January 05

Letters to the Editor
On the Cover
Flyway Festival
Port of Oakland Announces
January 2005 is “Dine-
About-Town(Tm)” Month
in San Francisco
Hike Marin with the Sierra Club
Sailing Calendar
Tsunami Experience
Breakfast by the Bay Ferry Building’s Breakfast Opportunities
Fleet Week Forensics
Walk-through Walls Benicia’s Historic Tannery Building
Cool Places to Shop for the New Year
VTA’s Monomaniacal Manifest Destiny – BART to San Jose
Dispatch from Dogpatch
Second Annual San Francisco Ocean Film Festival Heads Ashore, January 29-30
Alan Leon, Oakland, California
Rescuing Riders from the Rain: Staying Dry While Taking Water Transit
Danilo Trio Joins Jack’s Bistro Music Line-up in January
Libations: New Year’s in Southern Chile...
The Rest of the Story






VTA’s Monomaniacal Manifest Destiny – BART to San Jose

Guy Span

It’s not as if you can’t get from San Jose up to Alameda County. There’s frequent service on the Express 180 bus from the passenger station in San Jose to Fremont BART. One hour and 36 minutes later you are at Oakland’s City Center. The Capital Corridor Amtrak service can be as quick as one hour and 13 minutes. But BART to San Jose would be superior, thinks the inordinately dense Santa Clara Valley Transportation Agency (VTA). A little quick analysis shows how vastly superior a new and $4.1 billion BART extension would really be. First of all, it’s an extension from a place where today there is no BART, but rather an empty field in Warm Springs. This 16.3-mile extension attached to a 5.1-mile unbuilt extension will likely operate at BART’s current average speed of 45 mph, including stops at seven stations. Thus, our imaginary traveler, going from San Jose to Oakland’s City Center, would hurtle across the unbuilt BART for around 35 minutes before getting to Fremont and taking another 37 minutes to get to Oakland. This is where the big time savings are, as the 180 bus takes some 52 scheduled minutes to get to Fremont.

So, we have generated 24 minutes of savings at a capital cost of $4.1 billion, plus $678 million for the 5.1-mile extension. But we haven’t had to subsidize the operation of the new extension which, like all BART operations, must be funded. BART will have to pay for the portion in Alameda County, as it is already funded by property tax and other measures. Santa Clara’s intentionally dense VTA will fund its operating costs, which means adding BART will cost them some $20 million a year (based on SamTrans Airport experience).

In order to save 24 lousy minutes, we are going to spend some $4.8 billion dollars at a cost of $199 million a minute (and then spend another $20 million a year to operate it). And that, folks, is some seriously expensive time. It becomes even more expensive when you note the Capital Corridor passenger trains already operate between San Jose and Oakland and the fastest ones today make the trip in 1 hour and 13 minutes, or one minute longer than the new BART system.

It is clearly a no-brainer to spend some money putting bimodal (passenger rail to BART) stations in Fremont, Hayward, and maybe even West Oakland, upgrading the existing tracks and raising the current relatively low speed limits. Even if new equipment is purchased, the capital costs of improving the existing service and tying it into BART makes far more sense than spending billions and billions on BART (unless, of course, you have no brains).

You really have to wonder about what’s in the water down in San Jose. The befuddled VTA is already financially on the ropes (facing a $100 million deficit) and borrowing against future tax incomes (specifically, a half-cent sales tax scheduled to go into effect in 2006) to fund one of the worst performing transit systems in the Bay Area. Recently, after public outrage was stirred up by the San Jose Mercury News, VTA cancelled a contract with expensive public relations consultants ($7.7 million), where the aim was to promote a 2006 sales tax increase to fund more BART. There are mild problems with using tax dollars to promote more taxes, as you might imagine. VTA claimed this was for “informational” purposes, which is allowed and many people noted that $7.7 million was a lot of information at a time when VTA was trying to save money.

