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Light rail costs too much, does too little

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

Nov 14


It turns out that the Antiplanner is not the only transit observer who thinks that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority is the nation’s worst-managed transit agency. Tom Rubin, an accountant who has audited many transit agencies and seen them from the inside out, agrees.

In a PowerPoint show (17MB, or try this 2.5MB PDF) given to the Preserving the American Dream conference in San Jose last weekend, Rubin shows that VTA ranks among the bottom two or three transit operators by such performance criteria as farebox recovery (the percentae of costs paid by fares), average passenger loads, subsidy per rider, and subsidy per vehicle mile.

Participants in the Preserving the American Dream conference were encouraged to ride VTA’s light-rail line to one of the conference events. What they saw was not a pretty picture. Trains were infrequent (one of the supposed advantages of rail is that they run so frequently that riders don’t need to consult scheduled), the in-street tracks are dangerous (one conference goer slipped on a rail and fell into a curb), and the fellow patrons are not always people you want to be around (several conference goers were treated to the scene of someone becoming violently ill on board, leading one of our members to say, “So that’s what they mean by ‘vibrant streets’”).

Beyond these impressions, Tom Rubin observes that VTA has “the worst operating statistics fo any American transit operator.” The reason for this, he says, is that San Jose — being built mostly after World War II — is one of the most spread-out urban areas in the country. Not only are people spread out, but jobs are spread out, with no job concentrations anywhere.

This makes large buses particularly unsuitable for transit because there is no place where large numbers of people want to go. So what was VTA’s solution when its bus numbers were low relative to other transit agencies? Build light rail — in other words, use an expensive technology that requires even more job concentrations.

Now it has one of the, if not the, poorest-patronized light-rail systems in America. So what is its solution? Build heavy rail, a technology that requires even more job concentrations.

The initial analysis for building BART to San Jose, Rubin notes, projected that it would cost more than $100 to get one person out of their car for one trip on BART. (By comparison, most bus improvements cost $2 to $6 per new ride, while light rail usually costs around $10 to $30 per new ride.) To make the numbers look better, VTA assumed that downtown San Jose would grow to be 80 percent the size of downtown San Francisco, which Rubin considers unlikely in the extreme. Even if it builds this BART line, VTA admits it doesn’t have the money to operate it.

VTA is now so heavily in debt that when the dot-com bust hit Silicon Valley, it was forced to cut transit service by nearly 20 percent. The in turn contributed to a 33 percent loss in transit riders. This makes San Jose’s light rail a true planning disaster and suggests that BART to San Jose, if it ever gets built, will be an even bigger disaster.

The fact that VTA is willing to sacrifice its transit riders in order to persue a dream of ever-more-expensive rail transit leads Rubin to conclude that, while he doesn’t know for sure if VTA is the worst-managed agency, “if there is a worse one out there, I hope I never find it.”

Update: Tom says that a couple of graphics in the PowerPoint file I uploaded don’t work, so he provided a PDF of the same file. It is only 2.5 megabytes.

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Reprinted from The Antiplanner