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San Jose's Light Rail Performance and Current Problems

Commentary by Edson L. Tennyson, P.E. · March 2004

NOTE: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessary reflect the views of the Light Rail Now! publication team, or of Texas Association for Public Transportation. This commentary is provided for informational purposes and to stimulate discussion within the transit industry, and does not imply an endorsement by Light Rail Now! of any particular views expressed.

Edson L. Tennyson, P.E., is a transportation consultant and former deputy secretary of transportation for the State of Pennsylvania.

Budget problems of San Jose's regional Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) have been given wide publicity. While most of this is a result of California's statewide budget crisis, and deep economic problems besetting Northern California and Silicon Valley in particular, VTA's policies and management have in many respects compounded its problems. Rail opponents and some in the news media have been taking the opportunity to go after VTA's light rail transit (LRT) system with a hatchet. it's time to sort out the real facts.

There is nothing wrong with VTA's LRT system that good management could not fix. San Jose's critical policy issues go all the way back to National City Lines, Inc. – the notorious highway industry outfit which bought up electric streetcar lines in order to convert them to buses.

The fall and rise of San Jose transit

After years of running San Jose's transit, NCL's management methods drove ridership so low that there seemed to be no hope for transit in that low-density area. Bus transit just faded away, till there was virtually nothing left. Eventually Santa Clara County had to take over. Unfortunately, the county transit agency lost so much money they bought into the craze for paratransit, and eliminated all bus service in favor of an extensive dial-a-ride service, running van-sized vehicles in an operation "automated" by MIT.

The demand-actuated dial-a-ride system was an even bigger failure than the earlier bus system, with very low ridership and very high cost. it was such a colossal failure that new management was hired, and they went back to basic conventional, line-haul bus service, cutting costs and, with the help of sales tax revenue, gradually boosting ridership. While ridership was very low per capita, it was much better than with dial-a-ride or with National City Lines at the time of their demise.

Looking at success stories like San Diego, the Santa Clara transit agency became interested in the potential of LRT to further build ridership and, at the same time, revitalize the city's moribund downtown. The Guadalupe corridor roadway project, running south of downtown, offered an opportunity. Because Guadalupe was to be an expressway, not a freeway, median LRT operation made the most sense, with level crossings, traffic signals, and at-grade stations. First Street, running north from downtown, had room for a median rail line to Great America, so they extended Guadalupe up there.

Light rail: Early problems

However, after the LRT project was under way, the Guadalupe highway project managers basically bollixed the transit project by redesigning the roadway into a freeway – forcing a redesign of the Guadalupe LRT alignment, with full grade separations, and making access to LRT more difficult and costly. At the same time, the new design speeded up highway travel, ultimately impacting actual vs. projected ridership.

Despite original design and budget based on major arterial expressway, San Jose's LRT had to be redesigned and rebudgeted to fit freeway when highway planners changed plans.
[Photo: Transit Rider]

One of the county's foremost leaders, a wildly enthusiastic transit supporter, was convinced that the transit agency could afford both LRT and full bus service, including in the same corridor ... despite my advice that some retrenchment and restructuring of bus service would be prudent when LRT was added. Otherwise, i cautioned, the agency would run out of money.

However, key political leaders and the Santa Clara transit agency board wanted a very high level of service everywhere. My advice went unheeded.

The transit agency acquired another new General Manager, and the agency's emphasis was placed almost entirely on marketing and service, with relatively little attention to operating economics. An expanding Silicon Valley was bringing in ever-higher tax revenues.

Thus Santa Clara's transit system developed the highest cost per vehicle hour virtuslly anywhere, for both bus and rail. it should be recognized that high living and housing costs in Santa Clara County exert upward pressure on wage levels, which in turn tend to push the VTA's costs higher than anywhere else. Meanwhile, at the same time, the new GM also boosted ridership far above anything seen in thirty years.

With the addition of light rail, ridership has grown at a faster rate in Silicon Valley than almost anywhere else (but keep in mind it started from a very low base). The Santa Clara transit system – now reconstituted as VTA – got to more than 30,000 LRT riders ... before Silicon Valley crashed. Downtown San Jose came back from the dead – certainly far more alive than it used to be.

