Light Rail Planning Gone Bad: Lessons from Santa Clara County

After 25 years, Santa Clara's light rail has failed to live up to its promise, proving to be “among the least successful in the nation” reports Mike Rosenberg, while “serving as a constant reminder that the car is still king in Silicon Valley."

Despite expanding out over a stretch of 42.2 miles, with 62 stations, and serving 32,000 one-way commuters, Silicon Valley's VTA system is still considered to be one of the most costly, slow, inefficient and under-utilized in the nation, writes Rosenberg. It cost $2 billion to build and costs $66 million a year to operate. Each vehicle costs 30 percent more than the national average to operate and carries 30 percent fewer passengers. And the system is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, at the second worst rate in the nation. Critics see it as an innately flawed failure, yet advocates point to decreased freeway traffic while remaining optimistic that usage will increase in years to come.

VTA transportation manager Kevin Connolly contrasts its failures with San Francisco's successes, “[i]n our case we tried to graft a big-city transit type of mode onto a suburban environment, and it's still kind of a work in progress." Routes were planned along onion fields, rather than along existing, dense corridors, and “the density never materialized in Silicon Valley,” notes Rosenberg.

Those who remain optimistic acknowledge there is much improvement to be made. "In general, we can't lose sight of the fact that we have to do the basics better," says Connolly. "We have to be faster, we have to connect with better destinations." Proposals in the pipeline include adding more tracks for express trains, as well as reductions in service costs, which could lead to more funding.

Full Story: 25 years later, VTA light rail among the nation's worst

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