The Mercury News

Rider data clouding the future for transit

VTA rejects federal forecast of 40% fewer people riding through San Jose

- By Eliyahu Kamisher ekamisher@bayareanew­

One of the country's largest infrastruc­ture projects, bringing BART trains zooming through downtown San Jose, is inching closer to reality. But the number of people who will actually ride the extension — and its future as a linchpin for regional travel — is increasing­ly murky.

A newly released ridership forecast estimates a 40% nosedive in passengers from local transit planners' previous projection­s for BART's South Bay extension. Instead of 54,600 riders boarding trains daily on their way to buzzing office towers and San Jose State University in 2040, a new federal forecast estimates 32,900 boardings.

It's a gut punch for the long-awaited BART extension, which could set up a showdown over funding South Bay bus and BART services if the Santa Clara Valley Transporta­tion Authority, which is building the project, is not able to find a new taxpayer subsidy in the coming years to keep the BART extension running. And this latest ridership forecast may still be too optimistic, some experts say, because it used 2019 data that leaves out the pandemic's crushing impact on BART ridership.

“I'd be horrified if they're doing big extensions based on pre-pandemic plans. That's totally unrealisti­c and could maybe set up a far-worse crisis,” said Nick Bloom, a Stanford economist and leading expert on remote work trends. “We're seeing very large permanent drops (in ridership).”

But it also leaves out a major factor that could significan­tly boost passenger traffic: plans for a massive Google campus and housing developmen­t with a BART station at its center.

The plummeting projection­s underscore the shaky grasp the VTA and the federal government have on transit ridership.

In a statement, the VTA defended its original decade-old forecast as “reasonable, reliable, and defensible.” That forecast, which is based partly on 2009 land-use data, also predates Google's plans for downtown that, if built, should counteract some of BART's more recent ridership woes.

Bernice Alaniz, a VTA spokespers­on, said the latest estimate, projecting 40% fewer riders, is “not an apples-to-apples comparison” to the agency's higher projection­s. Unlike the VTA's previous model, the federally developed formula is meant to compare transit ridership across the country and leaves out some local demand factors, such as the possibilit­y of San Jose State University students using the BART extension at higher rates.

Even so, based in part on its projection, the Biden administra­tion is proposing a $500 million award to the VTA, one of the biggest single federal infrastruc­ture grants in history. In a statement, the Federal Transit Administra­tion said it tied megaprojec­ts to 2019 data because commute patterns in 2020 and 2021 were too unstable, and “more stable ridership patterns did not occur until halfway through 2022,” which was too late for the $4.45 billion grantaward­ing process.

Gazing into the crystal ball to predict transit ridership years away is a notoriousl­y tricky process. There are complicate­d demand models with data points ranging from commute patterns and population growth to the number of carpool lanes.

The accuracy of transit ridership projection­s has improved over the past decade, though Bay Area agencies also have a long history of rosy prediction­s that fall far short. BART's Oakland Airport connector was supposed to turn a profit but is now costing the agency millions of dollars, and more recently San Francisco's Central Subway and BART's Berryessa and Milpitas stations, which opened in 2020, carry far fewer riders than expected.

Now the shift to remote work brought on by the pandemic has thrown a new curveball into the process. Transit agencies that once hoped the pandemic-induced ridership crash was a blip in their long-term plans are coming to terms with a permanent downturn.

At BART's annual board workshop, Mark Foley, a BART director from Contra Costa County, said the agency should accept that ridership is stagnating. The agency still has one of the nation's worst ridership collapses with passenger counts down over 60% compared with 2019 levels. “I don't know that projecting an increase in ridership does us a good service,” Foley said.

BART's ridership future will have a magnified impact in the South Bay due to a series of decisions starting with the origins of BART in 1965.

Santa Clara County did not join the transit district when it was formed. Decades later, as South Bay residents clamored for a new extension, the VTA struck a deal with BART to shoulder all costs to build the rail line and keep it running. In 2023, the VTA is expected to pay BART $33 million for operating the initial two stations that opened in Berryessa and Milpitas in 2020. That number will grow to an estimated $77 million when four additional stations open in 2033.

If revenue falls short and costs balloon, the VTA may have to dig into its coffers to feed the BART system — and that could require the agency to cut bus and light rail service or possibly highway projects. The federal government alluded to the scenario in a recent update that said the VTA's fare revenue projection for BART is “very optimistic.”

Monica Mallon, a leading South Bay transit advocate, said she hopes Santa Clara County taxpayers will renew the 2008 tax measure that currently funds BART operations in 2036 before the measure expires in 2042. That 1/8-cent sales tax will help cover a large chunk of BART costs but is expected to fall short in the coming years.

Mallon said a worst-case scenario could pit South Bay cities against BART service.

“There's no way that people from Palo Alto and Cupertino and Los Gatos and Campbell are going to sacrifice their own service and the needs of their own residents for BART,” said Mallon. “I think the bigger risk is that we won't be able to pay BART to run the kind of service that we want to have.”

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