Vanishing Automobile update #32

San Jose Case Study Part Two:
Light Rail

Like San Diego, Portland, and St. Louis, San Jose jumped on the light-rail bandwagon in the early 1980s. It opened its first light-rail line in 1988 and has steadily, if slowly, expanded the system ever since. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who was San Jose's representative in Congress when the first light-rail lines were funded, is a big fan of light rail and promotes it in many other cities.

Yet no reasonable person could look at San Jose's light-rail lines as an example of sound transportation planning. Not only does San Jose light rail contribute almost nothing to the region's transportation needs, its ridership is pathetic even by the standard of other U.S. light-rail lines.

San Jose light-rail construction costs have not been excessive relative to other light-rail lines. But its low ridership means high operating costs per rider. These high costs are a major factor in a financial crisis that is facing San Jose's transit agency, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).


The Santa Clara County Transit District (now known as the Valley Transportation Authority or VTA) took over San Jose's privately owned bus lines in 1976. Armed with a permanent one-half cent sales tax, the agency rapidly expanded the region's bus service and doubled bus ridership in just three years.

From the start, the agency was also enamored with light rail and began planning an extensive rail network. The 1983 environmental impact statement for the first light-rail line also considered busways, HOV lanes, and highway expansions as alternatives to light rail.

The study showed that highways were by far the most efficient way to handle increased transportation demand. While the cost of light rail per new rider (that is, the cost of attracting someone out of their car) was estimated to be around $2 per ride, the cost of new roads diverting a car off of existing roads was estimated to be less than 10 cents per vehicle mile. Yet the road improvement alternatives were discarded.

The study estimated that the line would carry 40,000 riders a day soon after it opened. But it also estimated that a busway would cost less to build and attract even more riders than light rail. Still, it claimed that light rail would cost less to operate than buses. "Since the (operating) subsidies needed to supplement fares are paid out of local tax resources," said the plan, this difference in operating costs tilted the decision toward rail.

For the cost of constructing its first light-rail line, the transit agency could have doubled the number of buses in its system. But then it would have to operate those buses, which it couldn't afford to do. Since federal and state funds were available only for capital costs, not operating costs, it elected to spend the maximum capital funds on projects that would pose the least operating cost. Of course, the reason why operating costs were low was that the project served only a tiny fraction of the region.

In short, light-rail technology was selected for reasons other than efficiency or common sense. The effect on the transit agency's budget probably played the biggest role in the decision to choose light rail over roads or expanded bus service.

Environmental impact reports for later light-rail lines did not seriously consider busway or highway improvements. They did, however, project significantly higher costs per new rides. Where the first line was estimated to cost around $2 per new ride, the second line, known as the Tasman Corridor, was projected to cost more than $40 per new ride. Capital costs of $42 million per mile, compared to less than $30 million per mile for the initial line, played only a small part of this cost hike. The main reasons for the increase appear to be more realistic estimates of operating costs and ridership.

Phase one of the region's first light-rail line opened in 1988 and by 1992 it was 21 miles long. The 7.6-mile Tasman line opened in 1999 and a 1.9-mile extension opened in 2001. With funding from another one-half cent sales tax approved in 1996, two more lines are expected to open in 2004.

Ridership Falls Far Short of Projections

The emphasis on light rail led the agency to forego further expansions to the bus system. As a result, transit ridership in 1987 was actually lower than in 1982.

Ridership grew over the next four years as phases 1 through 4 of the first light-rail line were opened in succession. By 1992, when the line was completed, ridership was 35 percent greater than before it opened. Since riders are counted twice when they board a bus and then transfer to rail, at least some of this increase was due to more transfers as the agency replaced downtown buses with buses to light-rail stations. But at least some of the increase was real.

Success was short lived, however, as ridership immediately began to decline after 1992. Ridership fell so much in 1993 that the agency was forced to cut bus and rail service due to revenue shortfalls. While the number of rides began to rise again in 1996, passenger miles of travel have remained below 1992 levels in every year through 2000 except 1998. Moreover, far from reaching 40,000 riders per day, the highest ridership achieved was 22,700 per weekday in 1998. Ridership fell slightly in 1999.

In 2000, Santa Clara County voters were persuaded to fund more light-rail lines as well as an extension of BART to San Jose. Proponents naturally claimed that rail transit would reduce regional congestion. In fact, transit in general, and light rail in particular, has an insignificant effect on congestion.

