Rail’s No Way In or To San Jose

By Benita M. Dodd

For those who love to watch the passing parade – and have the time and inclination – few places are better than the sardine can that is a train. That’s why, once one neglects to make a timely reservation on any of the popular 30-minute, $40 road shuttle services between San Francisco and San Jose, the $7.50 Caltrain ticket becomes an enticing option. Once.

For 90 minutes in a nearly empty doubledecker car, you have the unique opportunity to eavesdrop on loud cell phone conversations; watch the Webcam conversation on the laptop beneath you; follow in fascination as a wannabe chef creates and devours a strawberry shortcake before your very eyes, or gaze out a grimy window and view the aesthetically piled trash along the dreary way.

Gainesville (Fla.) City Commissioner Ed Braddy, after traveling the light rail system in San Jose, California’s oldest city, announced confidently: “I have seen the future of vibrant urbanism.”

“It is pink … with little chunks sprawling across the floor of a light rail car.”

Braddy’s remarks followed his experimental light rail trip between his hotel and a reception at the historic Sainte Claire hotel about three miles away in downtown San Jose. He and his group were returning to their hotel, a quick trip of seven minutes door-to-door for people savvy enough to take a car after paying their dues on Caltrain.

The $1.75 light-rail trip should have been a stress-free 17 minutes, not including the quarter-mile walk each way at each end and the 20-minute wait on a chilly night. It turned into a harsh testament on why Americans, given the choice, overwhelmingly prefer the flexibility, privacy and controlled environment of their own vehicles.

Braddy’s group and two waiting passengers entered a car occupied by three people. Adjoining cars were also sparsely populated, but after a few stops, two young men entered from an adjoining car.

“The guy in front is staggering – my first thought was he was trying to balance against the movement of the train – and he’s moving toward us,” Braddy recalls. “When he gets within eight feet, he turns his head and pukes on the door andon the floor, again and again and again.”

Compounding matters, the train delayed at the next stop as the train operator chased down the departing culprits and ordered them back to “clean it up:” Cover up the mess with newspaper.

The Valley Transit Authority couldn’t have shown the downside of light rail at a more inopportune moment. Braddy and his group were in town from across the nation for the Preserving the American Dream Conference. The city had been selected by the American Dream Coalition for its 2007 conference site as a case study on how to dash the American dream.

Randal O’Toole writes in “Do You Know the Way to L.A.?” that “In its zeal to get people out of their cars, San Jose’s transit board built an expensive rail system that it couldn’t afford to run. This resulted in a scathing grand jury investigation, an even more scathing report from an outside auditor, and the resignation of several top agency managers. Yet the board is determined to build still more rail lines it can’t afford to operate.”

Between 1984 and 2004, the region built 35 miles of light-rail lines. Now a move is afoot to find at least $4.7 billion to extend a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) line to San Jose. But as O’Toole points out, (much like metro Atlanta) San Jose is a classic automobile region: 90 percent was built after 1950; only a small percentage of the region’s jobs are in downtown San Jose; and suburban densities are greater than the city center. No matter how much is spent on transit, it is not likely to ever carry more than 4-5 percent of commuters (3.3 percent in 2005).

Rail’s fascination isn’t just out West. Georgia’s Transit Planning Board recently received updated cost and ridership projections for seven proposed commuter rail corridors, based on analysis of the “peer cities” of Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Southern Florida and Northern Virginia/Washington. “Results show that all proposed commuter rail lines could enjoy the same level of success as the peer cities,” the board was told.

What an incredible assumption that the “poster child for sprawl” could enjoy the rail success of Los Angeles, the nation’s densest metro area. That’s why it’s called “romancing rail.” Some see it through rose-colored glasses and big plans. Others see it pink and with little chunks.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 11, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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