Rails Fails in San Jose, California

By Freedom Advocates Staff
Posted May 21, 2003

When it comes to travel, Californians still want independence and freedom of choice. An endless barrage of expensive “expert studies” has failed to convince taxpayers to opt for collectivist models of transportation, yet road maintenance and infrastructure improvement have been “sidetracked” for 30 years. Why?

San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is responding to a fiscal crisis by proposing to end service o­n o­ne of its light-rail lines and reduce service o­n the remaining lines. This may be the first time that a transit agency has shut down a modern light-rail line for lack of funds.

Nearly half of VTA’s funding comes from sales taxes, and with the huge decline in the tech industry sales taxes are way down this year. Bus ridership is down by about a fifth, and light-rail ridership is down by nearly a third. VTA has responded by cutting service three times, but most of these cuts have focused o­n bus routes.

The latest proposal calls for eliminating eighteen of 69 bus routes and reducing service o­n all but six remaining routes in October. Light-rail service to the Almaden Valley would be completely eliminated. While the Almaden extension is relatively short, service would also be significantly reduced o­n the remaining two light-rail lines.

On o­ne line, midday service would operate o­nly twice per hour, and evening service would be hourly. Peak-hour frequencies have already been reduced to o­nly four times an hour. Details o­n the proposal are in the Proposed Transit Service Reduction Plan.

The o­nly real justification for a dedicated rail line is ridership so heavy that high-frequency service is needed. Cutting frequencies to o­nce or twice per hour most of the day means a huge amount of capital investment is wasted o­n what amounts to a moderately frequent bus service.

Perhaps to justify the shut down, VTA commissioned a study showing that San Jose’s light rail is the second-worst performing line in the nation (the worst is New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen line). Ridership in 2001 was so low that light rail cost more to operate, per passenger, than buses, and ridership has declined by nearly a third since then. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News [Light rail’s long ride]the study, which is based o­n National Transit Data Base information, reached similar conclusions to the Thoreau Institute’s case study [San Jose Case Study Part 2: San Jose Light Rail].

The problem, of course, is that San Jose is a post-automobile city — meaning it was built mainly after 1950. Few jobs are located downtown; instead, they are spread out throughout the urban area. Rail is totally inappropriate for such an urban area.

Even as VTA is forced to drastically reduce services for lack of operating funds, it continues to spend tens of millions of dollars each year building new light-rail lines. To operate those lines, it will probably have to cut back bus service elsewhere because light rail is so expensive.

Some VTA board members have proposed to transfer the sales tax receipts spent o­n light-rail construction to operating funds. But the agency’s staff says that this would require a new ballot measure, since the sales taxes in question were approved by voters for capital improvements, not operating costs. It is worth asking whether voters would have approved any funds at all if they had known the truth about VTA’s light-rail lines.


Proposed Transit Service Reduction Plan, Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority:  http://www.vta.org/news/oct2003_proposed.html#service_reductions (2003).

Tracey Kaplan and Gary Richards, “Light rail’s long ride,” San Jose Mercury News: http://www.bayarea.com/mld/mercurynews/news/5734269.htm (2003).

Randal O’Toole “San Jose Case Study Part 2: San Jose Light Rail,” Thoreau Institute: http://ti.org/vaupdate32.html (2003).

Rails Fails in San Jose, California by Freedom Advocates Staff

[This article contains links to outside sources not controlled by Freedom Advocates and therefore are subject to change.]

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