When compared with other light-rail lines in the U.S., San Jose's light-rail vehicles appear to be running almost empty. On average, San Jose buses carry 9.2 people at any given time, which is about 86 percent of the national average. But San Jose light-rail vehicles carry only 14.8 people at any given time, which is less than 57 percent of the national average.

Table One
Passenger Miles Per Vehicle Mile
                Bus       LRT
San Jose        9.2      14.8
National       10.7      26.1

Source: 2000 National Transit Database National Profile and San Jose profile.

Another standard of comparison is the number of passenger miles carried per route mile of track. On average, U.S. light-rail lines carried 4,400 passenger miles per route mile per day in 2000.

By this measure, the most productive light-rail system is in Boston, which carried 8,500 passenger miles per mile. The least productive is -- you guessed it -- San Jose's, which at 1,750 passenger miles per mile carried less than half the average and only about a fifth of Boston's level.

Table Two
Daily Passenger Miles Per Route Mile
Boston                     8,484
St. Louis                  7,681
Los Angeles                6,977
Portland                   5,937
San Diego                  5,318
Salt Lake City             4,536
San Francisco              4,258
Dallas                     4,023
Newark                     3,445
Buffalo                    3,411
Sacramento                 3,065
Baltimore                  2,795
Denver                     2,762
Pittsburgh                 2,600
Philadelphia               2,443
Cleveland                  2,196
San Jose                   1,749

Source: National Transit Database 2000.

San Jose light rail does not compare well with other forms of transportation either. The only rail transit that is less productive than San Jose's LRT are the poorly located tourist trolleys in Seattle, Memphis, and Kenosha. San Francisco cable cars and New Orleans tourist streetcars are both more productive than San Jose light rail. (The Hudson-Bergen light rail, which is also poorly patronized, opened in mid-2000 so adequate data are not yet available for comparison.)

Table Three
Daily Passenger Miles Per Route or Lane Mile
San Jose freeways         29,950
BART heavy rail           17,074
San Jose expressways       4,300
CalTrain commuter rail     3,372
San Francisco cable cars   3,283
New Orleans streetcars     2,265
San Jose light rail        1,749

Source: National Transit Database 2000, Highway Statistics 2000 table HM-72, Texas Transportation Institute (for expressway, aka "principle arterial," data).

San Jose's original light-rail line cost about $25 million per mile in 1992 dollars (about $30 million in today's dollars). More recent lines cost or are projected to cost about $40 million a mile. These costs are for tracks in both directions, so must be cut in half to get the cost per route mile.

For comparison, a lane mile of expressway costs about $2 to $3 million; a lane mile of freeway costs about $5 to $10 million. Thus a route mile of San Jose light rail costs about one-and-a-half to four times as much as a freeway lane mile and five to ten times as much as an expressway lane mile. Since light rail carries far fewer passengers than freeways and expressways, it costs 12 to 70 times as much per passenger mile as expressways and freeways.

Light rail's poor performance is reflected in transit's tiny market share of San Jose-area motorized transport. The Valley Transportation Authority claims that transit has a 2.7 percent share of the market for personal transportation, but it measures market share in terms of trips. Because transit is slower, auto trips average nearly three times the distance as transit trips, so in terms of passenger miles transit has a much smaller share.

In 2000, transit carried just 1.0 percent of motorized passenger miles of travel in the San Jose area. Light rail carried about 17 percent of transit passenger miles, so it carried 0.17 percent of total motorized passenger miles.

High Operating Costs

Light rail's low ridership is also reflected in high operating costs. According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), most light-rail transit agencies spend less on operations and maintenance on light rail than on buses, whether measured per trip or per passenger mile. (The FTA formula leaves out significant maintenance costs, but we'll ignore that for now.)

As shown in the table below, however, operating San Jose light rail costs more per trip and per passenger mile than San Jose buses. The table also shows that both bus and rail operating costs are significantly higher than the national averages. This is simply a reflection of low overall transit ridership in San Jose.

Table Four
Cost Per Trip and Passenger Mile

Cost/Trip Cost/PM Bus LRT Bus LRT San Jose 3.85 4.82 1.02 1.07 National 2.19 1.89 0.59 0.45

Source: See table one.

