VTA ponders future of light rail in Santa Clara County

VTA is considering the future of its light rail system as it considers how to replace an aging fleet of train cars.

The transit agency’s board of directors met last week to discuss the future of its light rail fleet. According to officials, VTA should replace its fleet of cars within three to seven years. As the agency considers how to proceed, it is also looking to reduce the operating costs of the light rail system, which are high compared to other cities.

During the meeting, some board members questioned whether the agency should take a step back and look at larger structural issues with light rail, such as low VTA ridership and the fight to bring users to job centers in Silicon Valley.

“Are we riding the right horse here?” asked Mayor Sam Liccardo, who raised several cost concerns. “I think we need to ask bigger questions because marginal improvements won’t change this picture.”

The VTA light rail was closed for several months last year following a shooting in Guadalupe Rail Yard on May 26. The agency offered riders a bus bridge service until light rail is reinstated in September. VTA, which experienced a dramatic drop in passenger numbers at the start of the pandemic, is still struggling to bring passengers back.

Last year, the agency projected that expenses would exceed revenues by $6.9 million in fiscal year 2022, and that gap is expected to widen over the next decade to $47.5 million. dollars by 2031. The pandemic has contributed to the shortfall by triggering a drop in income. from the tariffs.

The highest operating costs

According to pre-pandemic data presented by VTA Senior Planner Jason Kim, VTA has the highest operating cost per revenue car hour in the nation.

VTA’s cost per revenue car hour is nearly $600. The second highest in the country is Los Angeles, which is just over $500, according to data presented by Kim.

Table courtesy of VTA.

VTA’s operating costs are the fifth highest in the country and 35% higher than the national average, he added. Per hour, it costs three times more to run a light rail than a bus; in other agencies, the ratio is closer to two to one. VTA’s costs for light rail parts and materials are the highest in the country.

Officials considered an alternative that would essentially replace the 81 miles of light trail tracks with bus routes. VTA estimated that this option would not provide a payback for about 60 years due to the high cost of replacing the tracks with concrete.

Table courtesy of VTA.

A more realistic goal is to extend the life of railcars by operating a higher percentage of single-car trains and shortening service periods, which Kim says will reduce wear and tear.

Managing Director and CEO Carolyn Gonot said the agency has created a parts and materials task force to look at how to reduce those expenses. She noted that VTA was exploring emerging technologies that could reduce other costs, but that this is a longer-term solution.

“There’s no newer technology right now that could work system-wide,” Gonot said.

Planning the future of light rail

Glenn Hendricks, Sunnyvale council member and VTA board member, urged officials to stay in communication with cities served by light rail before considering any changes that might affect public transit. He noted that Sunnyvale plans to put 20,000 homes in the Moffett Park area, in part because the light rail is nearby.

“I would hate to be in a place where Sunnyvale has a lot of housing near light rail and then all of a sudden the light rail service isn’t what we thought it was going to be,” he said. .

To some extent, the future of light rail will be determined by other transit infrastructure projects, such as BART expansion and Caltrain electrification. Connecting light rail to these projects could theoretically make it more attractive to riders, Gonot said. Milpitas Vice Mayor and VTA Board Member Carmen Montano argued that accelerating light rail is the most critical factor in attracting new riders.

“People’s time is important, and people don’t want to waste their time on the road,” Montano said.

Gonot pointed out that VTA has one of the highest average speeds for its cars, although it acknowledged that it felt sluggish in the city center. The agency wants to analyze how to improve speed in key segments of the light rail system, such as downtown San Jose and the tracks serving the area south of the Milpitas BART connection.

Liccardo said he was unhappy with the direction of the agency. He noted that VTA faces longer-term issues that need to be discussed at the earliest, such as integrating autonomous technology without displacing workers.

“I’m afraid we’re focusing on the small issues right now,” Liccardo said.

Monica Mallon, public transit advocate and San Jose Spotlight columnist, said the VTA board has been split on the future of light rail for years. She noted that Liccardo, who is skeptical of light rail, will be replaced by a new mayor later this year, which could have a significant impact on future discussions.

“If there’s a mayor in San Jose who’s really for light rail, that’s going to change things,” Mallon said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] Where @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

Jose P. Rogers