San Jose Mayor calls for design review for BART-Silicon Valley; following calls by advocates, BART board

Update: at the May board meeting, the VTA board voted to approve the peer review request by Board Member/Mayor Liccardo and colleagues to explore improvements to rider experience and transit-oriented development, looking at impacts and opportunities to cost and delivery time of the project.

At this evening’s VTA board meeting, in the agenda item to approve the first stage of the major construction contracts for the BART Silicon Valley Extension (item 7.7), Mayor Liccardo has submitted a memo calling for reviews of the project to explore important improvements to rider experience and the urban fabric of San Jose, including: 

  • Better connections at Diridon Station
  • Entrances at both sides of Santa Clara Street at the downtown station
  • Support for very high density transit oriented development

The reviews called for by the Mayor and colleagues include an independent analysis comparing single bore and dual-bore options, building on an earlier analysis done in 2017.

Importantly, the memo calls for the independent analysis to focus on the tradeoffs of the single and dual bore options with regard to “passenger safety, rider access and experience, cost, and construction delay.”   The previous analysis in 2017 had focused on constructability and operability, but did not compare the construction techniques for the ability to support better rider access and dense transit oriented development.

Calls for better rider access and urban design from San Jose Council and BART board

Today’s memo from the Mayor is co-signed by San Jose Council Member and VTA board chair Chappie Jones, and Council Member Raul Peralez.  Earlier this year, San Jose City Council had approved a resolution calling for improvements to the project relating to transit connections, multiple entrances, TOD, and alleviating construction impacts on businesses.    

In addition, Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who serves on the VTA board and is a major candidate for Mayor, has repeatedly and strongly supported multiple station entrances to improve rider access and safety. 

Today’s proposal from the Mayor and Council members for project design improvements and reviews upholds calls from BART board members for improvements to rider access and safety, and review of project designs for cost and delivery times.  These calls were made by BART board members at last week Wednesday’s joint BART-VTA board committee session, and last week Thursday’s BART board meeting discussion of the BART Silicon Valley project. 

Even Scott Knies, the head of the influential San Jose Downtown Association, which had been the strongest proponent of the single-bore deep tunneling approach to protect downtown businesses from construction impacts, is quoted in the Mercury News yesterday as saying that he is ​​open to additional analysis in order to convince residents and taxpayers that they are getting the best project, though he believes that the analysis is likely to support the original design.  SJDA continues to support protecting businesses from construction impacts, but also has been wanting to see additional station entrances and better support for transit oriented development. 

“Measure Twice and Cut Once”

The Mayor’s memo validates the importance of addressing the chorus of concerns as a way of bolstering the public confidence that is needed to sustain a megaproject. The memo concludes: “For a system that will profoundly shape how passengers will move within our city for the next century, a “measure twice, cut once” approach appears appropriate. “

Since VTA originally made the decision in favor of the single bore option in 2018, concerns have grown regarding limitations in the project design, as well as increasing cost estimates.  Regional think tank SPUR, as well as grassroots advocacy organizations Transbay Coalition and Friends of Caltrain have called for improvements to the project – entrances on both sides of the street, better passenger flow, better transit connections, and better support for transit-oriented development.  

Advocates have called for a peer review with an “apples to apples” comparison of the single bore deep tunnel with the previously environmentally reviewed twin bore design, out of concern that the design flaws were inherently harder to solve with a single bore deep tunnel.  SPUR additionally supports exploring ways to alleviate the design problems with variants based on the single bore tunnel, including a potential alternative combining a single bore tunnel with cut and cover stations.  

Updated funding plan before authorizing construction

The memo also calls for an updated funding plan for capital and operations, before the VTA board makes decisions to authorize project construction.   At a VTA board workshop on April 2022 covering agency finances, the agency disclosed anticipated gaps in the ability to fund the operations of the BART Silicon Valley extension – both Phase 1 which is already implemented and Phase 2, in addition to significant gaps in funding the capital project (slides 22 and 23).  

At the joint workshop and BART board meeting, BART board members expressed serious concerns about the funding gaps.  According to VTA’s financial agreement with BART to run the service, BART has the ability to use VTA’s state Transportation Development Act funding if other funding is not available; this would take away funding from VTA’s local transit service which would be a terrible outcome.

VTA board meeting, Thursday May 5

The Mayor’s memo as part of the approval of the first major construction contract, will be discussed for decision at tonight’s VTA board meeting. The Zoom link is here. The meeting starts at 5:30pm, but item 7.7 will likely be later in the evening. If you would like an alert when the item comes up, by email or text message, send us an email to friends@friendsofcaltrain.com.