Facing declining ridership and a $20 million annual deficit, San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) needs to be “right-sized,” says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Liccardo was recently made chair of VTA’s board of directors, and in some recent remarks to the board, he offered some ominous warnings about the agency’s future.
Despite the fact that Silicon Valley is in a period of “unprecedented prosperity” and the region’s population is steadily growing, he noted, ridership is declining, the agency had to do some one-time only budgetary hocus-pocus to meet last year’s payroll, and it is facing $100 million of annual capital needs including replacement of worn-out rail cars.
The good news, he said, is VTA has “2,1000 smart people” who “have solutions.” Unfortunately, those solutions so far have proven not to work. In fact, some have worked so poorly that it is reasonable to question just how smart those people are.
San Jose’s light-rail cars carry only about two-thirds as many riders, on average, as light rail nationwide. When measured per mile of track, San Jose light rail also carries only about half as many riders as light rail nationwide. The subsidy per trip is also one of the highest in the country. While there are a few light-rail systems that are worse, by these measures, than San Jose’s, most are much better.
VTA is compounding its light-rail error by building an extension of the BART system into Santa Clara County. While the line will be run by BART, VTA is responsible for the construction costs and probably will be responsible for the operating losses. This was a stupid idea, yet VTA promoted it like crazy when it was on the ballot. Thanks to cost overruns and revenue shortfalls, the line won’t reach downtown San Jose until 2025 at the earliest, by which time driverless ride sharing will be taking most of VTA’s customers away.
Even Liccardo admits that VTA’s ideas don’t always work, noting that an experiment with “on-demand shuttles didn’t work quite as well as we hoped.” But he thinks an experiment with electric buses will work, though I don’t know how you measure success of a project that increases costs without increasing ridership or revenues.
Liccardo’s own ideas, including “densifying housing” and “moving jobs and housing closer together,” are stuck in the 1990s; they didn’t work then and they won’t work now. Silicon Valley is already the third-densest urban area in the United States, and more than twice as dense as the average urban area. Since 1990, the San Jose urbanized area’s population density has grown by 47 percent, while per capita transit ridership has dropped by 16 percent.
He also thinks that micro transit and ride sharing will help, when in fact these are the biggest threats to VTA and other public transit agencies.
What Liccardo really wants is to save the agency regardless of whether it is cost-effectively performing a useful service. Although it has a deficit, it benefits from almost $400 million in taxpayer subsidies a year, and bureaucrats and the politicians who support them are not going to want to give that up. Yet it also has more than a billion dollars in debt and tens of millions of unfunded pension and health-care liabilities.
Liccardo’s goals are simply wrong. Instead of trying to save VTA, he should use some of the smart people in Silicon Valley to try to figure out how to save taxpayer dollars while making sure people still have access to mobility. In the short run, this may mean ride sharing rather than transit, and in the long run it will almost certainly mean driverless ride sharing.