Kline: Innovation is key to solving South Bay transportation woes
The Diridon Station in downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Janice Bitters.

Traffic congestion will return. When it does, we need a better plan. What could that possibly be? Spending billions of dollars and decades of delays, to get only minor improvements, should no longer be acceptable.

How about a little innovation? Can we make it faster, easier and cheaper? Let’s be frank, we’re not going to get innovation from public agencies. They simply are not designed to take risks that innovation requires. So that means it has to come from the private sector, or at least a public-private partnership. This is not some wild-eyed notion. Public-private partnerships are done all the time in housing, food distribution and health; why not transportation?

A possible approach is to imagine a perfect system and work backwards to create it. I want to be in a Star Trek transporter room and simply be beamed to wherever I want. OK, I will settle for walking into a room and be transported to another location within minutes. What, we have that? It’s called an elevator. OK, let’s walk into an elevator and be transported, instead of between floors, directly to hundreds of locations around an urban city without stopping. Also, allow me to bring my bike. Done — that will be a solution worth shooting for.

Working backwards, there are key requirements that must be met.

Grade separation. You cannot stop for cross traffic. The route has to be direct. Not only direct but non-stop. I don’t want to stop at one station, let alone five stations, before I get to mine. Since I’m going to a specific location at a specific time, the fewer people in the elevator, the better. I’d prefer just me. It has to be faster or as fast as my car and less expensive than current public transit. Future enhancements? We need to solve the last-mile problem. Also, if a person is elderly or disabled, the elevator needs to come to them.

The Boring Company offers the only solution that even comes close to fulfilling this dream transportation system. And it can be possible at a fraction of the cost of traditional mass transit. What, you say this is a fantasy? Not a real public transit system? Let’s not confuse the Boring Test Track in Hawthorne, or even the one-mile loop system, which is almost done in record time, at the Las Vegas Convention Center as an end product. These are just beginning prototypes, built to test engineering components and concepts. And let’s not be closed-minded that crowded buses, trains or bicycles are the only or exclusive way to accomplish the goal.

The Boring solution is constantly changing with each successful innovative step. But there are keystones that support the overall design.

Grade separation is primarily below grade. Why? At street level, it is too expensive to buy the land and too disruptive to existing traffic. Above grade? Nobody wants to live or work next to a freeway overpass for a reason. Noise, privacy and, of course, blight. I love monorails, I just don’t want one anywhere near my home.

Small cars that transit one or a few people from one destination to another without stopping at the stations along the way. Think of it as a multi-layered underground freeway system with on and off ramps. Unlike freeways, the cars are computer-controlled and will be efficient, environmentally friendly and safe. Don’t trust it? Really, you trust an elevator? You trust a jet airplane? If it is done enough and appears safe, you will use it.

The stations will have small footprints in neighborhoods and larger stations in urban centers. A car appears from an underground elevator and disappears within several square feet. Or a fleet of cars wait for busy people trying to get home quickly.

Lower cost to build and operate is essential. How to lower the cost to build? Tunneling is very expensive. That is where innovation comes in. There has been almost no research and development in tunneling technology in the past 50 years. Already, Boring has proved it can reduce costs dramatically. Cost of operations? Self-driving cars and off-the-shelf vehicles, like Tesla Model X, will significantly reduce operating costs.

Safety. Because the traffic is below ground, there is little chance of collisions of people or vehicles. Unlike subway systems, there are no third-rail problems, where people are in danger. The cars are self-powered, and the tunnels and cars are monitored. No more light rail trains or buses running into people or cars.

Why not try this? The same reason people didn’t want to try electric cars, or the reuse of rockets. Because the “experts” didn’t’ think it could be done. Experts are invested in some degree in the status quo. And public agencies rely on “experts” to make sure they do not take risks with taxpayer money.

The way forward is simply to do the work. Quickly but carefully build as many loops as possible. Find what works and find what doesn’t work. A simple and obvious loop is from the San Jose Airport to the Diridon Train Station. A connection that has been promoted and supposedly funded for over 20 years but no more near being done than when we first put it on a ballot measure decades ago.

Let’s create a private-public-partnership nonprofit to try funding and developing that airport test loop. The cost is estimated to be $100 million. That seems like a lot of money, but compared with transit systems delivering far less, it is pocket change.

So can we do this? Private industry has to step up with dollars and say things have to change. It needs to say that it is tired of providing bus service for employees because of the lack of a viable public transit system. Public agencies have to recognize their own inability to solve the problem without help. Together, they can create a private-public partnership corporation that can raise money and do a test loop. Then do another and another until the solution becomes Boringly obvious.

Norman Kline is a San Jose businessman, entrepreneur and former San Jose planning commissioner.

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