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A Not-So-Fantastical Transit Plan for San Jose and Silicon Valley

Within the next decade, when Caltrain electrification and BART to downtown San Jose are completed, the three major cities of the Bay Area will be connected by fast, frequent, reliable mass transit. This core system will tremendously improve regional mobility, but its utility, especially in the sprawling South Bay, will be limited by a dearth of local transit connections, and poor access to many important destinations. Most of Silicon Valley’s major tech campuses, each one a mini-downtown unto itself, lack direct mass transit access under current plans. So does San Jose’s emerging second downtown at Santana Row, and rapidly-growing Mineta San Jose Airport. Current plans also neglect many dense, heavily transit-dependent residential neighborhoods like East Palo Alto, Sunol-Midtown and East San Jose. The Bay Area will never be a “transit first” mega-city if these destinations are not transit accessible.

This map envisions what San Jose and Silicon Valley’s transit system would look like if it did serve these key destinations. Unlike my transit maps of San Francisco and the East Bay, not all of the transit lines on this map have been formally proposed by government or advocacy groups (although a number of them, including the VTA Orange Line extension and the Dumbarton Rail Crossing, have been). This is somewhat more of a “fantasy” transit map. But it’s a fantasy rooted in reality: the reality that there isn’t any room for more cars, that lots more people want to live in the Bay Area, and that Silicon Valley continues to be the most economically significant place on earth.

This line — totally of my own imagining — would link Silicon Valley’s most important job centers with the Dumbarton Rail Corridor, Caltrain, BART, and VTA light rail. It’s the key missing piece that would give San Jose and Silicon Valley a transit system that actually goes where people need to go.

The line would begin at Facebook/Willow Station, where it would connect to the Dumbarton Rail Corridor. From there it would head south, adding a station in East Palo Alto before joining the 101 corridor, and adding stations adjacent to the major office complexes near the Embarcadero and San Antonio exits. Following the Googleplex/Shoreline Amphitheater station, the line would turn south toward Mountain View Station, providing a transfer point to Caltrain and the VTA Orange Line.

The Silicon Express would follow the Caltrain right of way to Sunnyvale Station, where it would once again turn south and make its way to Apple Park in Cupertino. Before turning on to Steven’s Creek Boulevard, the line would include a stop at the massive (and, for many Cupertinans, controversial) Vallco development. The line would include multiple stops along Stevens Creek, including one in the fast-growing Santana Row area. After a couple more stops along San Carlos Boulevard in Midtown San Jose, the line would terminate at Diridon Station, providing a wealth of transit connections.

The Silicon Express, or something like it, is an opportunity for Silicon Valley’s leading companies to put their money and their brainpower towards a project that will indisputably benefit the region and the environment, as well as themselves. It would be the antithesis of their private shuttle buses, providing a truly effective public transportation service, instead of a separate, unequal private transit network. In tandem with faster, more frequent electrified Caltrain service, the Silicon Express could make transit the quickest way to get from San Francisco to Apple or Google.

As for technology, I imagine an automated heavy rail train, running largely above ground on boulevard medians. Maybe the tech giants could come up with a cheaper, faster, and simpler way to build transit tunnels, or fabricate overhead tracks and autonomous trainsets. Whatever the technology, the line should be fully grade-separated, ensuring that it’s faster than a car plying the same route.

Samtrans, San Mateo County’s transportation authority, and a consortium of companies including Facebook are currently finalizing plans to create a modern passenger rail service paralleling the Dumbarton Bridge between Newark and Menlo Park. This corridor is, quite literally, a second transbay rail crossing. And while it’s not as game-changing as another San Francisco-Oakland tunnel, it could be a keystone for many of the region and state’s larger transportation plans.

It remains to be seen whether the Dumbarton Rail Corridor will use traditional passenger rail, light rail, or both. It’s also unclear how it will be funded, but it’s expected that Facebook and other major companies along the line will pony up big time. The line would travel right between Facebook’s existing headquarters and its planned mixed-use Willow Village campus, giving the company a major stake in this line coming to fruition.

