‘Now is the time’: Silicon Valley transit leaders discuss future
VTA CFO Greg Richardson, Mineta Transportation Institute Education Director Asha Weinstein Agrawal, Rod Diridon Sr. and Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Ahmad Thomas at a Sept. 20, 2023 transportation panel hosted by San José Spotlight Managing Editor Ally Bordas. Photo by Ben Irwin.

    Local transportation experts say safety and collaboration between agencies in the Bay Area are critical to pushing forward the future of Silicon Valley transit.

    Transportation leaders gathered on Wednesday to discuss the future of public transportation during a panel hosted by San José Spotlight. Panelist Rod Diridon Sr., a prolific transportation advocate whose namesake marks San Jose’s downtown transit hub, said the time is now to finish the regional vision for a more interconnected transit system in Silicon Valley.

    “The public enthusiasm is there, the president has passed a bill recently, the Infrastructure Act … $100 billion is for transportation projects,” Diridon said. “We’ve got to come together behind these projects and present these projects as a group. If we can do that—now is the time, the golden period for transportation in Silicon Valley.”

    Diridon was joined by Ahmad Thomas, CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group; Asha Weinstein Agrawal, education director at Mineta Transportation Institute; and Greg Richardson, chief financial officer at VTA.

    Diridon spoke of a vision for a Silicon Valley commuter loop—cars, buses and rail working in unison, modeled after the transportation systems of Paris, Stuttgart, Tokyo and Toronto. But the local implementation is only partially completed in the north and east sides of the valley. To complete the loop, Diridon said Silicon Valley’s peppered transportation agencies will need to work more closely together.

    “We are within 10 years of terminal gridlock in our valley. If we don’t complete the transit system, Silicon Valley is out of business. We’ve got to get the job done,” Diridon said.

    Paying for the future of transit

    Public transit saw a large decrease in use during the COVID-19 pandemic, but VTA’s ridership is slowly recovering—bus ridership is 85% and light rail is 60% of prepandemic levels, Richardson said. While there’s always going to be a push for residents to drive less and use public transit, Richardson said VTA is still on an upward trajectory.

    “The ridership decrease didn’t really hurt us as much as it would our peers (because) VTA is pretty heavily sales tax-based,” Richardson said.

    But Agrawal said the region cannot continue relying on sales tax to fund transportation. She instead recommended several alternative funding solutions, including “modest” charges for parking across San Jose and taking advantage of e-commerce.

    “(COVID highlighted) the transit sales tax is not as stable as people thought … we need to try to diversify the sources of revenue,” Agrawal said. “There’s all this e-commerce now, and some places have started charging package delivery fees. There may be new opportunities as new technology and markets emerge.”

    Silicon Valley Leadership Group led the campaign to support Measure RR in 2020, a three-county ballot measure that secured $3 billion over 30 years to support and expand Caltrain. The regional rail transit agency is midway through a $2.44 billion effort to transition to electric trains.

    In efforts to examine public transit from all angles, Thomas said Silicon Valley Leadership Group is advocating for 27,000 transit-oriented housing options in the region and looking to problem-solve the post-pandemic reality that many people now work from home, he said.

    “That’s where the equity conversation comes back into question,” Thomas said. “If I’m an engineer or an executive and have an opportunity to work two or three days a week in the office and the rest at home, I have a different set of circumstances than someone who might need to be in the office every day for catering or other service related positions we rely on.”

    He said a bottleneck in post-pandemic transit has been state and federal funding.

    “That’s the underlying challenge,” Thomas said.

    A safe ride

    The simplest solution agreed upon by panelists is that for public transit to pay off, people need to use it.

    To make that happen, people need to be and feel safe while riding, Richardson said. There’s a history of high-profile safety incidents—in 2021, a VTA maintenance worker shot and killed nine of his coworkers before killing himself. There’s also the day-in, day-out incidents of being uncomfortable and harassed, many of which go unreported, he said.

    “The fear is there, that hesitancy is there,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to figure out how to address that piece, so that people feel more comfortable being on the system. It’s absolutely critical.”

    Agrawal said Mineta Transportation Institute surveyed roughly 900 San Jose State University students about their experiences with local public transit. While using public transit, 63% reported they’d been harassed, 22% said they’d been stalked, 18% had witnessed indecent exposure and 11% had been groped or inappropriately touched.

    “I’ve been very privileged to work on a follow-up study mandated by the state … 45% of the female bus riders in our survey said they used transit less because of fear of harassment,” Agrawal said. “We really need to get a better handle and understanding of the problem.”

    Richardson said new legislation was passed in June and is going into effect next year. Assembly Bill 1735, authored by Assemblymember Evan Low, will enable VTA to prohibit people from transit who commit crimes or violate the rules at transit facilities and help set more aggressive safety policies for both operators and passengers.

    Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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