Light rail network plans fading

By Gary Richards
Mercury News
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 Santa Clara.

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 thing.

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 average.

``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 transit lines.

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 Center.

Plans endangered

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 to expand.

``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 and faster.''

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.''