San Jose Council considers new tech for airport, Stevens Creek

Is Elon Musk’s Boring Company the elixir for San Jose’s transit needs? Maybe not. At today’s City Council meeting, San Jose City Council will make be directing next steps for the airport connector, and maybe Stevens Creek Corridor, based on a report on solicitations of interest from technology providers.

The solicitation drew 23 interested companies; the study deemed 5 worthy of a closer look, two of which have other deployment in passenger service elsewhere in the world.

Fortunately, the report took a sober look at the enthusastic vendor marketing materials. Regarding Musk’s Boring Company offering, the report concluded that: “The proposal lacked details for how tunneling cost savings were realized. Other aspects of proposal were deemed questionable, such as tunnels with radii not currently achievable by TBMs and operating speeds that are likely infeasible in a transit environment.”

The report was similarly sober-eyed regarding the Plenary Glydways system that is also being promoted for the Dumbarton Corridor: “However, the company does not yet have a physical test facility, and feasibility of vehicle storage was not fully addressed. Therefore, the technology has great uncertainty regarding readiness and cost.”

The staff recommends pursuing the Airport Connector sooner and to integrate Stevens Creek into the VTA-led High Capacity Transit study

Decoupling the airport connector from the Stevens Creek corridor seems like a good idea because the capacity requirements for an airport connector seems potentially very different from a significant transit corridor with increased mixed-use development. This was the recommendation of BYD, one of the two vendors that currently have working systems in the field; BYD recommended their shuttle system for the airport and their monorail for Stevens Creek.

In addition, Mayor Liccardo and Council Members Peralez, Carrasco and Davis issued a colleagues’ memo encouraging the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to accelerate both projects into the first phase of PlanBayArea 2050, for earliest funding by federal, state, and any new regional sources. They also recommend considering the Stevens Creek study in the context of VTA’s NextGen study looking at alternative technology options for the light rail system.

For the Stevens Creek Corridor, the City of San Jose is collaborating with the cities of Santa Clara and Cupertino whose partnership would be needed for the Stevens Creek Corridor. The Stevens Creek Corridor had earlier been proposed for bus rapid transit improvements. This proposal did not get a warm reception; political leaders on the corridor have referred to it as “lacking transit” despite the current rapid bus line.

While exploring new technology options is healthy, we have a fundamental question about San Jose and VTA’s assumptions about the best paths to improve the performance of Santa Clara County transit. Are the problems with Santa Clara County transit due to old technology, or to lack of attention to fundamentals of land use, routes connecting places people want to come from and go to, and fundamentals of speed & reliability? And, a desire to avoid tradeoffs between supporting driving and improving transit with active transportation.

Also, with regard to the request to MTC to move these projects to the head of the queue in Plan Bay Area, this is the region’s traditional methods of prioritizing transit projects – forceful lobbying. Regions that have high-ridership public transit systems have regional planning processes that prioritize expansions based on overall transportation goals, in addition to the the encouragement of their proponents.