Silicon Valley Light Rail Fail
This is my own personal take on a San Jose Mercury News story on the 25th anniversary of light rail in Silicon Valley. I will discuss this more in depth at our group’s meeting tonight at 6pm at the San Jose Peace & Justice Center, 48 South 7th Street (off E. Santa Clara Street) in San Jose.
A bit of background first: I was raised in New Jersey – specifically the Newark area – where we’ve had 1 small light rail line. Known then as the Newark City Subway, it connects Penn Station downtown with stops at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Branch Brook Park and now the suburbs of Bloomfield. When I lived in Silicon Valley I would take VTA’s 22 and 522 Rapid to Sunnyvale, then walk 3/4 mile to the Caltrain station. I also took VTA light rail and buses on weekends when I wasn’t on call. Nowadays, due to my day job down south, I only take VTA light rail and buses on weekends.
When I first encountered VTA light rail in San Jose (briefly) in 1990. I noted how slowly it moved thru the downtown area, intermingling amongst pedestrian traffic. I thought it then to be weird at best for a city to run light rail on a sidewalk where pedestrians normally are. Fast forward to today (after returning to New Jersey then moving back to California), even with system-wide expansion to Mountain View, South San Jose and East San Jose, and its still the same, sad slowness I remember.
I figured by the time I moved back to Silicon Valley in 1999, that I would be able to take light rail directly from San Jose Airport to my new apartment. I was shocked to find that light rail did NOT go directly to the airport, and that I’d have to take a cab as the VTA’s 10 Airport Shuttle no longer served downtown San Jose from the airport. I thought to myself: “What leadership and transit planners allow its light rail to become a second-rate system by having trains avoid its international airport?” As I noted its plans to expand to northern Sunnyvale and Mountain View, I can tell that its planners were clearly building the system to “keep up with the Joneses.” That is, just so civic leaders can brag to leaders other cities at national conventions that they have light rail just like the other big cities San Jose was trying (and failing) to emulate. Even with “express” light rail service during weekday peak periods, VTA’s light rail system clearly tries – but fails – to serve riders in a decent, timely manner.
Were I Rod Diridon, Senior – the “father” of light rail here in Silicon Valley, I would have built the system with San Jose Airport as its northwestern end, to downtown via the HP Pavilion and San Jose Diridon Station via Hwy 87, then looped via San Fernando Street to San Jose State University, then East Santa Clara Street/Alum Rock Avenue and Capitol Avenue/Capitol Expressway to Eastridge Mall. It would have also served the hospital on East Santa Clara Street and thru East San Jose – where transit ridership and some density has always existed. Jobs and housing come and go with economic times. Everyone has to go to the mall to shop, to the airport for travel, and to the hospital for health care. Like too many other big transit projects I’ve seen lately – the “Central Subway” proposal in San Francisco, BART’s Oakland Airport “connector” and even BART to San Jose – VTA light rail in Silicon Valley was designed largely for planners and their consulting firms. It’s hard enough that Silicon Valley has urban sprawl rivaled only by Los Angeles, making it difficult for trains and buses to transport people in a time-efficient manner. Having a light rail system designed by planners and consulting firms – who clearly do not and will not ride any bus or trains themselves – makes the situation worse.
The other part of the failure of light rail in Silicon Valley lies with us – the citizens of Silicon Valley. I have always voted NO on every sales tax, bond measure and “advisory” measures VTA has ever put out, since moving to Silicon Valley in 2000. This is because I noted how poorly the buses and light rail ran and how poorly your sales tax money was being spent at the time. Yet, Silicon Valley’s voters kept falling for the hype and happy talk of local leaders about how giving another 1/2-penny in sales taxes will have VTA light rail serve your area. By approving these additional sales taxes and “advisory” measures at the ballot box without questioning where their money has gone, citizens abetted these transit planners, consultants and politicians into extending light rail to areas not yet built up in terms of current bus ridership or development.
If light rail will ever be viable as a driving alternative in Silicon Valley, we need truly intelligent leaders – who aren’t afraid of their riding own buses or light rail. Having these intelligent leaders first requires intelligent citizens. Instead of whining online or in newspaper columns about how empty the light rail and buses are in Silicon Valley are, ask yourself: “What it would take for me to ride that VTA light rail or bus?” Then, write to VTA about it. While you’re at it:
- Educate yourself on who currently runs VTA from its General Manager Michael Burns to the Board of Directors that he reports to.
- Read VTA’s latest biennial (2-year) budget and learn where your money is going for transportation NOW. The budget is 270 pages long.
Perhaps when 400 or 500 people put pressure on VTA management and local politicians instead of the same 4 or 5 people, maybe – just maybe – Silicon Valley will starting get light rail and buses that effectively serve YOU. Until YOU change and become more active and informed, let the mostly empty light rail trains and buses throughout Silicon Valley serve as a civic shame for the “world’s center of technology and innovation.” Let’s change that attitude NOW.
Founder, Silicon Valley Transit Users