Mallon: Reflecting on 50 years of public transit in Silicon Valley
A woman boards a VTA bus near Diridon Station in downtown San Jose. File photo.

Public transit started in Santa Clara County 50 years ago this year, when the first publicly-operated bus service went into operation on January 1, 1973. A lot has happened since then and it’s important to reflect on the past, present and future of transit in the county.

When public transit service started half a century ago, it was far more limited than it is today. The initial system only had 50 buses and fewer routes than we have today, however, plans were developed for expansion and they were slowly implemented. Over the years, operations and maintenance facilities were constructed, the bus fleet was expanded to over 500 buses, and light rail corridors and supporting transit centers were built. In the 90s, plans also started to develop to bring BART to Silicon Valley in addition to plans for light rail expansion.

During what’s often called the “golden age” of Santa Clara County transit, service levels and ridership grew steadily until 2000, peaking at 180,000 daily riders on bus and light rail. In the 2000s, the dot-com bust and decline in sales tax revenue led to service cuts and ridership declines.

In recent years, transit has faced numerous challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ridership patterns were disrupted and funding sources like farebox and sales tax tanked and significant deficits were projected.

There was a lot of uncertainty about what the future of transit would look like post-pandemic but our leaders didn’t give up. VTA started to restore transit service and even add new lines like the Rapid 568 and implement transit speed improvements including transit signal priority.

The combination of service restorations and improvements and the economy reopening fueled ridership recovery. Now VTA has some of the best ridership recovery numbers in the nation. At the same time, businesses reopening and online sales helped VTA’s sales tax recovery and the agency currently has no projected fiscal cliff for the next decade.

During a time when many transit agencies are struggling, VTA is preparing for the future. In June, the board adopted the visionary transit network, which is VTA’s “north star” for 83% more service compared to today. In the coming years, construction will begin on the Eastridge light rail extension and BART to San Jose and Santa Clara. Both of these projects and service improvements will make transit a much more attractive option for residents. As time progresses, new ideas may emerge that will improve transit even further.

The past 50 years of public transit in Santa Clara County have been marked by both successes and challenges and we have a lot of work to make transit all that it can be. However, it’s important to recognize the progress that’s been made and build on it so that transit can continuously improve.

San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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