But the blunders continue. A Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury studied the VTA and released a report denouncing the finances, the Board composition, and the monomaniacal pursuit of BART, led by San Jose Mayor Gonzalez. This report was applauded by virtually every town in Santa Clara County, with the obvious exception of San Jose. And it said: “The Grand Jury would have been delighted to have received a logical and financially compelling justification for putting BART at the head of its priority and funding list from VTA. It did not.” The VTA response was just classic, opening with the following patronizing comments: “…members may find themselves quickly immersed in an environment of unique terminology and interrelationships that initially appear to reflect a local issue, but ultimately turns out to be much more complicated.”

In short, the apparently ignorant and uniformed VTA was calling the Grand Jury ignorant and uniformed. They went on to defend their finances by pointing out that sales tax revenues had gone down and that the board elected to borrow from future income to avoid cutting services today. The VTA defended the makeup of the Board (which gives San Jose 5 seats out of 12 members, with 2 from County elected positions). And finally, unsurprisingly, the VTA defended their position on BART, saying that the voters had overwhelmingly approved BART and other service enhancements and it was VTA’s job to deliver them.

There is also no question that BART itself is a willing coconspirator in all of this. The current construction plan calls for doing some tunnel work at the San Jose end long before it ever would be close to being connected (on the grounds that it would take the longest to complete). Like the Millbrae extension, work was done there early on, so if money became tight (and it did), Millbrae would have to be connected to SFO or that money would be wasted.

Someone in the VTA with a high, two-digit I.Q. might just take a closer look at the little county to the north that had its own BART extension experience. SamTrans and BART almost came to blows in court about BART’s construction cost overruns, inflated ridership projections, and the resulting operational cost blowout that nearly blew out SamTrans’ budget. Plus BART snuck in some nifty enhancements like getting the airport to kick in some cash and then renting the airport station from the airport, adding to the poor financial performance.

You just have to wonder why the VTA is desperate to take all its sales tax money and shove it into the maw of BART for construction and operation of a single line when the proceeds could be used for innumerable other projects. Some have suggested electrifying the Peninsula and raising the track speeds. Raising speeds and frequency in the Capital Corridor connects the 40,000 Alameda County workers who live in San Jose. Oddly enough, BART to San Jose is more beneficial to noncounty residents, as some 69,000 commute from Alameda and some 10,000 come from Contra Costa County, according to the 2002 MTC report.

So what then is the eligible pool of BART commuters? A whopping 120,000 people. Let’s say half of them (an unbelievably high percentage) decide to take BART. They work five days a week, 50 weeks a year, so that on any given day, 250 work days a year, there will be 6,000 commuters (12,000 trips) using this new extension. BART to the Airport projected daily ridership of 42,000 trips. So the question remains, who else wants to go to San Jose?

And then there is timing. The maze-dull VTA think that a project that goes for Federal funding approval in 2006, gets cash in 2007, and starts construction in 2008 is providing speedy results. Completion time for this huge boondoggle? 2015. In two years, we could speed up the Peninsula and the Capital Corridor with real high-speed trains providing real benefits real soon, not 11 years and $4.1 billion later (not counting cost overruns).

There is good news in the fact that the virtually somnambulant VTA simply doesn’t have the cash at hand to waste on this gift to the construction industry. It will require another half-cent sales tax hike approved by at least two thirds of the Santa Clara County voters in 2006 to get this pork project rolling. Fortunately, there is opposition. Not enamored of this plan are the Federal Transit Administration, the Santa Clara County Grand Jury, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Policy Advisory Committee. Then there is the Sierra Club, the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, and BayRail Alliance who all think that the BART extension will suck the cash out of more beneficial projects.

Even the city of Los Altos in its minutes of a city council meeting called the VTA “a dysfunctional agency that does not serve the greater community.” So who the hell wants BART to San Jose? Mayor Gonzalez of San Jose and, of course, the folks at BART who wish to fulfill the manifest destiny of connecting BART to the South Bay. Never mind that standard gauge trains have amenities like laptop power, bathrooms, and food service. Ignore the fact that BART has an average speed of 45 mph and over longer distances is actually slower than driving. Overlook BART’s unique track width that makes it the most expensive heavy rail to construct and operate. Wink at BART’s sale/leaseback tactics to allow foreign companies avoid federal taxes. It is manifest destiny that BART makes it to San Jose. And the voters of Santa Clara County just may make this possible.

You can contact Guy Span at info@baycrossings.com