Mountain View Voice

Opinion - April 9, 2010

Mass transit's uncertain future

Two things happened last week that got us thinking about the future of mass transit on the Peninsula.

First, Caltrain announced that within a year it will have to drastically reduce service due to a continuing budget crisis. Second, a company called Unimodal, based at Moffett Field, gave the Voice a look at its futuristic people-movers: automated pods which glide over an electrified network, and which the company wants to bring to Mountain View.

Unimodal's system, dubbed "SkyTran," would not replace the aging heavy rail commuter trains operated by Caltrain. But it does seem to offer a viable solution to moving people from a mainline terminal to various destinations, and at a relatively low cost. Unimodal said it can build its system for $10 million a mile, compared to the $100 million-a-mile cost of installing light rail.

Better yet, the company says, whatever city agrees to allow the first-ever SkyTran system will get it for free, as investors allegedly are eager to launch a network to demonstrate its abilities. Assuming this is true, Mountain View seems like the perfect location for such a test, given its layout, its high ratio of workers, and the fact that the City Council already has approved the general concept of a so-called personal rapid transit, or PRT, system.

For years the city has been searching for a better way to get people from the downtown transit center — site of Caltrain's busy Mountain View station — to the Shoreline area, where thousands of people come and go, at all hours, due the high-tech businesses there.

The answer could be Unimodal, which envisions a network from Moffett to Shoreline to downtown Mountain View, possibly continuing on to the San Jose Airport, with several smaller branches where commuters can hop into a waiting pod. But even at its current cost per mile, a proposed 8.5-mile route would be $130 million, money the city obviously does not have.

So the question becomes: Will investors really cover that amount, and if so, will the system be worth it?

For better or worse, Caltrain's fate is not moot to this discussion. Many thousands of commuters arrive on its trains every day, coming from San Francisco, San Jose or points between to the downtown station, where they grab a shuttle for Google or some other high-tech employer.

Caltrain's proposed cuts would have a huge impact on people who rely on its current flexibility, such as it is, to get to or from work throughout the day, not to mention baseball games or other activities. But unless Caltrain finds $30 million somewhere, all weekend lines could be eliminated by 2011, and the system would sit idle every midday and late evening during the week.

That means more of today's Caltrain commuters will be forced to take their cars instead — bypassing any fancy new transit system entirely as they clog Shoreline Boulevard on their way to work.

For these and other reasons, we sincerely hope Caltrain will not have to wipe out the many crucial services now on its chopping block. To avoid that fate, Mountain View and other cities served by Caltrain should do everything they can to keep it running on its current schedule, seven days a week.

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