Tag Archives: San Jose

Anatomy of a Transit Disaster

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), San Jose’s transit agency, has been making a series of happy-talk advertisements about how transit is green, is faster than driving, and reduces congestion. Of course, it is none of those things: VTA uses about as much energy and producing as much greenhouse gases per passenger mile as the average SUV; VTA light-rail trains average less than 16 mph and its buses less than 12; and rather than reduce congestion it is increasing it as its poor service leads people to give up transit and drive instead.

The reality is that VTA’s transit and transportation planning has proven to be a disaster for Silicon Valley. In 2000, VTA buses and light-rail transit carried 55.6 million riders, or more than 36 trips per capita in the San Jose urban area. Ridership grew to 57.3 million in 2001. But then the dot-com crash hit, reducing jobs and ridership. Desperate to avoid defaulting on the huge loans it had taken out to build light rail, by 2005 VTA had cut bus service by more than 20 percent. Even though the number of jobs declined by only 9 percent, ridership fell by more than 30 percent. Continue reading


VTA’s Not-So-Smart People

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. Continue reading


Is Transit the Only Answer? Is It Even an Answer?

“Forget self-driving cars,” argues Rod Diridon, the former chair of one of the worst-managed transit agencies in the country. “Mass transit is the only answer to gridlock.” Writing in the San Jose Mercury-News, Diridon presents what he considers to be alarming statistics about job growth and then asserts that only huge subsidies to transit will allow those people to get to work.

“Well over 100,000 new primary jobs will be added to Silicon Valley in the next decade,” he estimates, and each primary job will be supported by seven to thirteen secondary jobs. Since Silicon Valley (which I equate to the San Jose urbanized area) only had 873,000 jobs in 2016, he is essentially predicting that jobs (and therefore population) will more than double in a decade. Considering that the region’s population has only been growing at about 1 percent per year, that’s impossible.

At no matter what rate the region is growing, transit–or at least the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) that Diridon once led–has proven itself incapable of dealing with this growth. Back in 2000, VTA carried 55.6 million transit riders. By 2016, the region’s population had grown 16 percent, yet ridership was down to 44.0 million. In the first ten months of 2017, ridership fell another 8.5 percent below the same period in 2016. As a result, annual transit trips per capita have fallen by more than a third since 2000. Continue reading


San Jose Bus Ridership Plummets

The San Jose Mercury News points out the “staggering drop in VTA bus ridership” and suggests “dramatic changes” are needed to reverse that decline. However, it misses the elephant in the room, namely that the drop in ridership is directly due to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) cutting bus service in order to fund its rail transit fantasies–fantasies that have been repeatedly endorse by the Mercury News.

The Mercury News reports “ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001.” This understates the problem as light-rail ridership actually grew by about 19 percent during this time period, mainly because of an expansion of light-rail lines from 29.2 route miles in 2001 to 40.5 route miles in 2014. The small ridership increase gained by a 44 percent growth in route miles is distressing in itself, especially considering that the area’s 13 percent population growth accounts for most of the light-rail ridership growth.

The real tragedy is what happened to bus ridership, which declined by 32 percent from more than 48 million trips in 2001 to less than 33 million in 2014. (Light-rail and bus ridership and service numbers are from the National Transit Database Historic Time Series.) As it happens, in the same time period vehicle miles of bus service fell by 22 percent, a drop that explains most if not all of the decline in ridership.

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San Jose Proves BRT Can Be as Wasteful as Light Rail

San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority–a perennial contender for the title of the nation’s worst-managed transit agency–is building a bus-rapid transit line, and it is proving as much of a disaster as some of its light-rail lines. It was supposed to open two months ago, but now appears that it won’t open until 2017. Torn-up streets are damaging businesses along the route, and VTA is having to pay them compensation, making the project far more expensive than expected.

The problems have gotten so bad that the chair of VTA’s board, Perry Woodward, has written a highly defensive op ed not to apologize to taxpayers but to argue that the damage done by this project to the local neighborhood has been more than made up for by all the good things VTA has done in the last twenty years.

What good things? Santa Clara County taxpayers voted to tax themselves to relieve congestion by building more roads, and they proved that you can, after all, build your way out of congestion: congestion levels declined for several years despite a rapid increase in local jobs. But then the county made the mistake of merging its congestion management authority with its transit agency, and pretty soon the transit agency stole all the congestion relief money to fund its expensive projects. The result has been some of the nation’s emptiest light-rail trains (an average of 18 passengers per car vs. a national average of 24) and rapidly rising congestion.

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Enfantasize Silicon Valley

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which some consider the nation’s worst-managed transit agency, has a new program called Envision Silicon Valley. Despite the grandiose title, the not-so-hidden agenda is to impose a sales tax for transit.

A nearly-empty VTA light-rail car in Sunnyvale.

Any vision of Silicon Valley that starts out with transit is the wrong one. Except to the taxpayers who have to pay for it and the motorists and pedestrians who have to dodge light-rail cars, transit is practically irrelevant in San Jose.

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Light-Rail Inefficiency Project

Stung by the entirely accurate criticism that it is one of the worst-run transit agencies in America, San Jose’s VTA has come up with a breath-taking plan for improving its efficiency. Naturally enough, the plan is called the light-rail transit efficiency project.

Click image to download an 8-MB presentation describing San Jose’s “light-rail efficiency plan.”

The plan (see summary here) consists of spending up to $25 million building two passing tracks so that express light-rail trains can pass local trains in downtown San Jose. I know what you’re thinking: this has to be a work of genius. I mean, who would ever think of one transit vehicle passing another? Except, of course, buses, which do it all the time and which don’t need millions of dollars of new infrastructure to make it possible.

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San Jose Transit Is Still Near the Top

That is, near the top of the list of the nation’s worst transit systems, says the San Jose Mercury-New. “The near-empty trolleys that often shuttle by at barely faster than jogging speeds serve as a constant reminder that the car is still king in Silicon Valley,” says the paper, “and that the Valley Transportation Authority’s trains are among the least successful in the nation by any metric.”

Many if not most San Jose light-rail “trains” are just one car long, which means they aren’t really trains at all. Considering an average load of just 18 people, the first third of this articulated railcar would be more than enough to handle the demand most times of the day.
Flickr photo from Albert’s Images.

Five years ago the Antiplanner declared the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to be worst-managed transit system. Is it still the worst? It has a lot of competition, including Baltimore, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, yet VTA manages to remain competitive.

In terms of number of riders per light-rail car, VTA carried an average of just 18.3 in 2011, a number lower than all other light-rail systems except Buffalo (17.0) and Baltimore (18.2). Fares from San Jose’s light-rail riders cover just 15.7 percent of the trains’ operating costs; only Baltimore, at 12.0 percent, is lower. Counting just operating costs, taxpayers pay nearly $5 to subsidize each light-rail trip, an amount exceeded only by Dallas and Pittsburgh light-rail systems. Overall, I’d say Baltimore’s is the worst system, with San Jose’s a close number two.

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