What’s next for BART and VTA’s evolving Downtown San Jose extension?
Image credit: BART

With the addition of Google to the Downtown San Jose area looming, a reimagining of the Diridon station underway, and the extension of BART all the way from Berryessa to Santa Clara, there are a myriad of moving parts and pieces that could transform Downtown San Jose and finally tie together the Bay Area as one cohesive, transit-accessible whole.

Last week’s announcement that VTA and BART would receive a “first of its kind” infusion of money from the Federal Transit Administration’s Expedited Project Delivery Pilot Program was a positive sign. At least for now, it appears that “Phase II” of the BART system expansion is slightly ahead of schedule. The $125 million from the federal government will “fast track (the) funding process by more than 14 months,” according to VTA’s announcement.

“I think it’s really significant. It allows us to push forward,” Teresa Alvarado, San Jose director for SPUR, told San José Spotlight. “There’s been a lot of planning, a lot of expectations, and a lot of politicking… I don’t know that everyone necessarily believed that we would get federal funding in this day and age. The fact that it came through is a huge statement, and a huge win.”

Alvarado notes that the due diligence of both transit agencies helped the project secure the FTA money.

So, major federal funding is on its way and transit officials are celebrating. What happens next?

VTA’s roadmap indicates that engineering work is ongoing, and that the agency will apply for the rest of the desired $1.39 billion from the FTA in fall 2020. If all goes according to the current schedule, the full federal funds could be delivered in early 2021, with project groundbreaking set for 2022.

The roadmap, however, is only a general indicator of what might yet happen to the project, if past changes are any indication.

Originally, VTA proposed a twin-tube tunnel running 55 feet below street level, with one tunnel for each direction of travel. The design then shifted in 2017 to a single 45-foot wide tube some 85 feet below ground, with trains running on top of one another within a bisected tunnel. This design has some benefits, primarily that construction won’t need to close Santa Clara Street to dig, instead tunneling underneath existing infrastructure without as much disruption on the surface for cyclists, drivers and pedestrians.

The back and forth between BART and VTA continued, leading to the current tunnel of choice: a huge, 55-foot diameter tube where the trains run side-by-side, at an even deeper 93 feet underground.

These design changes will likely make VTA’s budget go up, and possibly increase the time it takes passengers to get to the platform that’s deeper underground. VTA says that “while the single-bore tunneling method has been used in roadway projects, this is the first use for transit in the Western hemisphere.” Alvarado says that the new tunnel type is an asset to the project — and played a major role in snagging the funding.

“(The FTA) cited that innovative design as part of what they were funding,” she said.

But some transit advocates are concerned that the bigger scope of Phase II may mean funds could get diverted from other transportation projects.

Adina Levin, of Friends of Caltrain and Seamless Bay Area, says that “now is a good time to consider options to (keep costs down on) the project.” Levin would like VTA to ensure it’s getting the most bang-for-the-buck by reconsidering the “redundant” 2-mile connection between the Diridon and Santa Clara stations, which is already served by Caltrain and ACE trains.

“It is good to see the (FTA funding) come through, but VTA is on the hook for much more,” Levin added.

In the months ahead, the relationship between BART and VTA will be in the public eye in a new way — another potential wrinkle in the discussion.

As the two new stations in Milpitas and Berryessa open on Dec. 31, both agencies will need to work together to provide reliable service to South Bay passengers.

“I think the whole transition from VTA as the engineering and construction overseer to BART, as the operator, is really going to be interesting,” Alvarado said. “Especially with all the complexity in Phase II, with multiple jurisdictions like the city of Santa Clara and all the different agencies like Caltrain and High Speed Rail, and everyone else… this is really a test for a much more complex integration that’s to come.”

Contact Brendan Nystedt at brendannystedt@outlook.com or follow @bnystedt on Twitter.

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