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.
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.
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.
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.