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December 16, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005


Caltrain a better transit option than BART-to-San Jose Caltrain a better transit option than BART-to-San Jose (December 16, 2005)

By Margaret Okuzumi

The future of our valley's public transit is at a crossroads -- with a key decision-point looming Feb. 2. Unhappy Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) officials have been forced to admit that $5 billion in county sales taxes that will be collected starting next April won't be enough to build all transit projects voters were promised in 2000's Measure A.

Now VTA officials are haggling over a plan to go back to the voters to ask for more money -- to build just a portion of the projects promised in Measure A. Rather than throw good money after bad, the time has come for Mountain View to demand a better plan -- one that will build the rail and bus network that our region needs -- without a new tax.

The 800-pound gorilla in all of the VTA's current scenarios for Mountain View is the BART extension to San Jose from Warm Springs in Fremont. As long as BART is in the mix, there won't be enough money to go around even if voters approve an additional $2.5 billion in sales taxes to go to transportation in the next 30 years. So, VTA has been asking: What is the North County willing to give up?

Shall North County communities give up revenues for repaving roads? Or even more bus service than has already been lost? Perhaps North County would be willing to give up Caltrain electrification and other Caltrain service improvements?

It's important to realize that not only is Mountain View simultaneously being asked to pay more and to sacrifice more, it may have to give up even the few crumbs it thinks it has left -- if it accepts any sort of "compromise" plan that retains the BART extension. The BART-to-SFO extension in San Mateo County went 30 percent over budget. Today, the county's transit agency is struggling under the financial burden and has substantially reduced both bus and BART service.

Once a big hole in the ground is dug, there is no turning back. Our county could find itself in the same predicament. BART's estimated price tag has already increased by $500 million in the last few years, to $4.7 billion. Never mind the many hundreds of millions of dollars in interest.

Thankfully, we don't have to build BART in order to create quality rail service to the East Bay. We can build rail with standard-gauge tracks and off-the-shelf components to expand Caltrain's Baby Bullet-style service to the San Jose Airport, Milpitas and the East Bay.

The accompanying map shows how a new line, Caltrain Metro East, could be built in lieu of the BART project. Caltrain Metro East connects the planned Dumbarton rail line with the public right-of-way already purchased for the BART extension to San Jose. It would have a station stop next to the terminals at San Jose airport instead of requiring people to transfer to a $248 million people mover to reach the terminals (as BART would).

A short BART extension within Fremont would connect Caltrain Metro East and BART. Caltrain Metro East would create new corridors for the Altamont Commuter Express trains for service to Stockton or even Modesto and beyond. Caltrain Metro East would also connect to the popular Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains to Sacramento. The cost? About $1.5 billion -- less than a third of the cost of the BART extension.

Caltrain Metro East has the potential to get Central Valley commuters to the Silicon Valley more quickly than by car. It does this by providing faster trains and a more direct route than the BART extension would provide. Best of all, Caltrain Metro East leaves enough funds for VTA to fulfill its other transit promises to North County, as specified in previous tax measures. These include Caltrain electrification, more Caltrain service, more bus service, and more transit for seniors and the disabled.

Imagine being able to take a fast train to San Jose airport, Milpitas, Fremont or Livermore someday and enjoying top-notch bus and rail transit throughout the county. Paradoxically, this plan can become reality without a new tax . If you agree that Caltrain Metro East is a good idea, please contact Supervisor Liz Kniss, your city council members and the VTA board to express your support. On Feb. 2, they will be voting on our county's transit future. Let them know you support a plan to create rail transit that is better than BART, without a new tax.
Margaret Okuzumi is executive director of the Palo Alto-based nonprofit BayRail Alliance and serves on the VTA and MTC Citizen Advisory committees. More information on the proposal can be found at www.bayrailalliance.org.


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