San Jose Transportation Trainwreck in the Making

Can Californians find their way to San Jose?

This spin on the old song, made famous by Dionne Warwick, might be the most important issue facing the state’s transportation system. Because plans to bring trains and public transit into the 21st century depend on transforming the Bay Area city of one million people into our state’s railroad capital.

But, in a dysfunctional California, can all of these plans stay on track?

Transportation expectations for San Jose are a function of the economy – it’s the capital of Silicon Valley – and geography. San Jose sits midway between California’s northern and southern borders. On the healthy side of our wealthiest region, the Bay Area, it benefits from long-standing rail connections to the Central Valley and Central Coast.

It is also home to Diridon Station, a neo-Renaissance railroad hub where California’s past, present, and future transportation converge.

Most transportation dreams in the state now include Diridon. The high-speed rail plan envisions Diridon as perhaps its most crucial hub, where regional rail lines to San Francisco meet high-speed trains descending to Fresno, Bakersfield and, one day, Los Angeles. Diridon is already the western terminus of the ACE train, which provides rail service to Stockton and is expected to extend throughout the Central Valley.

Diridon is also a regional connector. It is a major hub for the Caltrain service which stretches from San Francisco up the peninsula to Gilroy. It is the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor service to Sacramento. It is a key stop on San Jose’s VTA light rail system. And it’s a destination of decades of multi-billion dollar efforts to bring Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to downtown San Jose.

Add to that Google’s massive development plan for the area around Diridon – a downtown park village, thousands of housing units, millions of square feet of office space and a community center – and ambitions for the place are heavy.

One problem is that transit agencies in San Jose and California can’t seem to handle the weight. With so many different interests and constituencies pinning their hopes on Diridon, multiple failures of governance converge there as well.

The high-speed rail plan is such a mess of delays, consultants and overspending that state officials are only focusing on a small segment of the project: from Bakersfield to Merced. The most optimistic plans call for the high-speed rail to reach San Jose in 2031. It’s a safe bet the entire project will be mothballed by then.

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There are also reasons to be concerned about regional lines. Plans are underway to expand ACE trains to Sacramento and beyond Stockton to Modesto and Merced. But extending BART to downtown San Jose is getting longer and more expensive.

Originally approved by voters in 2000, this six-mile, four-station project is shaping up to be one of California’s largest and most challenging infrastructure efforts. Its main problem is the local authorities’ insistence on using an expensive and less proven method to build one of the largest subway tunnels in the United States. What was once described as a $4 billion project to be completed by 2026, is now a $9 billion+ project that won’t be completed until 2034.

The debate over the troubled BART expansion has become divisive, distracting San Jose from what should be a priority: integrating transit into Diridon. Various agencies involved in the planning — from Caltrain to the high-speed rail authority to the city of San Jose — don’t seem to be on the same page about how to redo the station to improve connections. . And beyond Google’s plan, there is no clear vision to make Diridon and its surroundings a real destination. The resort should be a beautiful and distinctive place in itself to help attract Californians there.

More disconcerting than the planning issues is the current state of transportation in San Jose. San Jose’s new BART stations are ghost towns, left empty due to the pandemic’s shift to remote working.

And the San Jose streetcar, which was shut down for months last year after a mass shooting, has been called a ‘colossally bad system’ by the city’s mayor, who cleverly suggested replacing it with buses. electrical.

When I traveled the various VTA lines on a recent weekday, the few passengers I saw appeared to be homeless people living on the train. On several occasions, I was the only passenger on board. It made sense. The trains are so slow and make so many stops that driving is more than twice as fast as driving.

If that’s going to happen, San Jose’s transformation into a transportation capital can’t be so slow. All Californians have a stake in San Jose connecting us, especially by rail.

The state must step in, take responsibility for and remove regulatory obstacles. The Diridon station redesign is expected to benefit from the same exemptions to environmental and other laws that the state has granted to new sports stadiums. The state should establish a single governmental authority to take charge of San Jose’s transportation hub and require high-speed rail services and local agencies to defer to its decisions.

Timelines must be accelerated and plans simplified so that a new Diridon, with all the buzzing connections, is in place before the end of this decade.

Let’s remove the obstacles blocking our path to San Jose.

This article originally appeared on Zócalo.

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