Is San Jose’s transit agency prepared for another catastrophe?
The Guadalupe light rail yard in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Between wildfires, a mass shooting and an unprecedented pandemic, VTA and other Bay Area transit agencies face constant threats to long-term stability. Some transit advocates are concerned agencies aren’t prepared for the next catastrophe.

“They’re not ready for when the big 8.0 (earthquake) hits the Hayward Fault and takes out BART,” Silicon Valley Transit Users founder Eugene Bradley told San José Spotlight, adding that mutual aid agreements don’t cover every contingency. “There’s no set plans for what happens when there’s a terrorist attack or other serious natural disaster where an agency or parts of service are out for weeks or months at a time.”

A high-profile example is VTA, which suffered service disruptions in May after a disgruntled employee killed nine workers and damaged equipment at the Guadalupe light rail yard in downtown San Jose. Another worker traumatized by the event died by suicide months later. The shooting forced the public transit agency to shut down all light rail service, which took months to get back up and running.

“I think what the pandemic really highlighted was the fragility of specific agencies, or in VTA’s case, the fragility of a certain component of their delivery system,” said Randi Kinman, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Policy Advisory Council. The commission is a public agency that coordinates transportation planning and financing in the Bay Area. “We lost light rail for months.”

VTA told San José Spotlight it activates an emergency operations center in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. The center is staffed by representatives from every division who formulate responses based on the type of emergency.

Most recently, the center was activated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and remained active during a cyberattack in April. It was also active following the mass shooting.

VTA also activated its continuity of operations procedure to make sure transit could continue after the shooting. Following the shooting, VTA set up temporary bus bridges to help commuters get around the South Bay without light rail. The unprecedented crisis also traumatized hundreds of workers, creating a separate problem VTA is still trying to address with expanded mental health resources.

“VTA’s priority has been, and continues to be, to ensure our employees feel safe and confident to return to work, and are able to perform their work safely,” an agency spokesperson said.

Several Bay Area public transportation agencies such as AC Transit and MUNI helped backfill VTA’s temporary lack of available operators. But Kinman told San José Spotlight this was temporary because no agency can afford to give up valuable manpower for days or weeks at a time.

Major disasters pose uncomfortable questions about the long-term survival of public transportation networks. Kinman cited the example of smaller transit operators in the North Bay that face growing threats from wildfires.

“What happens if one of those fires wipes out an entire yard where their fleet is stored or maintained? How do we backfill that?” she said.

As another example, she said some transit systems such as VTA rely on light rail, which only a limited number of people are trained and certified to operate.

“So are we cross-training enough people? Do we have that kind of back up?” Kinman said. “We’re working with a finite number of trained people here.”

She said transit agencies have developed strong, long-term resiliency plans to make sure natural or manmade catastrophes don’t wipe out public transportation infrastructure overnight. But the VTA shooting was a lightbulb moment for her because it showed how even with long-term planning, agencies can suffer catastrophic shutdowns.

“Nobody plans for the entire workplace having to be rebuilt,” Kinman said. “How do we create a system where if something like that happens, we’re not worried about the agency going under?”

Advocates say this type of planning is essential because the long-term disruption of public transit can have massive ripple effects on the thousands of people who rely on it for daily travel.

“I know it’s hard in a disaster, or any other tragedy, but people still need to move,” Bradley said. “At minimum, when you keep people moving during any tragedy, you show the world the tragedy didn’t defeat you.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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