Following the victory of Santa Clara County’s Measure B transportation sales tax, VTA has released the BART to Silicon Valley Phase II Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS). The report documents the effects of the six mile, $4.7 billion BART extension from Berryessa Station (where two extensions totaling 15 miles and $3.2 billion will open around 2018) to Santa Clara via Downtown San Jose. The megaproject has been planned for at least two decades and would open around 2025.
Buried in the EIR/EIS is an astonishing revelation of how cost-ineffective the BART extension will be in attracting new transit riders. Section 18.104.22.168 of the EIR/EIS states that the extension would only result in a net increase of 14,600 new linked transit trips (new transit trips excluding transfers) by 2035:
But one person riding transit typically takes two transit trips per day, so 14,600 new linked trips means about 7,300 new people riding transit by 2035. At a total cost of $4.7 billion, this means the project would cost an unfathomable $644,000 per new transit passenger.
That’s not good.
There are a multitude of reasons why the project is so extraordinarily costly on a per passenger basis. Tunneling is extremely expensive, especially in accommodating BART’s huge stations and antiquated technology, so it’s typically only warranted on projects where there is extremely high ridership potential. Yet, while BART would shift a number of passengers from other bus and rail services, it would not disrupt travel patterns to attract many new riders. Sprawling Silicon Valley is more car oriented than Los Angeles; the extension’s Downtown-oriented alignment would only serve a fraction of residents and jobs that are spread across the valley. Moreover, Santa Clara County’s ongoing investments in freeway and expressway widenings and lukewarm support of transit-supportive improvements like bus rapid transit and transit-oriented development further undermine ridership growth. The project is also partially duplicative of existing services: one third of the alignment provides redundant service to Caltrain in Santa Clara, a station which currently serves barely 1,000 passengers per day. For passengers traveling between San Jose and San Francisco, Caltrain will still provide faster service than BART, especially upon completion of its electrification project.
There are a few caveats in the analysis that suggest a wide margin of error on these projections. VTA did not model the effect of high speed rail service at Diridon Station, which could provide a significant ridership boost. But the projections do include an automated people mover connection to San Jose International Airport, another unfunded one billion dollar project that has been stalled for nearly two decades. There is also no discussion of driverless cars or transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft. The ridership projections within EIR/EIS document and appendices are not even consistent, so it’s hard to say if anyone has an idea of what’s going on.
The enormous cost per new transit passenger of the BART to Silicon Valley project illustrates how politicized transportation planning decisions have become in the Bay Area. A long list of local, state, and federal policymakers have advocated for the project without an objective analysis of its merits against potential alternatives. BART to Silicon Valley could have been improved by truncating the line to eliminate duplication with Caltrain, developing a more cost-effective design that reduce tunneling, or providing a serious consideration of non-BART options like Caltrain Metro East. Silicon Valley desperately needs better transit service, but it seems that the BART extension is destined to be another blingfrastructure boondoggle.