San Jose Case Study Part Two: Light Rail

by Randal O'Toole

posted 12/12/02

Like San Diego, Portland, and St. Louis, San Jose jumped on the
light-rail bandwagon in the early 1980s. It opened its first
light-rail line in 1988 and has steadily, if slowly, expanded the
system ever since. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who was
San Jose's representative in Congress when the first light-rail lines
were funded, is a big fan of light rail and promotes it in many other

Yet no reasonable person could look at San Jose's light-rail lines as
an example of sound transportation planning. Not only does San Jose
light rail contribute almost nothing to the region's transportation
needs, its ridership is pathetic even by the standard of other U.S.
light-rail lines.

San Jose light-rail construction costs have not been excessive
relative to other light-rail lines. But its low ridership means high
operating costs per rider. These high costs are a major factor in a
financial crisis that is facing San Jose's transit agency, the Santa
Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).


The Santa Clara County Transit District (now known as the Valley
Transportation Authority or VTA) took over San Jose's privately owned
bus lines in 1976. Armed with a permanent one-half cent sales tax,
the agency rapidly expanded the region's bus service and doubled bus
ridership in just three years.

From the start, the agency was also enamored with light rail and
began planning an extensive rail network. The 1983 environmental
impact statement for the first light-rail line also considered
busways, HOV lanes, and highway expansions as alternatives to light

The study showed that highways were by far the most efficient way to
handle increased transportation demand. While the cost of light rail
per new rider (that is, the cost of attracting someone out of their
car) was estimated to be around $2 per ride, the cost of new roads
diverting a car off of existing roads was estimated to be less than
10 cents per vehicle mile. Yet the road improvement alternatives were

The study also estimated that a busway would cost less to build and
attract more riders than light rail. But it also estimated that light
rail would cost less to operate than buses. "Since the (operating)
subsidies needed to supplement fares are paid out of local tax
resources," said the plan, this difference in operating costs tilted
the decision toward rail.

For the cost of constructing its first light-rail line, the transit
agency could have doubled the number of buses in its system. But then
it would have to operate those buses, which it couldn't afford to do.
Since federal and state funds were available only for capital costs,
not operating costs, it elected to spend the maximum capital funds on
projects that would pose the least operating cost. Of course, the
reason why operating costs were low was that the project served only
a tiny fraction of the region.

In short, light-rail technology was selected for reasons other than
efficiency or common sense. The effect on the transit agency's budget
probably played the biggest role in the decision to choose light rail
over roads or expanded bus service.

Environmental impact reports for later light-rail lines did not
seriously consider busway or highway improvements. They did, however,
project significantly higher costs per new rides. Where the first
line was estimated to cost around $2 per new ride, the second line,
known as the Tasman Corridor, was projected to cost more than $40 per
new ride. Capital costs of $42 million per mile, compared to less
than $30 million per mile for the initial line, played only a small
part of this cost hike. The main reasons for the increase appear to
be more realistic estimates of operating costs and ridership.

Phase one of the region's first light-rail line opened in 1988 and by
1992 it was 21 miles long. The 7.6-mile Tasman line opened in 1999
and a 1.9-mile extension opened in 2001. With funding from another
one-half cent sales tax approved in 1996, two more lines are expected
to open in 2004.

Ridership Falls Far Short of Projections

The emphasis on light rail led the agency to forego further
expansions to the bus system. As a result, transit ridership in 1987
was actually lower than in 1982.

Ridership grew over the next four years as phases 1 through 4 of the
first light-rail line were opened in succession. By 1992, when the
line was completed, ridership was 35 percent greater than before it
opened. Since riders are counted twice when they board a bus and then
transfer to rail, at least some of this increase was due to more
transfers as the agency replaced downtown buses with buses to
light-rail stations. But at least some of the increase was real.

Success was short lived, however, as ridership immediately began to
decline after 1992. Ridership fell so much in 1993 that the agency
was forced to cut bus and rail service due to revenue shortfalls.
While the number of rides began to rise again in 1996, passenger
miles of travel have remained below 1992 levels in every year through
2000 except 1998. Moreover, light-rail ridership on the first line
never exceeded half the riders projected in the original study.

In 2000, Santa Clara County voters were persuaded to fund more
light-rail lines as well as an extension of BART to San Jose.
Proponents naturally claimed that rail transit would reduce regional
congestion. In fact, transit in general, and light rail in
particular, has an insignificant effect on congestion.

