On May 26, the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority suspended its light rail service after an employee killed nine of his colleagues and then committed suicide in a Valley Transit Authority facility. More than two months after the tragedy, Valley Transit Authority has not restored rail service and, as of this writing, it has not provided a firm restoration date. The fact that San Jose and neighboring communities are surviving a three-month suspension of the authority’s light rail service raises questions of whether the light rail system could be replaced by less costly modes of transit, like buses, and how passenger interests factor into the Valley Transit Authority’s decisions.
COVID-19 decimated Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority’s (VTA’s) light rail ridership in 2020, just as it did to mass transit systems across the country. But Santa Clara’s light-rail system was struggling long before the pandemic and mass shooting. Back in 2007, mass transit expert Tom Rubin gave a presentation asking, “Is Valley Transit the Worst Transit Agency in the U.S.”?
In the presentation, Rubin argued that VTA’s approach is poorly tailored to the transit needs of the Santa Clara Valley. The San Jose central business district is not a major transportation destination, so travel in the region is a case of “everyone going from everywhere to everywhere.” Under these conditions, it is best to offer mass transit solutions that are flexible and have low capital costs. Until a few years ago, these solutions would have been buses and vanpools, with app-based ridesharing becoming an additional option more recently.
Even back in the 2000s, the Valley Transit Authority’s light rail ridership and farebox recovery ratios lagged almost every other transit agency in the country. According to Rubin’s presentation, fares covered 12.2% of operating expenses in 2005. VTA’s latest financial audit showed a farebox recovery ratio of only 9.1% in the 2019 fiscal year, with a further decline amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This farebox recovery number is less than half the average agency light rail farebox recovery rate of 22.2%.
The Valley Transit Authority reports farebox recovery ratios across all modes, but federal data shows that light rail is pushing down the systemwide average. According to 2019 data from the National Transit Database, bus fares accounted for 10.1% of bus operating expenses, while light rail fares covered only 6.9% of operating expenses. Even this low ratio overstates the contribution of fares to the costs of running VTA light rail because capital costs are excluded.
The Valley Transit Authority’s average weekday light rail ridership peaked at 35,000 riders in 2014 and declined to 27,000 in 2019. Before the shooting, VTA management projected that fiscal year 2021 ridership would be about 29% of fiscal year 2019 levels due to the pandemic. Now that the region’s passengers have had months to find and become accustomed to alternatives to the service, when it resumes light-rail usage is likely to be much lower than even this modest projection.
In regions with centralized business districts, such as New York City, rail can be a superior alternative to buses because of its greater capacity and higher speeds due to a dedicated right of way (New York City subways carried 5.5 million riders on an average weekday in 2019). But with such low ridership, buses could easily accommodate passengers along VTA’s three light rail lines. With respect to speed, VTA light rail vehicles operate no faster than 55 miles per hour (and much slower along most of the right-of-way), which is well within the capacity of modern city buses, some of which can reach 65 miles per hour.
An Alternative to Light Rail
Given its relatively low expected ridership and average speeds, VTA light rail service could be replaced by electric buses. Further, because most of the light rail VTA is dedicated—not shared with cars or other vehicles—it should be relatively easy to use driverless buses.
Electric driverless bus technology is now being pioneered by Volvo and by Beep, an Orlando-based technology startup. Beep vehicles operate in several Florida cities and were being tested in Peoria, Arizona, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With their reduced labor costs, driverless buses offer an affordable way to greatly boost frequencies.
There are some short-term hurdles to electric, driverless buses. Many electric buses have limited range, and need to be recharged in the middle of the day. And while the technology for driverless buses will likely be available in the next 10 years, opposition from unions may slow the transition. But make no mistake this is the direction transit is headed.
The Valley Transit Authority’s Capital Program Committee was considering the possibility of supplementing or replacing light rail trains with rubber tire buses before the mass shooting. This would involve paving the right of way, but the pavement could co-exist with the light rail tracks if VTA chose mixed mode service.
The Valley Transit Authority’s Situation Illustrates the Risks of Low Farebox Recovery
At a time when many mass transit experts are advocating for fare-free buses and trains, financial concerns about the Valley Transit Authority’s low farebox recovery ratios may seem quaint. But the indefinite suspension of VTA light-rail service illustrates the danger of demoting operating revenue as a transit agency objective.
With fares supplying so little revenue, and abundant stimulus and financial aid available from the federal government over the past two years, VTA’s financial incentives to restore light rail service may be limited.
Parallel bus service has now been restarted along with one of VTA’s three lines, but if the authority truly thought of its light rail passengers as customers, it would not have canceled substitute bus service within a few days of initiating it. Similarly, if VTA was prioritizing its customers and viewed itself as a vital part of the region’s infrastructure, it would have provided a firm service restoration date and accelerated the resumption of light-rail service.
The Santa Clary Valley Transit Authority, its workers and their families, and the Bay Area suffered a terrible tragedy in May. Now, however, rather than doing everything it can to restore service for its riders, VTA is making it seem as though its customers’ interests do not factor into the authority’s decision-making. The Valley Transit Authority is acting as if its customers are afterthoughts or props needed to help VTA generate the local sales taxes and federal subsidies that largely fund its salaries, pensions, benefits, and contractors.