The Valley Transit Agency (VTA) Board last week approved a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) paving the way for extending light rail from Alum Rock to Eastridge Shopping Center along Capitol Expressway. It was a bad decision, but like a transportation version of a Greek tragedy, it was the only decision they could make.
According VTA staff, the project will increase congestion by 90%, will have low ridership, create environment impacts (both during construction and operating) that cannot be mitigated and increase stress on VTA finances. Why was it not only approved, but approved unanimously?
The project is one of many mentioned and not completed in the landmark transportation Measure A approved by voters in 2000. Over the 20 years since, many on the East Side have concluded, right or wrong, they have not received their share of public transportation dollars.
Support of any future transportation measures may not receive East Side support if the promised light rail project was not delivered. That might have been on the board’s mind as it agreed, while proclaiming grave concerns. Staff presented the case and with every point, the board seemed more and more hesitant in its support. The light rail project is now arial with only one stop between Alum Rock and Eastridge.
It will remove two lanes of traffic on Capitol Expressway. That removal will cause 90% increase in congestion. Ridership numbers will be low, roughly 2,000 boardings a day, increasing as density in the Valley increases. Because it is now built in the air, and light rail is not light, the sounds of pile drivers and vibration during construction will be higher than guidelines allow with no way to mitigate them. After construction, the vibration from the trains will also be higher than guidelines allow with no mitigation possible. Last, because of projected low ridership and high costs of operations, the extended line will only increase the
financial pressures on the VTA.
The project does check off one of many uncompleted items in Measure A, extends the current light rail system, may help Eastridge Shopping Center and may help create a true public transit system for the East Side. These were all stated by staff or residents supporting the approval.
Keeping trust with voters is important and this shows just how difficult it is to build long-term transit systems where, as one VTA board member said, “You do not want to go where the puck is, you want to go where the puck will be.” Unfortunately, based on past performance, VTA will never win the Stanley Cup. The popular method of getting measures approved is to add as many projects as possible. Some projects are bound not be completed on time, or at all.
People will be left out and even if technology or circumstances change, there is pressure to do the project regardless. Having a transit project increase congestion is not new. Recent bicycle lanes and street quieting projects (i.e. Willow Glen) come to mind. The difference is that this is an Expressway intentionally designed to decrease congestion.
Adding nearly 100% to commute time should have some great benefit, especially if you are paying nearly a half a billion dollars. At the same time, VTA is planning to increase congestion with this project along Capitol Expressway, they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on decreasing congestion on the expressways on the west side of the Valley. Any environmental plus here is going to be swamped by the cars burning gas in increased congestion.
Can this help Eastridge Shopping Center? I hope so. When I was growing up in downtown, Eastridge was the go-to shopping center and Valley Fair was a bit old and worn out. Today, it is the opposite. Neither had light rail, nor do most shopping centers. Public transit riders might use light rail to go to Eastridge, but I would imagine those numbers will be balanced out by the increase in congestion discouraging cars from going there. Nobody really knows. Given that the most successful shopping centers are heavily car dependent, I would think not.
Can this really help build a better public transit system on the East Side? Again I would hope so, but the numbers do not support it. If you include the end line, there are only two new stations. If you are coming from outside the area, those with multiple shopping center opportunities, you land in a residential area or Eastridge. For those in the community, it’s mostly a long walk to a station. This is basically doubling down on a failed system, a system that even VTA wants to move away from.
VTA has been operating in the red for some time now. Maybe that is what reserves are for, but this is economically the best of times for public agencies. This project will do nothing to help get VTA out of an ever deepening hole. Every new rider, that wasn’t already taking a bus, will pay only 10% of the cost and the other 90% will come from someplace else.
Did the VTA Board have any real choice? Again, like a Greek tragedy with a well meaning protagonist, the members have to — are required to — make the wrong decisions. Not only is most of the money tagged in Measure A, but a recent regional measure and a state bill completed the financing and sealed the decision. The money is pretty much dedicated to this project.
Saying “no” means not only “no” to the project, but turns down hundreds of millions of dollars. Turning down money is something agencies like VTA just do not do. But, for the sake of argument, what would you do with a half a billion dollars to help the East
Side residents get from where they are to where they want to go and enhance the community? I’ll throw out three projects, but I’m sure there are better ones out there.
Keep it simple. Put the money in the bank and receive a conservative $25 million a year in interest. Pay an existing ride sharing service to pick up and take anyone who qualified to where they want to go. Or start a nonprofit car sharing service to focus only on the really needy. At an average ride sharing per ride (carpool, of course) of $12, you can afford over 2 million rides per year. That is more than three times the estimated number of riders this project supports, without touching the principle. Oh, I forgot about operating costs. If you include those, the number of rides is significantly higher — maybe twice as many.
Keep it light. Create a streetcar system that centers on Eastridge, but branches throughout the community, connecting all other commercial and transit centers, encouraging those in cars to jump on a true light rail system. Think Portland. With proper community outreach, it could be a real civic pride project with advertising by local businesses supplementing expenses.
Go Monorail. A modern monorail connecting light rail at Alum Rock not to Eastridge, but through the shopping mall and continue on Capitol Expressway to at least Silver Creek High School with at least five stations along the way. Monorail is cheaper and thinner than light rail when going arial. Eventually you can continue it down to the 87 light rail. Hopefully, you can eventually replace most of the light rail system with a modern quiet system. Even at Las Vegas prices, a monorail system looks much cheaper than what they are planning, but that’s another article.
Now, if this was done by private organizations, with proper public oversight, you might be able to do two out of three for the same price. This, of course, will not happen. Instead, we have a half-billion dollar project that will increase congestion, have low ridership, not help the community, impact the environment and put additional strain on the finances of VTA. But we did check off a voter-approved 20 year old box! Again, the protagonist — the VTA Board — really had no choice but to approve; the story was already written.
Norman Kline is a San Jose businessman, entrepreneur and former San Jose Planning Commissioner.