Despite the fact that cars—personal autonomous vehicles—are becoming more versatile, more diverse, and more sustainable every year, and although virtually every technology expert and social prognosticator has known this for decades, American taxpayers nonetheless have poured countless billions of dollars into urban “light rail” schemes rather than improving roads. Metropolitan passenger rail does make sense in some of America’s most densely populated cities—New York City and Boston are examples—but in suburban California, they have never worked and never will.
A prime example of this folly is none other than Silicon Valley, where despite the presence of innovators who have already put onto the road electric vehicles that can go from zero to 60 in under three seconds and drive themselves, and are about to put into the air passenger drones that will leapfrog surface transportation, billions have been squandered on light rail that hardly anyone uses.
Every weekday in Santa Clara County, more than 700,000 commuters drive to work. Before the pandemic struck, in 2019, an additional 27,000 used light rail for this commute. Post-pandemic, it is unlikely ridership on light rail will ever recover to 2019 levels. Commuting by car, for that matter, may have peaked, since one bright spot in the challenges of the past year is that work-at-home technologies finally have come of age.
So why did transportation planners ever decide to invest billions in a light rail system that never took more than 4 percent of cars off the road?
Part of the reason is the power of public-sector unions. Widening freeways doesn’t create thousands of permanent jobs. In 2019, according to data provided to the California state controller, the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) employed 2,300 full- and part-time workers, more than 80 percent of them full-time. The total pay and benefits cost taxpayers $298 million, and the average full-time pay and benefits package was $142,000 per year.
It’s fine that unions look out for the pay and benefits of their members, but it’s not OK when public sector workers use their political power to influence the elections of their bosses or negotiate wages and benefits knowing they aren’t negotiating with a business that has to manage costs to make a profit and survive.
Worse, it’s not OK when they use their political power to create and perpetuate a publicly funded institution—in this case light rail in Santa Clara County—that has never even made a dent in reducing traffic congestion.
The mass shooting in late May at a Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority hub has laid bare the failures of a union-led, rent-seeking government agency for anyone willing to look honestly at the problem. While it is understandable and appropriate to focus on the victims of this horrible crime, at some point it will be necessary to examine and, one hopes, ameliorate the dysfunctional institutional environment in which this massacre occurred.
The shooter, who worked for the VTA, was known to have personality issues and to harbor hostility for his fellow workers. We do not know whether any disciplinary action was taken against him, but we do know that as a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 256, he was protected by a labor agreement that erected high barriers to termination.
For example, the agreement states, “Adverse notations on the employee’s record more than [1-3 years depending on type] shall not be admitted into evidence or considered to support the charges at any level in the grievance and arbitration procedures.” So even if the shooter had a demonstrable track record of conflict with other employees over a number of years, only the most recent instances could be considered in any disciplinary proceeding. We recently learned that he had five incidents that came to the attention of VTA human resources since 2019 and have to wonder whether he had previous infractions.
A Nonessential Service?
In the aftermath of the shooting, VTA announced an indefinite suspension of its light rail service. It temporarily offered and then canceled substitute bus service, leaving riders to find other options. This would appear either to be a very painful suspension of an essential service or a sign that the service is not really essential.
On May 31, five days after the shooting, interim VTA General Manager Evelynn Tran wrote:
I have directed staff to make our people our first priority. We will marshal all the resources we can to assist our people through this. It will mean providing less service to the community than we would wish. But healing our organization must be our first priority.
The San Jose Spotlight reported that VTA was providing all employees—regardless of whether they were on-site during the shooting or were friends of the deceased—between 40 and 60 hours of paid bereavement leave. The Mercury News reported that light-rail service will remain unavailable for weeks or possibly months.
Disasters have befallen other major transportation providers in the past, but they generally restored service quickly. Consider 9/11, for example. The New York subway system was shut down for less than three hours, while service in the most heavily impacted lower Manhattan area was largely restored over a period of weeks. Civilian air traffic was restored two days after the event, which was the worst attack on the American homeland since Pearl Harbor.
Worst in America
But VTA was struggling long before COVID-19, and before a disgruntled employee massacred his coworkers. In 2007, transit expert Tom Rubin gave a presentation on the question of whether “Valley Transit is the worst Transit Agency in the U.S.”
In the presentation, Rubin argued that VTA’s strategy is poorly tailored to the transit needs of the Santa Clara Valley. Because the San Jose Central Business District is not a major transportation destination, travel in the region is a case of “everyone going from everywhere to everywhere.” Under these conditions, it is best to offer transit solutions that are flexible and have low capital costs. Until a few years ago, these solutions would have been vans and buses, with app-based ridesharing becoming an additional option more recently.
Although VTA could not be expected to predict the rise of Uber, it can be blamed for choosing to invest in light rail rather than focusing on its bus system. And, worse, when light rail produced disappointing results, VTA made the problem worse by paying for an expensive BART extension through downtown San Jose.
Even back in the early 2000s, VTA light rail had dismal ridership and farebox recovery ratios compared to other transit agencies. According to Rubin’s presentation, fares covered 12.2 percent of operating expenses in 2005. VTA’s latest financial audit showed a farebox recovery ratio of only 9.1 percent in fiscal year 2019 with a further decline amidst the pandemic.
Average weekday light rail ridership peaked at 35,000 riders in 2014 and declined to just 27,000 in 2019. Recently, VTA management projected (at page 323) that fiscal year 2021 ridership would be about 29 percent of fiscal year 2019 levels. Actual results are likely to be much worse due to the absence of service in June.
An extended absence of service will oblige regular riders to find alternatives, which they may continue to use once service resumes. As a result, VTA’s projection of 2023 ridership reaching 91 percent of 2019 levels seems implausible.
Under the circumstances, VTA’s best option would be to eliminate most or all light rail service, replacing it with buses, vans, and (for economically disadvantaged passengers) rideshare vouchers. The authority may need a waiver from a federal requirement that capital grants be reimbursed if services built with federal funds are shut down.
Amid Crisis, An Opportunity
In the wake of two tragedies—the pandemic that changed forever how people will view congregating in confined spaces such as light rail passenger cars, and the localized but horrible shooting that shut down VTA until further notice—it is time to rethink the entire concept of light rail. It has never lived up to its promise for public transportation. VTA, ideally with the support of their union, must look to new innovations in ridesharing combined with time-tested solutions like buses and taxis.
Probably because it has the best weather on earth and some of the best scenery, innovation survives in California in spite of a government that is doing everything it can to destroy it. To the extent municipal transit agencies may still have a role, if they must survive, they can deploy buses.
Instead of clinging to “light rail” as a transportation solution, Californians need to widen their roads, develop smart “hyperlanes” where autonomous EVs can convoy at high speeds, and work with the FAA to allocate aerial corridors for passenger drones. These solutions, all of them incorporating shared cars along with privately owned personal conveyances, can solve the transportation challenges of the future.