but one of the top 10 commutes would be well served by improving Caltrain, ACE, or Dumbarton Rail.

For riders who just want to get to work, this means BART-SJ doesn’t add much. We would do better just to expand service on the systems we already have.

When you add it all up, the current plan for extending BART to San Jose just doesn’t make sense. For the sake of projected riders who may never appear, it risks tens of thousands of existing riders. All to build a train that isn’t any faster or more direct than the ones we have today.

Number of Riders in the Top 10 Commutes Entering Santa Clara County
Residence Work In 2006 In 2030 Most Direct System(s)
Fremont/Union City Sunnyvale/Mountain View 44457 60050 Dumbarton Rail / ACE
Redwood City/Menlo Park Palo Alto/Los Altos 40938 48725 Caltrain
Redwood City/Menlo Park Sunnyvale/ Mountain View 14962 20251 Caltrain
Fremont/Union City Milpitas/East San Jose 14629 20797 BART-SJ
Fremont/Union City Palo Alto/Los Altos 11107 14042 Dumbarton Rail
Fremont/Union City Central San Jose 11105 16736 BART-SJ / ACE/ Capitals
Livermore/Pleasanton Sunnyvale/Mountain View 11101 18150 Dumbarton Rail
San Mateo/Burlingame Palo Alto/Los Altos 10116 10800 Caltrain
Hayward/San Leandro Sunnyvale/Mountain View 9664 12868 Dumbarton Rail / Capitals
San Mateo/ Burlingame Sunnyvale/Mountain View 8350 10046 Caltrain
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission

Posted in 2006-06-06-measure-a, political, transportation.

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  1. MettaTrained says

    Here’s an article from the Murky News regarding a solution right NOW in the 880/Central Valley to SJ corridor:

    A boost for area transit
    By Gary Richards
    Mercury News
    Details: More trains to South Bay
    When BART will come to San Jose is anyone’s guess, but transit service between the East Bay and Silicon Valley is being beefed up starting today.

    Six new weekday trains and two more weekend trains will run from Oakland to San Jose on the Capitol Corridor, the biggest expansion in the line’s 15-year history. And the Altamont commuter service from Stockton to San Jose will add a midday train.

    The first Capitol train will leave San Jose at 6:40 a.m., compared with 7:50 a.m. under the old schedule. The first train into San Jose will arrive at 7:35 a.m. compared with 8:45 a.m.

    Train officials believe the changes will make the Auburn-to-San Jose route more commuter-friendly — especially from Oakland, where a trip to San Jose will take roughly an hour. That might be faster than the time it takes to drive down Interstate 880 during commute hours.

    Work on $72 million in track improvements has been completed, and that allows more trains to run. The Capitol line serves 17 stations along the 170-mile corridor and is now the third-busiest intercity passenger rail route in the nation.

    The Altamont Commuter Express’ new train will leave Stockton at 9:30 a.m. and arrive in San Jose at 11:40 a.m., with a return trip heading out of San Jose at 12:05 p.m.

    Ridership on all Bay Area transit lines has jumped this year, a sign of better economic times, more highway congestion and high gas prices. But the Capitol line has been a steady hit, with record ridership numbers of 120,000 passengers a day this year, up from 38,583 when service began. The fare box recovery on the Capitol line has gone from 30 percent in 1998 to nearly 50 percent this year.

    “Perhaps it’s the crazy increase of gas prices; perhaps highway traffic has passed a tolerable threshold,” said General Manager Gene Skoropowski. “Whatever the reason, more and more people are looking to the train as a viable transportation alternative.”

    Road construction could also be a factor. Work on the interchange at Mission Boulevard and Interstate 880 in Fremont brings traffic to a nightmarish standstill every day. And soon work on widening Interstate 205 in Tracy could lead to delays along that key east-west route.

    “It’s nice that they’ve added a late train at 7:30 p.m. for those folks that need to work late,” said Dean Grannes of Fremont, who occasionally rides the Capitol train. “But that rarely happens for me, so it wouldn’t really be useful.”

    ACE has operated three daily, round-trip commuter trains between Stockton and San Jose, with stops in Lathrop, Tracy, Pleasanton, Fremont and Santa Clara. About 1,400 people ride these trains each day.

    Many ACE riders want a train that leaves the South Bay later than the current 5:27 p.m. departure.

    “I would have preferred that ACE offered a later train,” said Marta Seda, a regular rider from Pleasanton to the Great America station in Santa Clara.

    Yet there are times that the midday offering will be nice, said Scott Gill, a Nortel engineer who commutes from Livermore to Santa Clara.

    “I can get to or attend either late day or early morning events at my kids’ school in Livermore,” said Gill, 38. “As with many tech workers, I work a lot with the Far East. I can come in late, commuting home, then dialing into my evening meetings with China or India.”

    Union Pacific signal problems have delayed trains between Tracy and Lathrop, and recently at the Altamont Pass.

    Union Pacific expects to finish half of the signal upgrades by Halloween.

    Contact Gary Richards at or (408) 920-5335.

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