The Loma Prietan - May/June 2009

Transit News

BART to San Jose — Can VTA Afford It?

by Gladwyn d’Souza

Now that Santa Clara County voters narrowly approved a 1/8-cent sales tax to pay for extending BART to San Jose, is the service really ready for construction and operation? Can the County pay for this without bankrupting the rest of its transit operations when this small increase in sales tax will not fund the complete project?

Extending BART from the Warm Springs station (currently under construction) five miles through Alameda County and 16 miles into Santa Clara County will cost over $6 billion. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has been borrowing the money to start the engineering, but in the meantime it has been cutting...

• Vital bus service to transit-dependent communities like East San Jose.

• Money for the Dumbarton Rail Corridor Project to connect Caltrain with Union City BART.

• Money for Caltrain electrification and the Caltrain downtown extension.

• Money for the Downtown East Valley lightrail project.

• Frequency of bus routes, including paratransit.

According to the county counsel's analysis of Measure B, "The proposed tax [will] only be collected if sufficient state and federal funds are secured to match local construction dollars."

VTA is hoping to get $750 million from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) through the New Starts program. However, FTA has never indicated that this is likely. In fact, for two years in a row, FTA rated the project "not recommended." VTA temporarily withdrew the project from the New Starts pipeline and has now come up with "new and improved" modeling numbers and is attempting to reenter the New Starts application process.

While the new administration has been increasing the New Starts budget, VTA's request is still a disproportionately large percentage of New Starts' total funding. Since New Starts sank over $400 million into the BART to San Francisco Airport project, which has shown lackluster results, FTA hasn't been favorably inclined toward BART.

Operating Costs Also an Issue

VTA can't afford BART's operating costs. The agency is already strapped, and this extension of BART will cost more to run than the agency's other projects combined. In addition, VTA refuses to disclose forthrightly how it intends to maintain essential bus service to outlying areas. In the sprawled-out South Bay, this spells environmental and fiscal disaster.

VTA has asked cities to intensify land uses near station areas; the pattern is noticeable in the South Bay, and the New York Times recently called it "sprawl with density." VTA needs to go further and create land-use concessions to augment its revenue stream, such as building and leasing out higher-density office and retail space below condo units at station areas, charging for parking, and improving feederbus linkage with express routes. VTA will need additional revenue to maintain more frequent extended bus services (especially to the east and south sides of the county) and land-use concessions to make them work.

The Business Journal recently reported on high expectations for transit connections at San Jose's Diridon Station. But with BART funding coming together shakily at best, the operations side for bus and other transit services is even shakier.

Gladwyn d'Souza is chair of the Chapter's Transportation Committee. Margaret Okuzumi contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared in the Yodeler, the newsletter of the Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter.

Drawing lines on a map is easy. Building BART to San Jose costs real money, money that the local transit agencies don't have, despite the new 1/2-cent sales tax. Graphics by Bob Newey