In terms of operation, VTA's LRT level of service is generally pretty good (see the Light Rail Now! story, San Jose: Light Rail Transit Overview). The LRT trains run in a downtown transit mall – virtually on the sidewalk – so must be limited to 15 miles per hour; but that gives them good downtown distribution. And the trains move right along at a good speed (35 to 55 mph) when on reserved or private-right-of-way.

The Mountain View and Sunnyside LRT extensions may seem dubious now, but these communities wanted these lines enough to bid money for them. Furthermore, at the time, high-tech employment growth was causing unacceptable highway congestion and city leaders and planners believed LRT could help. Nobody expected the high-tech "bubble" to burst.

San Jose's LRT performance should be assessed in the context of VTA's system as a whole. By 2001, figures from the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Data Base reported that LRT at VTA cost 85 cents per passenger-mile, while the agency's bus operations cost $ 1.04. Thus LRT, prior to the systemwide loss of ridership, was demonstrating that it was less of a subsidy problem than the buses – contrary to the implications of various rail critics.

Until recent economic downturn and budget crisis, VTA's LRT was operating at lower cost per passenger-mile than VTA's bus services.
[Photo: Transit Rider]

Economic crash opens opportunities for critics

As it's now widely recognized, VTA is in financial crisis. Rail opponents try to lay this problem at the door of the agency's LRT system, but that is a deception. To understand VTA's current problems, one must recognize that the entire region has fallen into deep economic and financial crisis.

Virtually every public agency and social program is now grappling with near-catastrophic budget cuts. California's public education is in crisis – in the San Jose area, some school districts are considering closing entire schools. Over a two-year period, the region has lost 10 percent of its total employment. The San Francisco Bay Area has been experiencing its worst economic downturn in the past fifty years.

And other transit agencies have also been hit hard by the slump. Even a relentless opponent of VTA's rail system, the San Jose Mercury News, reported that

Transit agencies across the country have been hit hard since the economy went into the tank. Agencies in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have slashed service and raised fares. Locally, the Golden Gate Transit District cut service nearly 30 percent last month. The Bay Area Rapid Transit District will raise fares 10 percent next year while ridership to its new line to Millbrae is dismal. And AC Transit needed a $20 million bailout to offset a 15 percent cut in service.
Silicon Valley's recession is among the deepest in the country ....
[San Jose Mercury News, 7 Dec. 2003]

This catastrophic downturn has impacted travel. Commuter trains lost 19 percent of their Silicon Valley ridership with the severe unemployment. Thus it should not be that shocking that the previous 30,000 LRT weekday rider-trips would drop to 17,000 (Third Quarter, 2003).

However, an even greater drop was caused by VTA's cutbacks in service of 33 percent, which almost surely have disrupted timed transfers. Another problem is duplication of service, which I have already alluded to above. Thus, VTA duplicates LRT service with competitive express bus service – something no public transit operator can do and stay efficient.

In an article dated April 28, 2003, the Mercury News focused on a "review of operations" performed by a hired consultant, Robert L. Peskin, described as a "rail expert" with the Virginia-based consulting firm AECOM Consult, Inc. The Mercury News reporters also included some of their own analysis, apparently aimed at arguing that the LRT system has been a failure, and expansion plans should be halted.

Unfortunately, the Mercury News "analysis" (seizing on selected aspects of the consultant's review) failed to provide anything approaching an accurate, credible, and reliable gauge of VTA's LRT operations or the performance of the system, nor a useful understanding of its current problems. The report in the Mercury News contained serious misrepresentations and factual errors.

The Mercury News reporters seemed to argue that San Jose should have built a subway-elevated system, like BART, instead of an LRT "streetcar" (ignoring the fact that subway or elevated rail would undoubtedly have been unaffordable for a small city like San Jose). Thus, the reporters argued that the system's average speed is too slow.

