VTA mulls BART tunnel review, expected to approve major Kiewit, Shea, and Traylor contract

The Valley Transportation Authority board will decide Thursday evening whether to approve an independent review of its contentious BART extension design, along with awarding a major contract billed as the project’s “foundational backbone.”

If both agenda items are approved, the VTA board will be in the unusual position of simultaneously awarding a $235 million contract that moves forward with the project’s “single-bore” tunnel design, while also authorizing an outside firm to review key design elements of a project that is steadily progressing as planned.

San Jose Mayor and VTA board member Sam Liccardo along with VTA Chair Chappie Jone and board member Raul Peralez are calling for an independent review of the project. In a memo released Wednesday, the trio asked VTA to “enable an additional independent analysis to be conducted on the single- and dual-bore options, building on the independent analyses provided by outside firms and large metro transit agencies in 2017.”

The analysis, they wrote, should provide a “clear view of the trade-offs” between the two tunneling methods, including passenger safety, rider experience, cost, and construction delays.

“This memorandum does not constitute a ‘reversal,’ because the single-bore design remains the Board-reviewed proposed project,” Liccardo’s spokesperson Rachel Davis wrote in a Wednesday news release.

“Rather, the proposals reflect a continuation of the unanimous public vote of the San José City Council in December 2021 to encourage VTA to fully and publicly vet alternatives and options in project design prior to the final vote on the project,” she added.

The new memo and VTA board vote come as the six-mile, four-station BART extension through downtown San Jose faces criticism over a federal analysis that pegged the expected cost at $9.1 billion – a $2.25 billion increase over the current budget.

Meanwhile, text messages recently obtained by the Bay Area News Group reveal that Liccardo and VTA’s Takis Salpeas, who is heading the extension for VTA, sought to keep the federal cost figures from the public, saying the secrecy was necessary to save taxpayer money.

In light of the federal analysis, transit advocates and a growing number of BART board members for months have been calling on the VTA to reassess its tunnel and station designs.

Critics say VTA’s plan to mine one of the world’s largest subways with a single-bore tunnel instead of a more conventional dual-bore design could compromise long-term rider experience and potentially lead to ballooning costs. They say the deeper single-bore system would limit entrances to stations and require riders to descend a maze of escalators to get from the street to BART trains.

Supporters of the single-bore design say it would avoid chaos on Santa Clara Street by minimizing surface level disruptions, while shallower dual-bore construction would require tearing up swaths of the street. They also say switching to a dual-bore would require new environmental clearances tacking years more of delays onto the project.

This VTA rendering shows the proposed design for one of its San Jose stations. Passengers would use high-speed elevators to get from the street to train platforms, which would be 100 feet underground.

Should the board opt to conduct a new analysis of the two options, questions remain over who will oversee the review and how much impact, if any, it would have on the project’s design as Thursday’s contract lays the groundwork for the mega project’s single-bore tunnel.

Influential Bay Area organizations, including the public policy think tank SPUR, the Bay Area Council, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, are calling on the transit agency to co-lead the review with BART and the San Jose Department of Transportation.

“We don’t want to get into a position that an independent review determines something should go in another direction, but it’s already been baked in,” Rebecca Saltzman, president of the BART board said.

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