Kline: The case for public-private mass transit

Let’s start by talking about the housing crisis.

We have a housing problem because home prices are too high. Prices are high because demand is high and supply is low.

We can not increase supply unless we increase density. We can not increase density without increasing traffic. Traffic can be a killer to quality of life, which results in massive push back from communities. The answer is for more people to use mass transportation.

This would allow higher density without more traffic. However, the trend is just the opposite — ridership is actually down at VTA and farebox recovery is at an unbelievable 9 percent, the lowest in the country.  In other words, public mass transportation systems have failed to provide a solution to the housing problem.

All transportation is public in some way.  Whether it is roads, airports, trains or buses, the public taxpayers foot the bill at some level to build and/or maintain the systems.

Public mass transit in the form of buses and light rail is a relatively new experiment. When I was growing up in San Jose in the 1960s, all bus lines were private. Before that, my father rode the extensive private streetcar system throughout the Valley in the 1930s. Those services were swamped by the car fixation of the 1950s and 1960s and replaced by public services designed primarily to help those that did not or could not drive cars.

Why has public mass transportation failed in Silicon Valley? One thesis is that the sprawling nature of the Valley has made connecting people to jobs inherently inefficient for buses and more efficient and comfortable for cars.

An alternative is that public mass transit has focused on supporting everyone to go everywhere, regardless of the cost; creating an extremely inefficient system. Each bus passenger costs around $24 per trip, while they are only charged only about $2. And this only reflects the operating costs — not the capital costs of replacing buses or light rail vehicles.

What is the solution? First, admit that the short-lived experimenting of public mass transportation has failed and we should consider a more public-private approach. This should not be a shocking statement, since most successful forms of transportation today are actually public-private partnerships.

The car I drive is private, but the road I drive on is public. The airlines and their jets are private, but most airports are public. Even the much criticized High Speed Rail system proposes private companies to operate and maintain it.

How to implement such a strategy? First, recognize the successes and make them better; specifically BART and Caltrain. Yes, they each have problems, but they’re very much worth saving and improving. Both have features that make public transit work.

Second, stop digging the hole deeper in systems that do not work; specifically buses and current light rail. Make sure the people who truly are unable to use a car, or can not afford one, are subsidized directly by paying private operators like Uber and Lyft. Will some people cheat? Yes, but the costs will pale in comparison to the existing system. Next, concentrate on providing a true ‘Next’ transportation system that is designed to carry the most people as efficiently, comfortably and quickly as possible to their destinations.

Some suggestions on the new public-private transportation network for Silicon Valley:

1. Provide debit cards for those who qualify, based on physical handicaps and or income levels, that can be used on a variety of private services such as Uber or Lyft.

2. Increase service on main trunk lines and remove any bus lines that do not meet a minimum farebox return of 25 percent.

3. Request proposals for community bus services that VTA can subsidize to handle local transit needs that connect to the major trunk lines. These community bus services could be run by cities, nonprofits or private companies. Leave implementation to market-based analysis and let each community drive their own solutions.

4. Rethink light rail and rapid bus approaches. If it is not grade separated, it should not be implemented or continued. The idea here is that these lines are extremely expensive to build and run. If they are not fast, then ridership numbers will never justify their existence. Only through grade separation or guaranteed right of way (think BART and CalTrain), can you expect public systems to have a chance of justifying their costs.

5. Provide private enterprise with public dollars to experiment with new and risky concepts that public institutions are really not equipped to handle. High risk and high reward projects are not the domain of public policymakers, but can be done in the private community. This is not new — we do it for affordable housing now.

6. Transitioning. This can not happen overnight, but it must happen soon or the current system will collapse under its own cost structure, which is not sustainable.

By providing an efficient public-private transit system in the Valley, we’ll be able to increase the density of housing and stabilize or even reduce traffic congestion. The alternative is increasing gridlock and homes prices that will lock out our children from affording a place and the ability to get to work.

Norman Kline is a San Jose businessman, entrepreneur and former San Jose Planning Commissioner.

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