Light rail extension — traffic relief or traffic nightmare?

Traffic congestion throughout Santa Clara County is maddening. One of our most congested county roads is Capitol Expressway, an artery that connects Evergreen and South San Jose commuters to highways 87, 101 and Interstate 280/680.

From 2013 to 2018, I served on the Valley Transit Authority (VTA) Board, the county’s transit and congestion management agency. I have always believed that we should conduct a study before we commit to making any large expenditures, so I voted to study a proposed extension of light rail that could possibly help ease the commute on Capitol Expressway. The project would extend light rail by 2.3 miles and connect light rail from Alum Rock to Eastridge Mall. This project was one of several transit improvement projects proposed in Measure A, the 30-year half-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2000.

When the 2018 study came back to the VTA Board in 2019, I was no longer on the board. The VTA Board voted to proceed with the extension of the project, despite opposition from some of the more fiscally minded board members, such as former Mountain View Mayor John McAlister. The original cost estimate was $377 million. It now stands at $599.6 million — a 60% increase.

Many articles have been written about the lack of VTA ridership and the cost to operate light rail versus buses. What we really need to ask, though, is if this project will improve traffic congestion on this well-traveled expressway or will it turn the commute into a nightmare? What the public is not aware of is that in order to construct this 2.3-mile extension, Capitol Expressway will lose one lane of traffic in each direction.

Let’s compare the number of people currently being moved on the existing two traffic lanes (that will be lost) to the projected ridership expected to use new light rail stations. According to the report conducted in 2018, the new stations are projected to have 2,980 daily passenger boardings in 2023 and 4,534 daily passenger boardings by 2043.

Light Rail only operates at a maximum of 18 hours per day and has the potential to move, at best, 4,534 passengers all day. On the other hand, according to published reports from planning experts, the theoretical maximum saturation flow rate per lane is 1,900 cars per hour. So if we only count the people moved during the eight normal commute hours of 5 am to 9 am and 3 pm to 7 pm, we can move 15,200 cars. If each car had only one passenger, we currently move approximately 10,600 more commuters over the course of eight hours than the new extension can move all day. In addition, commuter lanes are available 24 hours a day. VTA’s own traffic study admits travel time along the proposed 2.3-mile corridor extension will increase from approximately 5.53 to 8.28 minutes, turning this difficult commute into a nightmare.

What is even more puzzling is that the VTA Board in 2018 voted to abandon the Almaden Valley extension from Ohlone-Chynoweth because of cost versus ridership. The Board voted to do so because it was much cheaper and faster to run a bus route.

This politically charged extension will never exceed moving more people than the two traffic lanes it takes away. This Capitol Expressway Light Rail Project will also waste millions of tax dollars and make life miserable for the commuters living in Evergreen Valley and South San Jose. VTA must put a stop to this project and look for “solutions that will move us”.

Johnny Khamis, a former San Jose city councilman, is a District 1 candidate for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

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