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December 10, 2008 > BART on its way to San Jose

BART on its way to San Jose

Results of the November ballot cleared the way for a supplemental sales tax in Santa Clara County specifically aimed at supporting extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) south from Alameda County. Although passage of Measure B required a difficult two thirds majority approval, voters gave it a "thumbs up" by a slim margin and it appears that a public transportation dream of connecting BART to Santa Clara County is one step closer to reality. Tri-City Voice (TCV) spoke with local BART board representative Tom Blalock about the future plans for this connection.

TCV: What is your reaction to the recent vote to extend BART?

Blalock: I think it is wonderful and a bit of a surprise. The voters in Santa Clara County see and embrace the future of public transportation. Many voters used absentee and walk-in provisional votes to make sure their vote was counted. It may not have been simply the BART vote that motivated them, but these votes provided the margin for victory. With a two-thirds majority required for passage, the extra votes over that level represent a significant portion of the voters.

TCV: In your opinion, does passage of Measure B mean BART will definitely extend to San Jose?

Blalock: Yes. I was never worried about BART going into Santa Clara County but this approval and Federal money which Santa ClaraValley Transit Authority (VTA) says will come, solidifies citizen and business approval. BART is a good fiscal choice since there is pressure to prove viability of public transportation at the fare box.

The fare box ratio for VTA from a couple of years ago -when they were doing well - was 18 percent. This means that 82 percent of operations cost was a tax subsidy. For every new train or expense, 82 percent of it is supported by the 1/2 cent sales tax dedicated to VTA. With BART, we get 63 percent from the fare box which means that 37 percent is subsidized.

TCV: Is BART expensive relative to VTA light rail?

Blalock: BART is not cheap. The old adage, 'you get what you pay for' is really true. The favorable fare box ratio is a result of how carefully the BART board approves fare adjustments without 'breaking the bank.' I also serve on the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) board and the Capitol Corridor board and for these as well as BART, constantly remind myself that we need to be careful about necessary fare increases. Even with the high capital and maintenance cost of BART, this form of transportation is more ecologically friendly than buses. When talking about a carbon footprint, all should be on board with BART.

TCV: Why is a BART connection to San Jose so important?

Blalock: It is projected that the population of the Bay Area will increase by 1.5 million people in the foreseeable future. How are we going to accommodate these people when they need to commute back and forth to work? If we are able to transport people from other Bay Area locations to Santa Clara County at the same time help people in Santa Clara County travel in the opposite direction, system efficiency including fare box costs will be even better than today.

TCV: How will BART integrate with the existing VTA light rail system?

Blalock: The ability to transfer from BART to VTA at the Great Mall Milpitas station will remain, but there will be additional locations as well such as Montague Expressway and downtown San Jose. BART will run under Santa Clara Street and heavy rail, the future high speed rail. There will be an interface with heavy rail trains at the San Jose Diridon and Santa Clara stations. BART will terminate in Santa Clara.

TCV: Will there be a common ticket system?

Blalock: There are 27 transit agencies in the MTC district reaching to Santa Rosa. Wouldn't it be nice to have just one fare instrument to travel throughout this system. On the surface, it appeals to your senses. There is a program to work toward this end called 'Translink.' The problem is flow of money. When BART directly collects a fare, the money is instantly received. In an integrated system, those who only use BART would still buy directly from us and we would still immediately receive those funds. However, those using Translink would pay to a separate entity causing a significant delay in receipt of those funds. That is a problem.

Currently BART has a ticket called EZ Rider that preloads fares and, in the future, will be used for parking fees as well. A mirror hanger left in the car will be coded to correspond to the EZ Rider card and record parking fees paid at the gate.

TCV: Does the Santa Clara County vote encourage completion a final BART link around the bay through San Mateo County?

Blalock: Probably not. They are planning to use billions of dollars to upgrade Caltrain to electric power which means buying all new engines and hanging catenary power lines over the entire length of track. This will bring more speed to the trains similar to the speed of BART but will create more visual clutter. High speed rail will probably also use an electrified engine pulling the cars using catenary power lines. BART uses motorized 'trucks' on either end of the train giving instant start and slowdown. When the motors are reversed, they pump power into the third rail for use by the system. Regenerative breaking is nothing new to us. We are about to modify this system with new technology to recapture even more of this power.

TCV: An alternative for the proposed A's project is to build a stadium near the Warm Springs BART station. When will that station be operational? Is attendance at A's games viable support of the station?

Blalock: Locating near the future station will take much of the traffic impact off community streets. However, the economics of a BART station depends on a lot more than people who drive to it and baseball game attendance. There needs to be a mix of other uses that attracts others who will use BART to reach their destination.

Construction of a tunnel under Lake Elizabeth in Fremont should be underway in 2009. The Warm Springs BART station should open in 2014. It will be several years beyond that before BART extends into Santa Clara County. It is hard to tell when this will be done because this is up to VTA.

TCV: Will BART connect to Mineta International Airport in San Jose? Is so, from which station?

Blalock: The intention is to build a people-mover from Santa Clara Station to the airport. This area will also be the location of a supporting corporation yard.

TCV: Any new information on the Oakland Airport connector?

Blalock: We have let the previous proposals expire. A reexamination of our needs reveals a less costly solution that will serve us through emerging technology. Staff is putting together a new proposal to make use of promised dollars - federal and other funds - before they expire.

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