When compared with other light-rail lines in the U.S., San Jose's
light-rail vehicles appear to be running almost empty. On average,
San Jose buses carry 9.2 people at any given time, which is about 86
percent of the national average. But San Jose light-rail vehicles
carry only 14.8 people at any given time, which is less than 57
percent of the national average.

Table One
Passenger Miles Per Vehicle Mile
San Jose 9.2 14.8
National 10.7 26.1
Source: 2000 National Transit Database

Another standard of comparison is the number of passenger miles
carried per route mile of track. On average, U.S. light-rail lines
carried 4,400 passenger miles per route mile per day in 2000.

By this measure, the most productive light-rail system is in Boston,
which carried 8,500 passenger miles per mile. The least productive is
-- you guessed it -- San Jose's, which at 1,750 passenger miles per
mile carried less than half the average and only about a fifth of
Boston's level.

Table Two
Daily Passenger Miles Per Route Mile
Boston 8,484
St. Louis 7,681
Los Angeles 6,977
Portland 5,937
San Diego 5,318
Salt Lake City 4,536
San Francisco 4,258
Dallas 4,023
New York 3,445
Sacramento 3,065
Baltimore 2,795
Denver 2,762
Pittsburgh 2,600
Philadelphia 2,443
Cleveland 2,196
San Jose 1,749
Source: National Transit Database 2000 (see the Rail.xls file in the
00Trnsit folder on the Vanishing Auto CD)

San Jose light rail does not compare well with other forms of
transportation either. The only rail transit that is less productive
than San Jose's LRT are the poorly located tourist trolleys in
Seattle, Memphis, and Kenosha. San Francisco cable cars and New
Orleans tourist streetcars are both more productive than San Jose
light rail. (The Hudson-Bergen light rail, which is also poorly
patronized, opened in mid-2000 so adequate data are not yet available
for comparison.)

Table Three
Daily Passenger Miles Per Route or Lane Mile
San Jose freeways 29,950
BART heavy rail 17,074
San Jose expressways 4,300
CalTrain commuter rail 3,372
San Francisco cable cars 3,283
New Orleans streetcars 2,265
San Jose light rail 1,749
Source: National Transit Database 2000 (see table two), Highway
Statistics 2000 (table HM-72), Texas Transportation Institute (for
expressway, aka "principle arterial," data).

San Jose's original light-rail line cost about $25 million per mile
in 1992 dollars (about $30 million in today's dollars). More recent
lines cost or are projected to cost about $40 million a mile. These
costs are for tracks in both directions, so must be cut in half to
get the cost per route mile.

For comparison, a lane mile of expressway costs about $2 to $3
million; a lane mile of freeway costs about $5 to $10 million. Thus a
route mile of San Jose light rail costs about one-and-a-half to four
times as much as a freeway lane mile and five to ten times as much as
an expressway lane mile. Since light rail carries far fewer
passengers than freeways and expressways, it costs 12 to 70 times as
much per passenger mile as expressways and freeways.

Light rail's poor performance is reflected in transit's tiny market
share of San Jose-area motorized transport. The Valley Transportation
Authority claims that transit has a 2.7 percent share of the market
for personal transportation, but it measures market share in terms of
trips. Because transit is slower, auto trips average nearly three
times the distance as transit trips, so in terms of passenger miles
transit has a much smaller share.

In 2000, transit carried just 1.0 percent of motorized passenger
miles of travel in the San Jose area. Light rail carried about 17
percent of transit passenger miles, so it carried 0.17 percent of
total motorized passenger miles.

High Operating Costs

Light rail's low ridership is also reflected in high operating costs.
According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), most
light-rail transit agencies spend less on operations and maintenance
on light rail than on buses, whether measured per trip or per
passenger mile. (The FTA formula leaves out significant maintenance
costs, but we'll ignore that for now.)

As shown in the table below, however, operating San Jose light rail
costs more per trip and per passenger mile than San Jose buses. The
table also shows that both bus and rail operating costs are
significantly higher than the national averages. This is simply a
reflection of low overall transit ridership in San Jose.

Table Four
Cost Per Trip and Passenger Mile
Cost/Trip Cost/PM
San Jose 3.85 4.82 1.02 1.07
National 2.19 1.89 0.59 0.45
Source: See table one.

San Jose Congestion Increasing

The Texas Transportation Institute, which has tracked urban
congestion since 1982, says the amount of time the average San Jose
commuter wastes sitting in traffic has more than tripled in the last
two decades. The Institute estimates this congestion costs commuters
a billion dollars a year, or more than $1,400 per commuter, and burns
up nearly 90 million gallons of fuel per year.