But their statement that the San Jose LRT operates "at an average speed under 15 miles an hour" is at odds with the facts. The LRT's average schedule speed, based on schedule times and distance data from VTA, is 20 miles per hour, end-to-end from Santa Teresa to Baypointe [see San Jose: Light Rail Transit Overview]. That is approximately the same average speed as in Dallas's acclaimed LRT, and is relatively high for a system routed predominantly in street right-of-way.

On a similar theme, the reporters suggested that downtown San Jose should have been left off the LRT route: "Light rail was originally intended to bypass downtown and go to Mineta San Jose international Airport, which would have made it faster and perhaps more popular." But it was proper to run VTA's LRT through downtown, as all the bus lines cross there for interchange. And it also helped fulfill a major urban development goal of revitalizing San Jose's downtown.

Apparently to bolster their contention that the LRT is nothing more than a slow "streetcar", and that routing it through the CBD was a mistake, the reporters claimed that LRT trains "inch through downtown San Jose at 3 mph." But according to VTA's schedule and distance data, LRT's schedule speed through the CBD is more than 9 miles per hourthree times faster than the Mercury News claimed, and a respectable average for any transit service making closely spaced stops in the relatively dense, congested core of its city.

LRT has slow going through San Jose's CBD – but, at 9 mph, it's three times faster than critics are claiming. And incidentally, it's helped revitalize the city's downtown.

Indeed, an average of nine miles per hour downtown is the same speed as the San Diego Trolley on C Street in that city. Buses on Broadway, parallel to C St., were running at an average 5 miles per hour the last time I timed them.

Bus operations in some downtown areas have been known to run yet more slowly ~ even as "BRT". Busways in New Orleans ran at an average 2.5 miles per hour, and bus lanes in downtown Philadelphia also averaged 2.5 miles per hour in the peak hour before the PATCO high-speed rail transit line opened for business (after that, with fewer buses, Philadelphia's downtown buses got a little faster).

In short, transit operations in any downtown tend to be unusually slow, particularly because of the heavy pedestrian traffic and the frequent stop spacing. But, for VTA's rail critics – whose preferred alternative transit mode seems to be buses – it's convenient to ignore comparative averages and the context of transit industry experience.

The reporters also related that, in designing the LRT route through the CBD, "...San Jose officials considered the trolleys essential to redeveloping a dying downtown...." And indeed, San Jose's downtown has revived substantially since the LRT system was installed – but the Mercury News article made no mention of that achievement.

The Mercury News reporters, selectively drawing on the consultant's study, like many other rail critics, seemed to be trying to contend that San Jose's LRT system has been a huge mistake, and that, in any case, expansion plans should be halted. However, if they had looked at the big picture, they would have seen a city where LRT has helped build back ridership while reviving the city's core.

But facts don't seem to matter much to critics – including Mercury News reporters and others – crusading against the LRT system. A stream of relentless attacks on VTA, and its LRT service in particular, has persisted steadily.

In a June 2003 op-ed in the Mercury News, T. J. Rodgers, president and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, and a dedicated ideological opponent of government-funded public transport and rail transit, proclaimed that "VTA light rail is a slow, expensive loser. ... VTA must throw in the towel and acknowledge that light rail has failed" Rodgers insisted.
[San Jose Mercury News, 9 June 2003]

Apparently, LRT's historically lower unit operating costs, and its contribution to the revitalization of downtown San Jose, means nothing to anti-rail ideologues like Rodgers, who boasts of his preference for his car and declares "we [motorists] hope that others will use public transportation to give us more room on the roads." (What Rodgers proposes for public transportation "to give us more room on the roads" is, curiously, more motor vehicles – "innovative express bus schemes" and "Bus Rapid Transit".)

The major achievements and benefits of VTA's LRT system also seem to matter little to the Mercury News itself, which has declared its opposition to the LRT system. in an editorial of September 29, 2003, the newspaper declaimed that "VTA should cut LRT plans to save BART", insisting that "... new light rail lines appear to be on the chopping block. As they should."

