Rail Transit Plan Far Better than BART – Money for Roads, Too

Your view: the cost to construct Caltrain Metro East from
Fremont to San Jose
… is about $1.5 billion, less than a third of the cost of the
BART extension.
The future of our valley’s public transit is at a crossroads – with a key decision-point looming Feb. 2. Unhappy Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority officials have been forced to admit that $5 billion in county sales taxes that will be collected starting next April won’t be enough to build all transit projects voters were promised in 2000’s Measure A.

Now VTA officials are haggling over a plan to go back to the voters to ask for more money – to build just a portion of the projects promised in Measure A. Rather than throw good money after bad, the time has come for Gilroy to demand a better plan – one that will build the rail and bus network that our region needs – without a new tax.

The 800-pound gorilla in all of VTA’s current scenarios for Gilroy is the BART extension to San Jose from Warm Springs in Fremont.

As long as BART is in the mix, there won’t be enough money to go around even if voters approve an additional $2.5 billion in sales taxes to go to transportation in the next 30 years. So, VTA has been asking: What is the South County willing to give up?

Shall South County communities give up revenues for repaving roads? Or even more bus service than has already been lost? Perhaps South County would be willing to give up or postpone improvements to Caltrain service?

It’s important to realize that not only is South County is simultaneously being asked to pay more and to sacrifice more, it may have to give up even the few crumbs it thinks it has left – if it accepts any sort of “compromise” plan that retains the BART extension.

The BART to SFO/Millbrae extension in San Mateo County went 30 percent over budget. Today the county transit agency is struggling under the financial burden and has substantially reduced both bus and BART service.

Once a big hole in the ground is dug, like with the Big Dig in Boston, there is no turning back. Santa Clara County could find itself in the same predicament.

BART’s estimated price tag has already increased by $500 million in the last few years, to $4.7 billion, not including more than a billion in financing costs. Already, the BART project requires VTA to borrow such a massive sum of money that it would have to pay bond holders more than a thousand million dollars in interest instead of using that money to build real transit projects.

Most transit agencies would be overjoyed to have five thousand million dollars to spend – which VTA already has. This windfall won’t make a dent in traffic unless VTA spends the money efficiently to provide direct relief to the whole county, not just San Jose.

Thankfully, we don’t have to build BART in order to create quality rail service to the East Bay.

We can build rail the way people in Chicago, New Jersey and France have done – with standard-gauge tracks and off-the-shelf components – to expand Caltrain’s baby bullet service to the San Jose Airport, Milpitas and the East Bay.

The accompanying map shows how a new line, Caltrain Metro East, could be built in lieu of the BART project. Caltrain Metro East connects the planned Dumbarton rail line with the public right-of-way already purchased for the BART extension to San Jose. It would have a station stop next to the terminals at San Jose Airport instead of requiring people to transfer to a $248 million people mover to reach the terminals (as BART would).

A short BART extension within Fremont would connect Caltrain Metro East and BART. Caltrain Metro East would create new corridors for the Altamont Commuter Express trains, allowing through-service to Stockton or even Modesto and beyond. Caltrain Metro East would also connect to the popular Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains to Sacramento.

The cost to construct Caltrain Metro East from Fremont to San Jose on structures completely separated from roads and car traffic (grade-separated) is about $1.5 billion, less than a third of the cost of the BART extension.

Caltrain Metro East has the potential to enable Central Valley commuters to reach South County more quickly by rail than by driving. It does this by providing faster trains and a more direct route than the BART extension would provide.

Best of all, Caltrain Metro East allows VTA to have enough funds to fulfill its other transit promises to South County, as specified in previous tax measures. These include Caltrain electrification, more Caltrain service along the Peninsula and to Gilroy, more bus service, and more transit for seniors and the disabled.

Imagine being able to take a fast train from Gilroy to San Jose airport, Milpitas, Fremont, or Livermore someday, without having to change trains, and without having to approve a new tax! This plan can become reality – if we ask for it. If you agree that Caltrain Metro East is a good idea, please contact Supervisor Don Gage, your city council members and the VTA board to express your support. On Feb. 2, 2006, they will be voting on the future of our county’s transit. Let them know you support a plan to create rail transit that is better than BART, without a new tax.

Margaret Okuzumi is executive director of the Palo Alto-based nonprofit BayRail Alliance and serves on the VTA and MTC Citizen Advisory Committees. More information on the proposal can be found at www.bayrailalliance.org. She can be e-mailed at [email protected]

Leave your comments