Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 29, 2008

Accepting reality at the VTA

“Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” ~ Conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr.

According to a story in the San Jose Mercury News last week, Valley Transportation Authority General Manager Michael Burns seems – finally – to be accepting the reality that the transit agency can’t afford to build everything on its transit to-do list. That list comes from Measure A, which was approved by voters in November 2000.

This is not news. Your local South County newspapers have been reporting and opining for years about concerns with extending BART to San Jose. Other critics have been sounding the alarm since Measure A was proposed.

Those concerns include rosy ridership projections and unrealistic cost estimates.

We need only to look at the high costs and low ridership for the BART-to-SFO extension to see that these fears are well founded.

We need only to look at federal transportation policy wonks’ relunctance to sink more money into the BART-to-San Jose extension to see that these fears are well founded.

We need only to look at a piece of news buried in the Mercury News article – that VTA officals hiked their estimate of the BART extension from $4.7 billion to $6.2 billion – to see that these fears are well founded.

Earlier estimates for the 16-mile BART extension gave a price tag of $3.7 billion, according to a 2003 column by former BART director Roy Nakadegawa.

These concerns only reflect the price to build the BART extension. It’s also likely that operating BART will bankrupt the VTA.

In that column, Nakadegawa wrote, “Another looming problem is VTA’s annual $48 million maintenance/operation BART contract, which VTA has budgeted only few a years after completion. After a few years where is $48 million coming from? Total operational cost is $63 million leaving a $15 million annual deficit. VTA also requires 76 percent fare recovery to garner $48 million from fares, a percentage BART never attained.”

“Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.” ~ Actress Lily Tomlin

Given the unpleasant realities associated with the BART extension, what to do?

The answer is clear: Drop the BART extension and replace it with a much more cost-effective system. The 16-mile BART extension costs more than all of the other projects on the VTA’s list combined.

Burns’ new-found acceptance of reality is a good first step, but it’s not enough. VTA officials should admit not only that BART is not affordable to build, but also that it’s not affordable to operate and that it’s not even the best or most cost-effective option to increase public transportation in the South Bay.

Let’s stop spending money on BART-related engineering studies.

Let’s stop wasting time debating what portions of the project to phase in and when.

Let’s stop upping already-rosy ridership projections in the hope of attracting federal transportation dollars.

Let’s get a grip on reality.

Let’s look seriously at much less expensive proposals like those made by the Bay Rail Alliance. This group suggests specific, affordable public transit projects that “close large gaps in rail service in congested commute corridors” and that leverage “Caltrain’s existing trackage rights to help more commuters.” Visit their web site to learn more.

“Reality is the name we give to our disappointments.”
~ American writer Mason Cooley

Despite the grim reality that VTA cannot afford to build or operate a BART-to-San Jose extension, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed refuses to give up on it: “Clearly, BART is the No. 1 project. That is what people voted for and it needs to go all way to Santa Clara.”

Reed is forgetting that people voted for a whole list of projects when they approved Measure A, including providing light rail throughout Santa Clara County, expanding and electrifying Caltrain and increasing rail and bus service.

Given the reality that VTA can’t do everything it promised in Measure A, why is it unacceptable to Reed to drop BART but apparently perfectly acceptable to leave South County, for example, with woefully inadequate Caltrain service?

Burns told the Mercury News that Measure A is “a contract with [taxpayers] and [we] need to be able to say what’s not going to work and give good reasons.”

There are billions of good reasons to drop the BART to San Jose extension, find a more cost-effective replacement and complete the rest of the Measure A project list. Reality is just the first one.

“Reality: What a concept!” ~ Comedian Robin Williams



  1. I’m curious to know if you think BART in of itself is a bad thing.

    Dropping BART because other aspects of Measure A have also been dropped is not a particularly strong argument. The BART extension was the main draw of A, and by not proceeding with, the mayor could possibly find himself on the political hot-seat.

  2. I don’t think the existing BART lines are “a bad thing.”

    I do believe that extending BART to San Jose is “a bad thing” because the VTA cannot afford to build or operate it.

    The political ramifications to anyone of dropping “a bad thing” like the BART extension are not my concern, nor should they be the concern of any politicians. Doing what’s best for the entire region ought to be everyone’s top concern.

  3. […] and very-expensive-to-operate BART extension over other less-expensive options, which I’ve touted in this column and would be be happy to support on a ballot if only I’d been given the chance to vote on […]

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