Is San Jose Destined to Be a Train Wreck for California Transportation?

The Bay Area City Could Be the State’s Rail Capital. But Plans Are Veering Off Track

San Jose’s Diridon Station is facing a critical junction. If the Bay Area city wants to be turned into the California’s rail capital, the state must “step in, take charge, and remove regulatory barriers,” Joe Mathews argues. Courtesy of wctaiwan/Wikimedia Commons.

Can Californians find their way to San Jose?

That spin on the old song, made famous by Dionne Warwick, might be the most important question facing the state’s transportation system. Because plans to bring trains and transit into the 21st century depend on transforming the Bay Area city of 1 million people into our state’s rail capital.

But, in dysfunctional California, can all these plans stay on track?

Transportation expectations for San Jose are a function of the economy—it’s the capital of Silicon Valley—and of geography. San Jose sits about halfway between California’s northern and southern borders. On the sound side of our richest region, the Bay Area, it boasts longstanding rail links to the Central Valley and the Central Coast.

Diridon Station serves as a major hub for Caltrain, Amtrak, BART, and San Jose’s VTA light rail system. Courtesy of Jim Maurer/Flickr.

It’s also home to Diridon Station, a Renaissance Revival rail hub where California’s transportation past, present, and future converge.

Most transportation dreams in the state now include Diridon. The high-speed rail plan envisions Diridon as perhaps its most crucial junction, where regional rail lines to San Francisco meet bullet trains going down to Fresno, Bakersfield, and one day, Los Angeles. Diridon is already the western terminus of the ACE train, which provides rail service to Stockton and is slated for expansion throughout the Central Valley.

Diridon is also a regional connector. It’s a major hub for Caltrain service that extends from San Francisco down the peninsula to Gilroy. It’s the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor service to Sacramento. It’s a key stop on San Jose’s own VTA light rail system. And it’s a destination of the decades-long, multi-billion-dollar effort to bring Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to downtown San Jose.

Add on Google’s massive development plan for the area around Diridon—a downtown village of parks, thousands of housing units, millions of square feet of office space, and a community center—and the ambitions for the place are heavy.

One problem is that San Jose, and California transportation agencies, don’t seem able to carry the weight. With so many different interests and constituencies hanging hopes on Diridon, multiple failures of governance are converging there, too.

The state should establish a single governing authority to take over the San Jose transportation hub, and require high-speed rail and local agencies to defer to its decisions.

The high-speed rail plan is such a mess of delays, consultants, and overspending that state officials are focused only on a small segment of the project: Bakersfield to Merced. The most optimistic plans have high-speed rail reaching San Jose in 2031. It’s a better bet that the whole project will be mothballed by then.

There are reasons to worry about regional lines, too. Plans are proceeding for extension of the ACE trains into Sacramento and beyond Stockton into Modesto and Merced. But the BART extension to downtown San Jose keeps getting more time-consuming and expensive.

Originally approved by voters way back in 2000, this six-mile, four-station project is shaping up to be one of California’s largest and most difficult infrastructure efforts. Its main problem is local officials’ insistence using an expensive and less proven method to build one of the largest subway tunnels in the United States. What once was described as a $4 billion project to be completed by 2026, is now a $9 billion-plus project that won’t be finished until 2034.

Train platform at Diridon Station, which is at the center of a debate around integrating the Bay Area’s—and California’s—rail networks. Courtesy of Niall Kennedy/Flickr.

The debate over the troubled BART extension has become divisive, distracting San Jose from what should be a focus: integrating transit at Diridon. Various agencies involved in planning—from Caltrain, to the high-speed rail authority, to the city of San Jose—don’t seem to be on the same page in terms of how to remake the station to improve links. And beyond Google’s plan, there’s no clear vision for making Diridon and its surroundings a true destination. The station will need to be a beautiful and distinctive place in itself in order to help draw Californians there.

More disconcerting than the planning troubles is the current state of transportation in San Jose. Newer BART stations in San Jose are ghost towns, left empty because of pandemic shifts to remote work.

And San Jose’s light rail, which was shut down for months last year after a mass shooting, has been called “a colossally bad system” by the city’s own mayor, who has smartly suggested replacing it with electric buses.

When I rode the different VTA lines over the course of a recent weekday, the few passengers I saw appeared to be unhoused people living on the train. At several points, I was the only passenger on board. That made sense. The trains are so slow, and make so many stops, that driving is more than twice as fast as riding.

If it’s going to happen, the transformation of San Jose into a transportation capital can’t be that sluggish. All Californians have a stake in San Jose connecting us, especially by rail.

The state needs to step in, take charge, and remove regulatory barriers. The remaking of Diridon Station should get the same exemptions from environmental and other laws that the state granted to new sports stadiums. The state should establish a single governing authority to take over the San Jose transportation hub, and require high-speed rail and local agencies to defer to its decisions.

Timelines must be accelerated and plans simplified so that a new Diridon, with all connections humming, is in place before the end of this decade.

Let’s clear out the obstacles blocking our way to San Jose.


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