Bay Area

BART to Silicon Valley Likely to be Delayed

Massive drop in sales tax revenues puts BART to downtown San Jose in doubt

In November 2008, Santa Clara County, California voters approved Measure B, which increased sales taxes in the county to pay for the extension of BART rapid transit service to downtown San Jose. The 16-mile extension is currently scheduled to open for service in 2018; it will cost upwards of $6 billion to build. It will run from Warm Springs, through Milpitas, Berryessa, and finally to Santa Clara, running in a subway under downtown.

Now, VTA, which is managing the project, will recommend building BART only about halfway – to the Berryessa area – delaying plans for downtown (and subway) service. This would decrease the cost of the project to $2.1 billion, as the subway is the major expense. Sales tax receipts have decreased dramatically over the past several months because of the economic crisis and made the funds approved by Measure B’s 1/8¢ sales tax less useful than originally envisioned.

I’m not a huge proponent of the BART-to-San Jose idea in the first place, since people will still be able to get from San Jose to San Francisco more quickly via the existing Caltrain service even when the BART extension built. Using the funds to electrify (and speed up) Caltrain and extend the trains to San Francisco’s new Transbay Terminal would be more efficient and improve service for the region as a whole. San Jose should focus on development around its existing and underused VTA Light Rail service and Diridon station rather than build an expensive subway for a not particularly dense downtown.

But building BART only to Berryessa is ridiculous. Not only would the trains fail to reach the county’s core, but there is little space to focus transit-oriented development in the largely residential areas around the proposed Berryessa station. The whole project should be delayed until Santa Clara County can get its hands on the funds to build all of it.

9 replies on “BART to Silicon Valley Likely to be Delayed”

While I love San Francisco at least as much as you do, you overstate its importance in the complex constellation of centers that we call the Bay Area.

San Francisco is not the primary commute destination that the BART extension has in mind. People in the affected areas of Fremont, Milpitas and San Jose are much more likely to be commuting to nearby Silicon Valley or San Jose than to San Francisco.

The only justification for building BART here (as opposed to, say, a much cheaper but slower project of extending VTA LRT northward) is that only BART can provide a single north-south rapid transit corridor that extends the length of the East Bay, linking San Jose, Oakland, and Berkeley.

I’m personally somewhere between ambivalent and negative toward the BART extension, mostly because BART is such an expensive technology to extend and some aspects of the technology are obsolete. But if the project is going ahead anyway, there is some logic to going to Berryessa first, because it gets transit riders past one of the worst chokepoints in the East Bay freeway system, which occurs on I-880 and to a lesser extent I-680 around the county line (between Milpitas and Fremont). Creating transit-only routes through road network chokepoints is often a very good investment, because the resulting transit line will be competitive with cars even if transfers are then required to reach ultimate destinations — as will almost always be the case for the spread-out employment of Silicon Valley anyway.

Again, this is not to endorse the project. LRT or even BRT could have met many of the needs that the BART extension will serve. But the geography is quite different, and in ways more favorable, than your narrative would suggest.

Jarret, enjoyed your comment. Can you expand on this:

“BART is such an expensive technology to extend and some aspects of the technology are obsolete.”

I tend to agree… it is more about connecting with the East Bay.

However, the Caltrain East plan would have been much less expensive… (and faster than Light Rail) and it would use standard gauge tracks which could be shared with other train services. You get much more flexibility that way, allowing flexible configurations of commuter and eventually, full-metro services. Caltrain electrification means the peninsula is going to start behaving more like a metro service, and doing the same on that corridor might mean that the shiny new CA HSR trains could run up to the East Bay on the same tracks. Or at least, Amtrak rapid rail.

BTW, on BART being expensive, in addition to less flexible —

I read that for the same capacity, a BART trainset costs 40% MORE than a TGV. That’s expensive. Can’t find the exact quote, but here’s this from

“BART is a one-off system that requires custom-made trains that are incompatible with the worldwide standard that Caltrain electrification will follow. This decreases competition to build BART trains and increases BART’s cost. Caltrain, on the other hand, can operate off-the-shelf equipment produced by a variety of manufacturers worldwide. In fact, some of the nicest amenity-filled high-speed trains in Europe cost less to build than a BART train does.”

While there are many aspects to the limitations of the BART technology, the easiest one to explain is the non-standard gauge. The tracks are further apart than on a standard rail line. I believe that BART’s inventors believed this was important to get a wide car with a low centre of gravity, and hence a smooth ride. But the gauge is the most obvious reason why BART’s cars must be custom-designed.

I agree with Ian that Bay Rail Alliance is a good source on this. (It’s actually descended from an organisation called Peninsula Rail 2000, which I led for a couple of years around 1990.)

I stumbled across this map

I understand that there is need for commuter services south to San Jose. I’ve also read that BART trains are at capacity between SF and Oakland… If you upgrade the ACE and Capitol Corridor trains you serve a wider area into San Jose and may get some people off BART and onto “Caltrain East” going north. I haven’t checked Google… Did UP and it’s predecessors have the foresight to get a ROW wide enough for four tracks like they did on the Peninsula?

“….only BART can provide a single north-south rapid transit corridor that extends the length of the East Bay, linking San Jose, Oakland, and Berkeley….

I may be reading the map wrong but it looks to me like the Capitol Corridor is already doing it. In the future four track it, expresses to Sacramento and build infill stations to serve local traffic between East Bay suburbs and San Jose or Oakland/Berkeley.

There’s additional bonuses to doing that. Commuters on the ACE corridor get a faster commute to San Jose. People in San Jose get faster service to Oakland and Sacramento. Gives everybody between Richmond and San Jose an alternative to BART….

The difference between Capitol Corridor and BART is frequency.

Capitol Corridor is just a few trips a day, so is not useful for rapid-transit mobility within the Bay Area. Indeed, it runs so rarely that it’s almost misleading to represent it as a line on the map.

To run a serious rapid-transit frequency on the rail line in this Oakland-San Jose corridor, you’d need tracks completely separated from freight. The Caltrain line on the peninsula has almost no freight, because rail-dependent port functions have almost completely disappeared from San Francisco. However, Oakland is the major port for Northern California, so the tracks between Oakland and San Jose deal with very heavy freight demands.

Remember too that climate-change objectives would suggest that we need to be expanding freight rail at the expense of trucking. For high-volume movements, even diesel-powered freight rail is much more emissions-efficient than trucking. So we’ll need more freight rail capacity, and transit advocates need to keep this in mind when imagining transit uses for existing rail tracks.

Given this, a Caltrain east project might be workable, but it would not be as cheap as it sounds. It would also have to make a very, very good connection to BART, so that passengers could connect with BART to get to very high-demand destinations like Downtown Berkeley, which are on BART but not on the standard-gauge rail network. This would probably need to be at Coliseum station, which is the only point south of Oakland where the lines are right next to each other.

So it’s possible, but it’s not simple or obvious.

I think you are misconstruing the purpose of this extension. The point is not to connect San Francisco with San Jose which as you mention are already connected. But rather the highly residential areas of alameda and contra costa county to their jobs in San Jose and the rest of Silicon valley. Some of the worst bay area traffic is on the 680 and 880 between these areas, south to san jose in the mornings and north in the evenings. Bart is already a great way for people in these communities to get to their jobs in SF after this connection is made they can get to their jobs in San Jose

The problem is that BART is slow and expensive – on the one hand there’s no capability for express service, as in the proposed alternative of standard-gauge commuter rail, and on the other hand, the project involves tunneling in low-density San Jose where running on or alongside the Caltrain tracks would work equally well.

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