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Silicon Valley, Where Mass Transit Goes to Die

By Stephen Smith
February 12, 2013 6:29 PM EST
Illustration by Aaron Anderson
Illustration by Aaron Anderson

California’s Silicon Valley has always posed a certain challenge to urbanists. In their view, cities are critical for commerce and innovation.

For a while, the sprawling office parks in the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco seemed to put a lie to that idea. If city living was in, then why did a 20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg leave the walkable streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to start his company down the street from the Los Altos Golf and Country Club?

That was then. Silicon Valley’s engineers already flee the suburbs at night, riding company shuttles and the Caltrain commuter rail system from the office parks home to hip neighborhoods in San Francisco. And the newer social-media darlings -- Twitter Inc., Instagram Inc., Pinterest Inc. -- are moving their offices to downtown San Francisco, cutting out the Valley entirely. Zuckerberg said that if he could do it over again, he would have stayed in Boston.

Silicon Valley could have followed in the path of northern Virginia, which sprouted apartment buildings and office towers along its Washington Metro lines and now attracts many young people seeking urban living.

But the Valley, the golden hub of American invention and home to the best engineers in the world, has nothing like the Metro.

Freeway Locations

The main job centers have access only to Caltrain, with little capacity left to spur the new, transit-oriented development that young engineers and software designers demand. Google Inc. is in Mountain View, and Facebook Inc. recently moved to Menlo Park, but neither company’s campus is anywhere near its town’s commuter-rail station. The rich, large technology companies instead buy cheaper property along the freeways.

Yet transit in Silicon Valley doesn’t suffer from want of regional funding. From the Bay Area Rapid Transit, the first big post-World War II subway project in the U.S., in the 1960s, to the half-dozen projects under construction across the region today, Bay area leaders have had no trouble wrangling money from local taxpayers and the federal government for trains.

Spending money, though, is a lot easier than building transit. All too often, flashy and expensive commuter projects are financed while more practical ideas for maximizing the existing infrastructure are neglected and delayed.

With stations in every major town in Silicon Valley, Caltrain, which runs 79 miles from San Francisco to San Jose and beyond, would seem to be well-positioned to form the transit backbone of America’s technology hub.

Instead, the line offers only hourly service off-peak, and rush-hour service is packed. Its tracks are not electrified, and its San Francisco terminal is slightly more than a mile short of the financial district, which has the region’s largest concentration of jobs and a network of transit connections.

Bringing the service downtown has been under consideration since the state began subsidizing it in 1980, but Caltrain is the ugly stepchild of Bay area transit, and the project has never been funded.

Many other projects in Silicon Valley, though, have been.

The first new project was the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s light-rail system. The system runs from highway-choked downtown San Jose through the suburban office parks of the Santa Clara Valley. You’re more likely to find parking lots than houses and jobs next to stations, and the authority has added to the expanse of asphalt with a few surface lots of its own, which remain 80 percent empty. The San Jose Mercury News published an article on its 25th anniversary calling it “among the nation’s worst” light-rail lines.

Poor Performance

Despite this record, the network expanded many times, paid for by dedicated sales taxes and the federal government. Another extension is planned at a cost of $310 million.

Kevin Connolly, the authority’s transportation planning manager, told the Mercury News that the poor performance is due to the decision to route the line along undeveloped land and to try to “graft a big-city transit type of mode onto a suburban environment.”

Strange, then, that his agency is taking on yet another “big-city transit type”: the BART extension from the East Bay city of Fremont through Santa Clara County, the home of Silicon Valley. The original $6.1 billion plan was to build a subway through downtown San Jose, the county seat, but it was scaled back to a $2.1 billion, two-stop elevated extension.

The project’s champion is the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the high-technology trade association that has been instrumental in gaining support for sales-tax measures to fund transportation projects.

Its leader, Carl Guardino, said in an interview that his group has also advocated for Caltrain, and that he hoped to see a ballot measure pass in 2016 to give the system a permanent revenue source. He also said there is no conflict between building new systems throughout Silicon Valley and maintaining Caltrain.

In explaining why the group chose to push the lengthy Silicon Valley extension before Caltrain’s short downtown extension -- both of which are vying to become the first direct link between San Jose to downtown San Francisco -- he cited the high predicted ridership of the BART extension.

The 16.1-mile BART subway extension, he said, is expected to carry 98,000 daily passenger trips by 2030. “For context,” he said, “that’s twice what the popular Caltrain commuter system carries on its entire 79-mile line.”

Will those riders materialize? Matt Williams, a former director of the East Bay’s AC Transit, doubts they will. “The last big extension was to the San Francisco airport,” he said in an interview, “and the ridership estimate for that extension hasn’t panned out.”

Ridership Disappoints

Richard Mlynarik, a retired Bay area transit activist, also doubts that the new suburban San Jose stations can become as popular by 2030 as the BART stations in the dense neighborhoods of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are today, as the projections indicate.

Guardino says this is an unfair comparison, and doesn’t take into account the development planned for these suburban locations. He pointed to the Silicon Valley town of Milpitas, which has a project under way for housing, retail stores, hotels and offices around its BART station. (The town’s planning director complained in 2010 that the station plan was a “sea of asphalt,” with too much land dedicated to parking.)

San Jose’s new light rail and BART extension are hardly the only projects planned near, but not for, the Caltrain corridor.

There’s also the Central Subway, promoted by a San Francisco power broker, Rose Pak. The subway will connect Caltrain’s northern terminal south of downtown to Chinatown, and it somehow managed to win state money earmarked for high-speed rail on the basis that it will enable “connectivity.”

Never mind that the Central Subway’s connective benefits are weak to begin with, given that it will require a transfer and won’t reach the Financial District or provide easy access to either of the city’s two subways. And any connective advantages will largely evaporate once the high-speed-rail line reaches its final terminal.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both San Franciscans, supported the project in Washington, with Pelosi even winning an exemption from the Federal Transit Administration’s cost-effectiveness standards. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown now advises AECOM Technology Corp., the engineering company set to manage the Central Subway construction.

For decades, the Bay area has thrown federal, state and local money at new commuter-transit projects, while the share of Silicon Valley residents who use mass transportation has barely budged. Building transit is a worthy goal, but if Silicon Valley residents and businesses want to get their money’s worth and promote good urban-planning practices, they can start by investing in the infrastructure they already have.

(Stephen Smith is a writer based in New York who covers real estate, land use and mass transportation. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Smith at smithsj@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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