Light rail network plans fading
SOUTH BAY EXPANSION MAY BE ECONOMIC
By Gary Richards
Posted on Mon, Sep. 29, 2003
VTA's light rail train prepares to leave the Paseo De San
Antonio station on Second Street in downtown San Jose.
Over the past decade, when the economy was booming and taxpayers
were willing, planners envisioned a mass transit system that
covered the South Bay like a web.
Trolleys would dip into Cupertino, Los Gatos and Palo Alto
and run the length of Stevens Creek Boulevard. They would
pass each other in the medians along Capitol Expressway and
Highway 85, and perhaps go into Coyote Valley. And BART would
tunnel beneath downtown San Jose on its way from Fremont to
Today, the Valley Transportation Authority is facing an enormous
financial crisis that could build into a $1.1 billion debt
within two decades for operational costs. And because BART's
popularity makes it all but untouchable, the VTA is moving
toward declaring light rail the first major casualty.
Although no decisions have been made, internal documents
and interviews with board members indicate that the VTA will
probably scrap plans to construct a series of new trolley
lines endorsed by voters in a series of ballot measures. Construction
will continue on extensions to Campbell and deep into East
San Jose, but other lines almost certainly will be shelved.
``We have $1 billion allocated for five different light-rail
projects,'' General Manager Pete Cipolla told the special
committee looking into VTA's finances earlier this month.
``We need to revisit that.''
Light rail extends for nearly 30 miles, from South San Jose
to Milpitas and Mountain View. Next year the extension into
East San Jose opens to Alum Rock Avenue, and could go as far
south as the Eastridge mall by 2009. Trains on the line to
Campbell are scheduled to run by 2006.
That's nearly 50 miles of track. A lot, but not the 75- to
100-mile network once envisioned. Some say that may be a good
Earlier this year, the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based
transportation think tank, concluded that Santa Clara County's
light rail system was the least productive in the nation and
has operating costs that are more than twice the national
``San Jose isn't a dense place, and light rail doesn't work
because the jobs and entertainment venues are so spread out,''
said Adrian Moore, the study's project director. ``The initial
mistake was choosing a form of mass transit that doesn't work
for the city. It makes even less sense to compound the mistake
by continuing to pour more money into a system that drains
huge amounts of money and will never be a main source of transportation
for anything more than a tiny, select group.''
Blow to cities
But an end to light rail expansion would affect cities that
have mapped out housing and business developments based on
the availability of mass transit. ``We've been peddling smart
growth strategies all over the county,'' said David Cortese,
a San Jose councilman and VTA board member. ``Now they are
making land-use decisions for the next 30 years, only for
many light rail won't be a part of it.''
Trains are being considered along Santa Clara Street, but
may give way to improved bus service. Otherwise lines at risk
are in the earliest stages -- while they have been described
in broad terms in a pair of ballot measures, no specific routes
have been determined, and no dollars spent. But for years,
planners have talked of bringing light rail into the county's
fastest growing areas, such as the Coyote Valley either along
Santa Teresa Boulevard or Monterey Highway.
There also have been discussions about a link to the Peninsula,
tracks along developments planned along Capitol Expressway
toward Highway 87, and trains that could bring shoppers to
Santana Row and Valley Fair.
Now those plans no longer look viable, for a host of reasons.
One is the lack of cash to operate new lines. Projected sales
tax revenues have plummeted by $60 million a year, and sales
taxes make up 80 percent of the district's operating budget.
The VTA has made major cuts in service, but even so it had
to go to court last week to get enough cash to maintain existing
A second reason is light rail's declining popularity: Ridership
has fallen from more than 30,000 a day three years ago to
20,000 riders now -- in part because of the economy, and in
part because trains run less frequently.
The most critical problem is that there is very little money
to build new light rail. The Measure A tax passed three years
ago was first expected to bring in $6 billion, with perhaps
$1 billion of that available to build new lines. Now as the
recession lingers, the forecast is down to $4 billion, and
most of that will be needed for BART. And now a San Jose judge
has allowed the VTA to dip into Measure A funds for operating
costs, which could also deplete that pool of money.
Perhaps the strongest indication that decision-makers are
daunted by the obstacles is this: The VTA has recently mapped
out several ``funding scenarios'' that would take it through
the next two decades.
Some rely on existing resources, while others assume that
voters will approve a sales tax increase for transportation
in 2004. But only the new-tax scenarios include money to operate
any new light rail, in the form of an single extension of
the Capitol line from Alum Rock Avenue to Eastridge Shopping
It's improbable that any money would be spent to plan, let
alone build, any other line.
``Why spend money to study projects you can't build? I absolutely
see the rationale for this,'' said Dianne McKenna, a member
of the California Transportation Commission and former supervisor.
The VTA's Cipolla is convinced that when the economy cranks
back up the light rail lines now under construction will boost
ridership significantly. One day, he hopes, it will make sense
``Give me 200,000 more jobs back,'' he said, referring to
the number lost in Silicon Valley since the recession, ``and
you'll see plenty of riders.''
But it may be a decade before those jobs and riders return,
and as the trolley dream fades, transit advocates are starting
to look beyond it.
``The VTA may need to refocus on bus service, and that may
be a good thing,'' said McKenna, ``because we can get it cheaper
Added Cortese: ``In the long term, I think light rail still
needs to be the plan. But now we have to define long term.
Will light rail be delayed for decades? Absolutely.''
For now, this is what VTA decision makers are thinking: Finish
the East San Jose and Campbell light rail extensions. Perhaps
run more buses down Santa Clara Street instead of the trolley.
Continue preliminary engineering studies for BART and light
rail to Eastridge. Try for a new tax increase. Avoid canceling
bus routes. Scrub most everything else.
If a new tax passes, the agency projects healthy revenues
within a few years. If it fails, light rail may not be the
only casualty. Even building BART would be a struggle.
The $4.1 billion extension plan relies on $1.5 billion in
federal and state aid that is questionable. And new tax money
will be needed to help cover daily operational costs.
``That,'' said Scott Buhrer, the VTA chief financial officer,
``is when you get to the fork in the road.''