This scathing commentary on Valley Transportation Authority’s light rail system comes from the report “Inquiry into Governance of the Valley Transportation Authority,” issued by the Civil Grand Jury of Santa Clara County in June 2019:
“The (Eastridge extension) project makes no financial sense and survives only because powerful political forces continue to support it. VTA needs to carefully consider whether the recognized needs of the residents of East San José for modern, efficient public transportation can be met without ‘doubling down on a failed system,’ as one director put it, and worsening VTA’s precarious financial condition.”
Two years later, the project bringing light rail to Eastridge continues chugging down the tracks. VTA has spent over $175 million of the estimated total project cost of $615 million, with completion estimated some time in 2027.
VTA has rebadged the project from “Capitol Expressway Light Rail to Eastridge” to “Eastridge to Bart Regional Connector.” This renaming seems to serve two purposes; it affiliates the project with the popular and farebox-efficient BART (which recovers over 60% of system costs from fares, versus 7% for VTA light rail), and disassociates it from an obsolete transportation technology.
Why does VTA insist on moving the project forward? For one, “powerful political forces continue to support it.” The project provides years of employment to members of construction unions. Those unions, in turn, provide resources for their favored politicians. It could be political suicide for a labor-supported politician to support canceling such a lucrative project.
A second argument in support of completing the Eastridge light rail extension is one of equity. It is justifiably claimed that East San Jose has been largely ignored by the political powers that be. They have lavished favors and funds upon their cronies in West San Jose and Downtown San Jose; parks, street maintenance, commission appointments, public transportation and public safety, to name several. In the name of equity, it is imperative that the Eastridge light rail project be completed. It has been over 20 years since the approval of Measure A (2000), which specifically funded the extension. It is about time that VTA fulfills that promise to the residents of East San Jose.
Here, however, is the issue: Eastridge light rail provides no significant benefit for residents of East San Jose. In fact, it is more likely to be detrimental to their quality of life. Construction will cause considerable disruption for nearby residents. Upon its completion, the towers supporting the above grade portion of the extension will attract graffiti and homeless encampments, as overhead transportation structures tend to do.
Capitol Expressway will permanently lose two lanes, one in each direction, increasing congestion by up to an estimated 90%, and creating access problems for vehicles trying to enter the expressway. The increased congestion will spew additional pollution into the environment. Worse, projected ridership does not justify the extension; it is quite probable that it will be allowed to suck subsidies from VTA for a while, only to go the way of the Ohlone/Almaden line which VTA shut down over a year ago.
But the equity claim is also an empty argument. The Eastridge light rail extension is as inequitable as it comes. It is true that VTA will invest nearly $500 million in East San Jose. However, that investment will yield significantly increased congestion in the area and additional quality of life degradation.
Meanwhile, as part of Measure B (2016), VTA earmarked $750 million for expressway improvements on Almaden, Central, Foothill, Lawrence, Montague and San Tomas Expressways, as well as the Santa Teresa-Hale corridor in south Santa Clara County and the Oregon-Page Mill corridor in north Santa Clara County. Of course, Measure B also includes funding for improving Capitol Expressway…between I-680 and Capitol Avenue. East San Jose commuters will be able to sail through that one half-mile stretch before getting bogged down for the remainder of their southbound journey on Capitol Expressway.
A well-run organization would grit their teeth and pull the plug on the project. But not VTA, because, as the 2019 Civil Grand Jury report implies, VTA is not a well-run entity. It is one that “veers from one financial crisis to another.” This sentiment is echoed by the grand jury report of 2009, which proclaimed, “the more one learns about how VTA executes its mission, the lower the confidence level in the board’s ability to manage the agency,” and the 2003 grand jury report stating “the VTA board has not reacted to the present budget problems with diligence, has depleted financial reserves…and has borrowed against future tax revenues rather than resolving an ongoing operational deficit.”
Three separate grand jury investigations over the past 18 years reached the same conclusion…VTA’s governance structure should be changed. Yet nothing has changed. It is time for Santa Clara County residents, especially those of East San Jose, to send a message to their representatives and to VTA management. The Eastridge light rail extension must be abandoned because it is a waste of money and damaging to our community. Visit www.cfr-sj.org to find out how you can make your voice heard.
Pat Waite is president of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonpartisan organization focused on San Jose and Santa Clara County.