Should ballot measure extend BART to Santa Clara?

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group proposal for a $3.5 Billion Santa Clara transportation tax includes $1.3 billion for BART to Silicon Valley, and $500 Million for Caltrain capacity and speed improvements.

The first phase of the BART extension is under construction, and is expected to be in service to Warm Springs by late 2015 and Berryessa by 2017.  The second phase is planned to extend not only to Downtown San Jose/Diridon Station, but to the City of Santa Clara.

The “Phase 2” project was last estimated at about $4 billion, with about $ 1 billion for the Santa Clara component.  It is proposed to have stops in Alum Rock, downtown San Jose, Diridon, and Santa Clara. The Santa Clara County funding would be matched with federal and state funding approved at the regional level.

Superfluous for commute service

The Santa Clara extension isn’t needed for commute service.  It duplicates the Caltrain route, in a segment that doesn’t need extra capacity. This can be seen in current Caltrain ridership.  Diridon is the 4th most heavily used Caltrain station, with 3,489 average daily riders in last published 2013 count (San Francisco had over 10,000, Palo Alto had over 5,000).   Santa Clara had 822 average daily riders. Diridon has over 4x the Caltrain usage as Santa Clara.   In much of the line, Caltrain’s rush hour trains are crowded, but not at Santa Clara.  The Peninsula corridor needs extra capacity, but not between Diridon and Santa Clara.

Proposed BART extension to Santa Clara adds capacity where it isn't needed

Proposed BART extension to Santa Clara adds capacity where it isn’t needed. Map Santa Clara County Frequent Transit Network – bus and rail. Map created in collaboration with Ian Rees (@woolie).

Maintenance yard and airport connection?

The original rationale for extending BART to Santa Clara was to have a maintenance yard to repair trains, and to have “tail tracks” to park trains at the end of the line.   Since the Silicon Valley project was broken into two phases,  BART is expanding its Hayward maintenance facility, and staff think they are likely to be able to handle the maintenance requirements on the East Bay side of the line, according to several sources.  It would be less operationally efficient to stop the line at Diridon, but would the operational efficiencies cost-justify the estimated $800 million project?

Another reason for the Santa Clara Extension is a connection to San Jose Airport.  But Diridon is planned to be the major transportation hub – San Jose leaders are asking why not add an airport connection from Diridon. For that matter, since East Bay riders want a connection to SJC, why would they they go all the way around to Santa Clara or even Diridon, why not add a bus connection from Milpitas to Berryessa?

Questions from the BART board

At a recent board meeting, director Robert Raburn questioned the strategic of the Santa Clara Extension at the May 22 board meeting, on video in the discussion of the budget item, at about 4:22 (

“Just in the last week we’ve seen the Valley Transportation Authority release their own poll. And they’ve started as far as I can tell to move forward with their plans for maybe extending BART to the airport, maybe extending it to Santa Clara. I think we’re all in agreement that we should get to Diridon Station, but we don’t have a solid plan that’s been in place beyond that. The last time that BART had seriously looked at the extensions was in the 2007 Regional Rail Study.  So I’m going to push that we prioritize get funding for two items in the budget – the [study of] BART metro, which is $1.1 million and the BART Vision, which is $1.5 million. They need to be carried out so we can be nimble, otherwise it’ll be the tail wagging the dog, and we’ll be the dog. I think we should should be letting other agencies let us know what our priorities are, and should set our long-term priorities based on the studies we do.”

In answer to follow up questions, Raburn explained further.   In 2000, when the Santa Clara extension was put on the ballot, BART’s overall strategy favored extensions. These days, the strategy focuses on increasing core capacity and urban infill.   Says Raburn, “BART must carefully weigh future investments of public funds so that regional priorities are met first. Given the capacity limitations on BART’s four busy transbay lines that carry hundreds of thousands of passengers each day, does an extension to the City of Santa Clara warrant priority for regional transportation dollars?”

More discussion by the BART board might be forthcoming as part of their upcoming agenda item on the BART Metro strategy, scheduled for June 26, at the same time as VTA’s study session.

The doubts could add risk to the project in several ways.

The federal and state matching funds for the BART project are allocated regionally by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  Raburn is casting doubt on the ability of the project to get these matching funds approved regionally, if the project doesn’t meet regional priorities.

The decision about whether and when to pursue the BART extension to City of Santa Clara in Phase 2 is in the hands of the VTA board, according to the terms of the agreement of the BART Silicon Valley project.  But public questions about the Santa Clara extension might create doubt in the minds of voters, the vast majority of whom don’t have any clue about the institutional arrangements behind the BART to Silicon Valley project.