The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, February 07, 2004

I criticize the San Jose Mercury News a lot -- imagine each letter in the preceding phrase having its own A HREF to a previous blog posting -- so I should be the first to praise them when they do something right. The Merc is in some ways very politically correct; for example, nearly every issue contains some hand-wringing about "diversity." But on other issues the Merc is willing to buck the Democratic party line and do some useful muckraking.

On Monday the Merc published a front-page article titled "Teacher housing crisis a myth", which noted that while teachers are portrayed as poverty-stricken and unable to afford housing, in reality 87% of Silicon Valley teachers own their homes. This led to scandalized denunciations in today's letters to the editor page. (As usual, the educators who wrote on behalf of their profession stopped just short of advocating that teachers be given the same privileges as ancien regime French nobility as depicted in A Tale of Two Cities.)

Today the Merc reported on the failings of light rail:

Light-rail woes grow
By Tracey Kaplan and Gary Richards
Mercury News

Silicon Valley's light-rail network, already ranked among the most expensive and least efficient in the nation, has gotten even worse.

Trains that were once near capacity now carry about 15 passengers per car, among the fewest of similar trolley lines in the country. And from 2001 to 2003, fewer riders and growing expenses combined to more than double the cost of providing a trip. Last year, the VTA spent a whopping $8.42 per passenger per trip -- even though it charged those passengers $1.50.

Data released recently by federal and local transit officials paints an increasingly grim picture of a network that does not appear to be rebounding despite the Valley Transportation Authority's efforts to clamp down on costs.

(By the way, I doubt that trains were ever "near capacity." Maybe on the first weekend that they opened, before the novelty wore off.)

The federal government recently released data for fiscal year 2002 that compares transit systems around the country in a variety of areas, and shows the VTA at or near the bottom in most. More recent data compiled by the VTA has no comparison to other trolley lines, but shows the VTA losing ground from 2002 to 2003 -- particularly in ridership.

The daily number of riders on the system that stretches from San Jose to Mountain View and Milpitas plummeted 44 percent since the peak of the high-tech boom in 2000, from 30,383 passengers to 17,047, as of Sept. 30.

The new data reveals another startling fact: The light-rail system became 46 percent more expensive to operate in fiscal year 2002. Costs shot up from about $37 million to about $54 million, largely because of new labor contracts that the VTA had awarded during the boom and because of a one-mile extension to Milpitas near Interstate 880.

As a result, Silicon Valley's light-rail system sank even lower among its peers throughout the West compared with the year before. For instance, the VTA's operating cost per passenger mile for light rail shot up that year from 86 cents to $1.55, the worst compared with Dallas, Sacramento, Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland and San Diego.

In fiscal year 2003, that cost shot up even further -- to $1.90, according to the VTA. The VTA had cut its overall annual operating expenses by then for light rail to about $51 million, but ridership continued its free fall, offsetting any major gains. This year, operating cost of light rail is projected to fall to $42 million, which would be about $5 million higher than in 2001.

Why is it that no one wants to ride light rail?

Some experts say many of Santa Clara County's light-rail problems are likely to persist once the economy improves because they are characteristic of the large county it serves, or are inherent in the design of the system, which creeps along at 3 mph through downtown.

(Emphasis mine.) A few years back my wife and I had some business in downtown San Jose, and considered taking light rail from downtown Mountain View, where my wife worked. Let's say we took the 1:01 p.m. train from Mountain View. We would arrive at the Baypointe Station in North San Jose at 1:33, and transfer to the 1:38 southbound train, arriving at the Civic Center Station at 1:55. We don't want to cut it too fine when catching the Mountain View train, as the next one won't arrive for another half hour (15 minutes during peak commute times). And we have to walk a long block to our destination in San Jose. This means that the trip will take us just about one hour -- assuming that the trains are on time.

How far is it from downtown Mountain View to the Civic Center stop at First and Mission? According to Yahoo Maps, 11.5 miles. One hour to travel eleven and a half miles! Yahoo predicts that driving would take 15 minutes. Even in heavy traffic it's not likely to take more than 25 minutes. And please note that when you drive, you can leave whenever you want rather than every half hour.

In the real world, a business that hemorrhages money is soon defunct. What happens in the world of government?

Despite the problems, some VTA board members want to expand the 29.5-mile network, although the agency has said expansion beyond the two lines under construction is unlikely.

Santa Clara County supervisor Blanca Alvarado wants to forge ahead with studies to take light rail down the median of Capitol Expressway to Highway 87.

But Dave Fadness, a longtime county transportation commissioner, said the agency should cut its losses, and even consider halting construction of the Vasona line to Campbell.

``What are we going to end up with over there -- 23 people are going to use it?'' Fadness said. ``And we're going to look even worse.''

Valley light rail loses money, and its services are fundamentally unable to satisfy its customers -- so let's expand it! It's like living in an evil alternate universe where WebVan, after losing hundreds of millions of dollars delivering groceries, decides that it will also deliver rental videotapes and DVD's below cost. To support this endeavor WebVan would sell a new issue of stock, and you would be forced to buy it.

I don't think that light rail will be expanded. But what is the most radical option presented? To halt plans for expansion. No one is saying that VTA light rail, like WebVan, must cease to exist.



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