The Mercury News's hostility to LRT is reflected in its reporters' news coverage of VTA and its rail system, especially in the context of the current budget crisis. A recent article (February 7, 2004) repeats the misinformation that the system "creeps along at 3 mph through downtown" (as I related above, the data indicate that LRT's actual speed through downtown San Jose is three times that).

The article also refers to "some experts" who claim that "Santa Clara County's light-rail problems are likely to persist once the economy improves" because, among other reasons, these problems are supposedly "inherent in the design of the system ...." However, the only "expert" the article cites is Tom Rubin, described merely as "a nationwide transit consultant". But in reality Rubin is a nationally known anti-rail crusader, paid by several far-right, anti-transit "think tanks", and a familiar "hired gun" for opponents of major transit initiatives and rail systems.

Management weaknesses

While most of the anti-rail criticism seizes an opportunity for attack arising from the region's disastrous economic downturn – certainly, beyond VTA's control – VTA is unfortunately quite vulnerable to these attacks because of some of its more questionable management policies. For example, productivity has never been a strong point of the VTA's system. While VTA's buses tend to attract mainly low-income "necessity" riders, they are not packed full. Redundant routes and wasteful service levels have unfortunately been a perennial problem. VTA's bus services have had an abysmal load factor, at least before the service cutbacks.

VTA does need some serious policy changes. For a start, the agency needs to rationalize the bus system to fit the ridership, and re-route much of it to feed and interact with their LRT lines. They need to find ways to bring their cost per hour down.

I have previously mentioned some of the problems besetting VTA's LRT system – some outside the agency's control, but others reflecting dubious policy and management decisions. A serious problem early on was their purchase of a fleet of fifty UTDC light rail vehicles (LRVs) – a procurement based upon the expressway plan, not the freeway (as I discussed above). For 30,000 weekday passengers, they needed a fleet of about 36 cars like Sacramento. The 14 extra cars cost too much for no purpose, but the highway design switch can be blamed for that.

However, in one of the most astonishing and questionable actions I have ever seen in transit, VTA went and bought 100 new cars (see photo) to replace the fifty UTDC cars that were only 18 years old. That is a major reason why they are out of money. They wanted low-floor cars, despite this heavy expense. Money did not seem to matter – but of course it does.
[Photo: L. Henry, Nov. 2003]

(There are definitely cheaper ways to transition to low-floor boarding than total fleet replacement. Portland's method – coupling older high-floor with new low-floor cars – is definitely a workable model.)

The size of the fleet replacement also sets off alarms. The complete Mountain View to Milpitas line may need, at most, perhaps ten cars. The Vasona route may need about ten more. All told, in my assessment, VTA could justify only about 20 to 24 new cars, certainly not 100.

"Management has got to get tough"

That is the problem, not the original choice of LRT. After all, voters have twice ratified the decision to install and upgrade the LRT system with tax money to pay for it. Certainly, a recession hurts – but the current setbacks need to be viewed in perspective with the major gains that LRT has brought to San Jose.

Critics such as the Mercury News have misrepresented the reality to get stark headlines and expose. Eventually, it's likely that the economic environment in northern California will improve, the Silicon Valley job market will pick up, and VTA's ridership will start rising again, on both rail and bus.

But solving VTA's basic problems also means addressing in-house policy and management weaknesses also. They need a San Diego, Salt Lake City, Denver, or Saint Louis-type approach.

VTA's management has got to get tough. A 15-minute LRT headway works fine for Sacramento, a much smaller city than San Jose. VTA needs to establish its own 15-minute headway standard and cut the train size to fit, running one car except when two are required. Even with just 17,000 weekday passengers (under the current economic crisis conditions), that is substantially more ridership than Salt Lake City expected and approximately what Salt Lake City initially accomplished, in a very successful, very low-cost operation.

With heavy cuts of inefficient bus service, and an overhaul of LRT schedules more in line with ridership demand, VTA can work its way out of the current crisis ... but not with more of the same. VTA's leadership has got to get real.

LRT provides fast, efficient transit in median of major arterial. Tighter management could take advantage of excellent LRT infrastructure to improve efficiency and upgrade service.
[Photo: L. Henry, Nov. 2003]

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/03/04

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