December 30, 2019

THE DESIRE NAMED STREETCAR: California’s Real “Train to Nowhere.”

Opened in 1987, San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) was an early leader of light rail’s expansion. But the VTA will become a leader of a different sort when it closes the Almaden branch of its system at the end of this year, due to poor ridership. Not counting some heritage trolly lines, the VTA’s Almaden branch is likely the first passenger rail line to close in almost half a century. Its 2.2 miles of single-track line and two stations—rail infrastructure worth tens of millions of dollars—will soon stand idle.

Why, in a growing and economically thriving city, would a commuter line shut down? The Bay Area is becoming famous for its housing and transportation issues, including choking traffic. San Jose is the self-proclaimed “capital of Silicon Valley,” and tech firms, along with the employees who commute to work for them, have been flooding the region for decades. Ridership on the Caltrain commuter rail system—which runs through VTA territory on the way to San Francisco—has almost tripled in 15 years, with per-mile ridership approaching New York’s Metro North. In this environment, it’s hard to understand why any part of a light rail system could close.

One reason: San Jose’s system is the epitome of style over substance. The city believed that it needed a light-rail system to modernize itself, so it built one without a master plan, and without paying attention to the nuts and bolts of what makes transit work. Most transit systems run lines along major corridors out of downtown—connecting jobs, shopping, and workers. VTA’s network wanders haphazardly, with few riders or destinations, along circuitous routes and aimless branches beside highway medians and old freight corridors.

Sadly, given the enormous potential for graft, union construction handouts, and featherbedding, most city planners view the prospect of huge capital outlays on a regular basis being spent on a rail transit system’s infrastructure and rolling stock as a hugely desirable feature, not a bug. (In the case of San Antonio, TX, even when voters disapprove of such projects.)  Which is the very same reason they prefer light rail over simply buying more busses as needed, despite the fact that the busses can run anywhere, and their routes can be easily changed as circumstances demand.

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