Commentary

BART Connection to San Jose Will Solve Nothing

Extending BART to San Jose will do nothing to relieve the region’s traffic congestion. The environmental impact report (EIR) predicts it will take only two-thirds of one percent of cars off of freeways during peak hours.

During rush hour, says the EIS, I-280, I-680, I-880, U.S. 101 and SR 87 will carry an average of 10,000 cars per hour. BART will take an average of less than 60 of those cars per hour off the freeways.

Not surprisingly, the EIR also estimates that average rush-hour speeds on all freeways would be exactly the same with BART as if BART were not built. So much for relieving congestion.

BART’s projected cost is $4.7 billion. But rail transit projects in the last 20 years have, on average, gone 30 percent over budget, which means that the final cost is likely to be somewhere north of $6 billion. Rail projects approved by Denver in 2004 are already 30 percent over budget before a single spade of dirt has been turned.

Whether $6 billion or $4.7 billion, that money could relieve a lot of congestion if applied to cost-effective projects. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, traffic signal coordination, rapid bus routes and selected highway improvements are all far more effective than BART.

Tampa recently built an elevated three-lane highway on six-foot piers in the median strip of an existing freeway. Used for in-bound traffic in the morning and outbound in the afternoon, the three lanes have completely relieved the congestion on that highway. At an average cost of less than $25 million per mile, Caltrans could build such elevated roads above every mile of freeway in the San Jose area for around $3 billion.

If these new roads were tolled using variable pricing, motorists could be assured of traveling anywhere in the region without facing congestion. The tolls would also pay for most if not all of the new roads, unlike BART fares that don’t even cover operating costs much less capital costs.

VTA and other buses could use these roads for express service. Such rapid bus lines could move people around the region far faster than light rail or BART, whose system-wide average speed is only about 40 miles per hour.

BART is an idea whose time is long past. After the core BART system was completed in the 1970s, UC Berkeley planning professor Michael Webber concluded it was a dismal failure. “High capital costs (about 475 percent of forecast) are being compounded by low patronage (50 percent of forecast),” said Webber.

Despite these problems, Webber feared BART would be “the first of a series of multi-billion dollar mistakes scattered from one end of the continent to the other.” Sure enough, new rail lines in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and of course San Jose have resulted in similar disasters.

To the extent that BART worked at all, it was only because of San Francisco’s dense job core. San Jose does not have such a dense concentration of jobs, so it is entirely unsuited for rail transit.

BART’s biggest drawback is the serious financial damage it does to other transit systems in the region. Constrained budgets for Muni, AC Transit and other systems have led to a decline in the region’s total transit ridership since 1984.

Thanks to BART, wealthy white commuters have gotten heavily subsidized train rides while low-income inner-city residents have lost less-costly bus service. This is why the BayRail Alliance, Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition and Sierra Club all oppose extending BART to San Jose.

Given VTA’s record of cutting bus service so it can continue to build lightly used light-rail lines, San Jose can expect the same result from BART. San Jose does not need BART and it cannot trust VTA to build BART. Anyone who cares about transit, transportation, or their taxes should oppose BART now.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of a report titled, “A Desire Names Streetcar: How Federal Subsidies Encourage Wasteful Local Transit Systems.”