Woman waving out the driver's window of a new BART train while people wait on the platform
Money collected from Measure B is to be split among nine categories, including BART expansion. Photo courtesy of BART.

    The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority is working to reassure taxpayers their dollars are not going to waste after a federal agency undercut its ridership estimate for the BART extension through downtown San Jose by more than 20,000 passengers per day.

    “I want to make sure that the public understands concepts thoroughly and doesn’t have things oversimplified,” Bernice Alaniz, director of external affairs for the BART to Silicon Valley division of VTA, told San José Spotlight.

    VTA published a blog post this week defending itself and explaining the discrepancy between its BART ridership estimate for 2040 and that of the Federal Transit Administration.

    VTA estimates that 54,600 people will use the four new BART stations each day by 2040, according to its blog, while the FTA released a new document estimating 32,900 riders will use the four stations. As part of a major expansion into Silicon Valley, BART opened new stations in Milpitas and the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose in 2020. Now it’s planning the second phase of its expansion from Berryessa to downtown San Jose and the city of Santa Clara. That work is expected to be completed in 2030.

    The difference has to do with how the FTA allocates funding, according to Alaniz. Transit agencies across the U.S. use a wide variety of factors to determine ridership, but the FTA is required to use the same model to determine how much money to allocate to each agency, she said.

    For example, not every area has a large public university at the center of its transit project, such as San Jose State University. The FTA’s estimate doesn’t account for students using BART to travel to SJSU from other parts of the Bay Area, she said.

    “Because not every transit agency has a college associated, that’s not part of the evaluation process,” Alaniz said. “That’s why the model for the FTA doesn’t capture some of the trips of our model.”

    VTA has been criticized for its handling of the BART extension through downtown San Jose. Business owners on East Santa Clara Street say the agency has pushed them to sell their properties for the construction of the BART tunnel, while downtown businesses will need to close to make way for BART facilities. The design of the tunnel has also gone through revisions, with many transit advocates criticizing VTA’s preferred design as detrimental to passengers because the tunnels are far below ground level.

    Yet the need for regional transit has never been greater, according to recent studies. On average, San Jose residents spend three days stuck in traffic each year while commuting to work, while San Francisco residents spend nearly four days.

    While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reduced BART’s ridership, the need for transit across the Bay Area is growing, said Karen Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and a San José Spotlight transportation columnist.

    “Our population is growing, and employment, too,” Philbrick told San José Spotlight. “Sustainability and accessibility necessitate transit at the core of our transportation future.”

    Jason Baker, senior vice president of infrastructure at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said pollution and long commute times are consequences of failing to invest in regional transit systems like BART.

    “We can and should plan and invest as a region to help ensure BART ridership is higher than any current expectations,” Baker told San José Spotlight. “Technical differences in ridership expectations aside, we expect BART Phase II to be an essential asset.”

    The extension of BART has been funded by various tax measures, including Measure B, a 30-year, half-cent sales tax passed in 2016.

    Some experts say Silicon Valley residents must look beyond the short-term to understand how the BART extension meets the needs of the region.

    “While transit is in crisis right now in the near-term and we’re seeing lower BART ridership numbers, this type of project is the exact type of investment we need to support,” Emily Loper, vice president of public policy for the economic policy thinktank Bay Area Council, told San José Spotlight. “If we have any hope of achieving our very ambitious climate goals, we need to shift more riders onto transit.”

    Jake Wilde, a geography and urban studies student at SJSU, echoed Loper’s comment and stressed that the BART extension must move forward—despite the discrepancy in ridership figures.

    “We can’t afford to be short-sighted when it comes to projects of this scope,” Wilde told San José Spotlight. “Ultimately, I am sure the residents of San Jose 100 years from now will be very thankful we had the foresight to plan ahead.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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