My map envisions the Dumbarton Rail Corridor being served by ACE commuter trains and the BayLine rapid transit service I proposed in my maps of the East Bay. The BayLine, which would begin in Pinole or Richmond, would continue south along the Capitol Corridor tracks before joining the ACE tracks in Fremont and crossing the Bay. After stops at Facebook HQ/Willow — with a transfer to the proposed Silicon Express — and Fair Oaks, the line would turn south at the Caltrain tracks and terminate at Palo Alto Station. The BayLine would thus provide direct mass transit access from East Bay communities like Richmond, East Oakland, and Hayward to Stanford U and the heart of Silicon Valley.

While the BayLine provides local service along the Dumbarton Rail Corridor and access to destinations in the north East Bay, Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) trains could provide more regional service, with access to destinations in the Tri- and Central Valleys. I envision westbound ACE service splitting in Fremont, with some trains following the existing alignment to San Jose, and others joining the Dumbarton Rail Corridor. Unlike the BayLine trains, which would go south to Palo Alto, ACE trains would go north to Redwood City, and then all the way on to San Francisco.

ACE has big modernization and expansion plans, which include electrifying tracks, building new tunnels through the Altamont and Sunol passes, and extending service to Modesto and Merced. The ACE corridor could link the Bay Area and the currently under-construction segment of California High Speed Rail well before the expensive and complicated Pacheco Pass dedicated high-speed rail tracks are completed. In other words, ACE extension and electrification could make it faster to travel between San Francisco and Bakersfield — about three quarters of the way to LA — by train than car in 2030, instead of 2040. (More on this in my next post about Northern California’s mega-regional transportation network.)

The VTA Orange Line, like the rest of the VTA light rail system, is slow and funky. It currently stops just short of East San Jose, one of the most impoverished and densely populated neighborhoods in the city. The Orange Line extension would serve this highly transit dependent neighborhood, as well as the Evergreen and Fairgrounds neighborhoods. The line would primarily serve as a “feeder,” getting riders to BART and VTA Blue Line trains heading downtown. To more effectively serve that purpose, the line needs a direct connection to the nearby the Alum Rock/28th Street BART Station. This could be done by way of an AirTrain-style automated people mover, timed to the arrival of connecting BART and VTA trains.

Mineta San Jose International Airport could also use a people mover to connect to nearby transit services. As the airport carries out its expansion plans, this could solve much of the official hand-wringing about the environmental impact of its autocentric ground transportation services. The proximity of BART and electrified Caltrain service at Santa Clara Station make this transit connection tremendously useful. The automated people mover would be a straight shot from Santa Clara station, under the runways, to the main terminal, and then on to the Metro/Airport VTA stop. It could also provide a convenient connection for non-air passengers going between North San Jose and Santa Clara, or transferring to other transit lines. The airport people mover would help justify BART’s duplicative Santa Clara stop, attracting a lot more passengers to the last stop on the line.

Making this transportation network a reality will require the same kinds of political and cultural changes described in my previous post on San Francisco and the East Bay. Government officials and agencies will have to more aggressively pursue their stated climate and transportation goals, angering some constituents in the process. Residents will have to become more open-minded in terms of their own transportation habits, and more tolerant of construction.

The coronavirus obviously adds a huge variable to all transit plans. Future prospects are decidedly mixed: While many people will be wary of using transit in the near future, federal stimulus money could create new funding opportunities for major projects. Perhaps people will grow accustomed to the clean air we’ve been enjoying, and demand that government seriously pursue policies that keep it that way. Then again, people may grow accustomed to their cars, or working from home.

The central imperative behind this system, making transit more useful — that is, faster and more direct — will be an essential imperative for transit writ-large in the post-coronavirus era. In order to compete with other modes of transportation, as well as all the comforts of home, transit will need to make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable. The mass transit industry will have to think bigger than buses and light rail. Where better to start than Silicon Valley?



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