There is a good reason for the increase in congestion. Since 1982,
the number of miles driven in the San Jose urban area has increased
by more than 68 percent, but the number of road miles has increased
by only 15 percent. The miles of freeway driving have increased by 50
percent, but freeway lane miles have increased by only 18 percent.

Light rail, which carries less than 0.2 percent of passenger miles of
travel and virtually no freight, obviously does nothing to reduce
this congestion. Yet the Valley Transportation Authority wants to
devote 80 percent of the region's capital transportation funding to
mass transit, most of which will go to build new light-rail lines and
an extension of BART heavy rail to San Jose. Despite the obvious
conflict of interest, the Valley Transportation Authority not only
runs transit but does all transportation planning for Santa Clara
County, so this is the direction San Jose is heading.

Despite the agency's pretense at comprehensive transportation
planning, it does not seriously consider road alternatives. The
environmental impact report for a light-rail line currently under
construction didn't bother to consider road expansion as an
alternative because, it said, it "would not meet the goal of
providing a viable alternative to the automobile." The fact that
light rail has proven to be a non-viable alternative to the
automobile didn't dissuade the agency from building the new line.

The plan to spend 80 percent of capital funds on transit is supported
by the Metropolitan Transportation Council, which is the metropolitan
planning organization for the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose
metropolitan areas. The council admits that spending 80 percent of
its funds on transit will not boost transit's market share, which is
about 4 percent in the region as a whole.

The Valley Transportation Authority claims that its plans, if fully
funded, will increase transit's share of Santa Clara County trips
from 2.7 percent to 4.3 percent by 2020. Since auto trips are longer,
this would be an increase from 1.0 to 1.6 percent of passenger miles
of motorized travel.

Automobile travel in the San Jose urbanized area has been growing at
about 1.75 percent per year, and Valley Transportation conservatively
predicts it will continue to grow by 1.2 percent per year over the
next twenty years. This means that the congestion relief provided by
increasing transit's share from 1.0 to 1.6 percent over twenty years
would be exhausted by just four to six months growth in auto traffic.

Transit Funding Crisis

The transit agency's assumption of full funding is currently in
jeopardy. The agency's long dependence on sales taxes leaves it
highly vulnerable to recessions. The current recession has also
caused a severe drop in ridership, particularly in light rail. Bus
ridership in 2002 to date is 7 percent lower than in 2001 and
light-rail ridership has fallen by 29 percent.

As a result, the agency fears it will run out of cash by mid-2003.
Even though voters approved a new sales tax in 2000, the agency
estimates it will fall $6 billion short of its funding needs over the
next twenty years.

By an amazing coincidence, $6 billion is approximately the amount
Valley Transportation wants to spend building BART and new light-rail
lines. But rather than halt construction, the agency is cutting back
on bus service.

Service cuts are expected by April 1 at the latest even as the agency
continues to build two new light-rail lines. If history is a guide,
opening service on these two new lines will simply put the agency's
operating budget further into the red.

A December 6, 2002, memo from the agency's general manager to its
board reveals that the agency is considering three alternatives, one
of which would reduce bus service by 70 percent, eliminate weekend
light-rail service, and cut weekday light-rail service by 10 percent.
But none of the alternatives considered would halt or even slow
construction of any light-rail lines.

On top of that, Valley Transportation has proposed to sell several
pieces of land that it had purchased for park-and-ride stations. It
already sold one five-acre parcel to the City of San Jose for $8.5
million, which a San Jose city councilor says was necessary "to meet
payroll." The city plans to build subsidized housing on these parcels.


Light rail is an obsolete technology that doesn't really work
anywhere. But it is especially unsuitable in post-automobile urban
areas such as San Jose, whose jobs are spread throughout the area
rather than concentrated in a downtown.

San Jose made a major mistake in committing itself to such an
inappropriate form of transit. It is compounding that mistake by
continuing to build light rail even as congestion increases and funds
run short to operate its transit services.

Randal O'Toole The Thoreau Institute

Please feel free to forward or reprint this article with appropriate
citation. If you would like to be added to or removed from the
Thoreau Institute's urban mobility list, send an email to

You can learn more about problems with rail transit by attending
"Preserving the American Dream of Mobility and Homeownership," a
national conference that will be held in Washington, DC, on February
23-25, 2003. For more information, see

Most back issues of Vanishing Automobile updates are posted at Also see for articles and op eds and for other analyses of urban
issues. Issue number 31, which was part one of the San Jose case
study, is not yet posted; if you would like a copy, email


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site