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Name:Michael Patrick
Location:San Jose, California, United States

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Saturday, February 19


Again and Again and Again, Why SJ BART?

Why a federal "yes" for the multibillion-dollar Transbay Terminal and Caltrain extension project in SF but a "no" for the multibillion-dollar BART-to-SJ project? Mr. Roadshow says:

The FTA gave the BART project a ``not recommended'' rating because the Valley Transportation Authority lacks the money to operate the BART extension, as well as maintain service of existing bus and trolley operations. Until that hurdle is cleared, it will be difficult to get federal funding.

Last week, the FTA gave a thumbs up to the Transbay project, saying the extensive federal environmental review process had been completed. That paves the way for the transfer of 19 acres of state property to the project, critical to financing the downtown Caltrain extension. This does not allocate tons of money for a project that will cost at least $4 billion, but it does allow work to move ahead. One reason: Those higher bridge tolls approved last year will aid this effort.

Don't get too down about the BART recommendation. When federal dollars are involved, they trickle in over many, many years and the status of a project can change from year to year.

Let's remember that dollars spent on mass transit go farther in SF than in SJ, because SF has 16526 people per square mile compared with SJ's 5114 (far more of the former being potential transit users than the latter, given SF's existing concentration of transit service--and given their observed, more established habit of actually using the service (PDF file)).

And what about the project's changing status? VTA has said the "estimated total capital cost of the BART Extension is . . . $4.192 billion (in 2003 dollars)." The Federal Transit Administration says: "The project will cost $6.2 billion." (Emphases added.)

What does the Greater San Jose get for this rising price tag? A trip to Oakland 24 minutes faster than the current ride on VTA 180 and BART from Central Fremont--and just one minute faster than the ride to Jack London Square on the Capitol Corridor:

In order to save 24 lousy minutes, we are going to spend some $4.8 billion dollars at a cost of $199 million a minute (and then spend another $20 million a year to operate it). And that, folks, is some seriously expensive time. It becomes even more expensive when you note the Capital Corridor passenger trains already operate between San Jose and Oakland and the fastest ones today make the trip in 1 hour and 13 minutes, or one minute longer than the new BART system.

And that is why BART to San Jose does not deserve the billions that the Transbay Terminal project does.

The problem with this thinking is that it views any trip in isolation. The need for a commuter to take multiple transit services (i.e. bus to train, or train to BART) adds significant time to a commute (due to waiting at each point) and causes many people to skip public transit altogether. Additionally, a BART "loop of the Bay," beginning with the SJ extension would allow commuters in almost any part of the Bay to easily get to a job in any other part of the Bay, something that people do today by car. Until public transit is truly convenient, and connects higher density housing and places of work, it will continue to go underutilized in the South Bay.

Transit can be truly convenient without a full BART loop. For example, the Peninsula has a seamless SJ-SF connection in Caltrain, and that service is great. There's no urgent need to "upgrade" it to BART. Doing so would probably cut the number of stations on the Peninsula, given the cost of a single BART station, and it would cost an unnecessary ton. But one of my main complaints about BART-to-San-Jose is the fact that the area around its alignment is so sparsely populated. Sure, it would be great to connect the Bay Area's biggest urban centers, but what about the spaces in between? Milpitas and Berryessa have little of the density of Oakland, Berkeley, or even Downtown Hayward. Really, no place between the Alameda-Santa Clara County border and Inner San Jose has BART-supportive density or urban form. And furthermore, aren't important urban centers 50 or so miles from each other usually connected by a mode less expensive than computer-operated, metro-type rail? The New York City subway does not run all the way to Philadelphia; why should the San Francisco-Oakland BART system go to San Jose? New York and Philadelpia are instead connected by Amtrak and Caltrain-eque services, and I see little reason why San Jose and SF/Oakland should be any different.

First of all, extending BART doesn't eliminate transfers between transit modes and even within BART system itself. A significant number of riders make transfers between BART trains daily either because they have to or that they do so to speed up their trip. BART is a mass transit just like everything else.

Even that, if a fraction were to spend on building an alternate rail line in the corridor, more funding would be freed up to improve bus service or provide complementary shuttles, or build stations that provide a seamless-cross platform transfers between modes.

Also consider this, many light rail and Caltrain stations offer cross-platform transfers with buses that doesn't require passengers going up or down, but almost all of the BART stations require passengers to get up or down to make a transfer with buses, or even getting in or out the station. With BART you'll need at least 3 minutes to get from the bus, through the fare gate, and get up or down to the platform. With Caltrain or light rail, you can cut the necessary transfer time shorter at many of the stations.

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