No Effect on Increasing Congestion

The Texas Transportation Institute, which has tracked urban congestion since 1982, says the amount of time the average San Jose commuter wastes sitting in traffic has more than tripled in the last two decades. The Institute estimates this congestion costs commuters a billion dollars a year, or more than $1,400 per commuter, and burns up nearly 90 million gallons of fuel per year.

There is a good reason for the increase in congestion. Since 1982, the number of miles driven in the San Jose urban area has increased by more than 68 percent, but the number of road miles has increased by only 15 percent. The miles of freeway driving have increased by 50 percent, but freeway lane miles have increased by only 18 percent.

Light rail, which carries less than 0.2 percent of passenger miles of travel and virtually no freight, obviously does nothing to reduce this congestion. Yet the Valley Transportation Authority wants to devote 80 percent of the region's capital transportation funding to mass transit, most of which will go to build new light-rail lines and an extension of BART heavy rail to San Jose. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, the Valley Transportation Authority not only runs transit but does all transportation planning for Santa Clara County, so this is the direction San Jose is heading.

Despite the agency's pretense at comprehensive transportation planning, it does not seriously consider road alternatives. The environmental impact report for a light-rail line currently under construction didn't bother to consider road expansion as an alternative because, it said, it "would not meet the goal of providing a viable alternative to the automobile." The fact that light rail has proven to be a non-viable alternative to the automobile didn't dissuade the agency from building the new line.

The plan to spend 80 percent of capital funds on transit is supported by the Metropolitan Transportation Council, which is the metropolitan planning organization for the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose metropolitan areas. The council admits that spending 80 percent of its funds on transit will not boost transit's market share, which is about 4 percent in the region as a whole.

The Valley Transportation Authority claims that its plans, if fully funded, will increase transit's share of Santa Clara County trips from 2.7 percent to 4.3 percent by 2020. Since auto trips are longer, this would be an increase from 1.0 to 1.6 percent of passenger miles of motorized travel.

Automobile travel in the San Jose urbanized area has been growing at about 1.75 percent per year, and Valley Transportation conservatively predicts it will continue to grow by 1.2 percent per year over the next twenty years. This means that the congestion relief provided by increasing transit's share from 1.0 to 1.6 percent over twenty years would be exhausted by just four to six months growth in auto traffic.

Transit Funding Crisis

The transit agency's assumption of full funding is currently in jeopardy. The agency's long dependence on sales taxes leaves it highly vulnerable to recessions. The current recession has also caused a severe drop in ridership, particularly in light rail. Bus ridership in 2002 to date is 7 percent lower than in 2001 and light-rail ridership has fallen by 29 percent.

As a result, the agency fears it will run out of cash by mid-2003. Even though voters approved a new sales tax in 2000, the agency estimates it will fall $6 billion short of its funding needs over the next twenty years.

By an amazing coincidence, $6 billion is approximately the amount Valley Transportation wants to spend building BART and new light-rail lines. But rather than halt construction, the agency is cutting back on bus service.

Service cuts are expected by April 1 at the latest even as the agency continues to build two new light-rail lines. If history is a guide, opening service on these two new lines will simply put the agency's operating budget further into the red.

A December 6, 2002, memo from the agency's general manager to its board reveals that the agency is considering three alternatives, one of which would reduce bus service by 70 percent, eliminate weekend light-rail service, and cut weekday light-rail service by 10 percent.

None of the alternatives considered would halt or even slow construction of any light-rail lines. Moreover, it is clear that cuts in bus lines, which serve many low-income and minority neighborhoods, will be more severe than in light-rail service, which mainly serves white middle-class riders. This is particularly ironic considering that the percentage decline in light-rail ridership is four times greater than in bus ridership.

On top of that, Valley Transportation has proposed to sell several pieces of land that it had purchased for park-and-ride stations. It already sold one five-acre parcel to the City of San Jose for $8.5 million, which a San Jose city councilor says was necessary "to meet payroll." The city plans to build subsidized housing on these parcels.


Light rail is an obsolete technology that doesn't really work anywhere. But it is especially unsuitable in post-automobile urban areas such as San Jose, whose jobs are spread throughout the area rather than concentrated in a downtown.

San Jose made a major mistake in committing itself to such an inappropriate form of transit. It is compounding that mistake by continuing to build light rail even as congestion increases and funds run short to operate its transit services.

Part one of the San Jose case study looks at the urban-growth boundary.

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