Can San Jose become California’s railroad capital or is it doomed to crash?

Diridon Station in San Jose faces a critical juncture. If the Bay Area city is to become California’s railroad capital, the state “must step in, take responsibility and remove regulatory barriers,” argues Joe Mathews. Courtesy of wctaiwan/Wikimedia Commons.

Can Californians find their way to San Jose?

This twist on the old song made famous by Dionne Warwick may be the most important issue 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 railroad capital.

But can all of these plans stay the course in dysfunctional California?

Traffic expectations for San Jose are a function of the economy — it’s the capital of Silicon Valley — and geography. San Jose is about halfway between California’s northern and southern borders. On the sane side of our wealthiest region, the Bay Area, it has long-standing rail links to the Central Valley and Central Coast.

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

It’s also home to Diridon Station, a Renaissance-style railroad hub where California’s past, present and future converge.

Most transport dreams in the state now include diridon. The high-speed rail plan envisages Diridon as perhaps the most important hub where regional rail lines to San Francisco meet high-speed trains going to Fresno, Bakersfield, and eventually Los Angeles. Diridon is already the western terminus of the ACE train, which serves Stockton and is planned to be expanded throughout the Central Valley.

Diridon is also a regional connector. It is a major hub for the Caltrain service that stretches from San Francisco across the peninsula to Gilroy. It is the southern terminus of the Amtrak to Sacramento Capitol Corridor service. It is a key stop on San Jose’s VTA light rail system. And it’s a goal of decades of multibillion-dollar efforts to bring Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to downtown San Jose.

Add in Google’s massive development plan for the Diridon area—a downtown village with parks, thousands of housing units, millions of square feet of office space, and a community center—and the ambition for the place is high.

One problem is that San Jose and the California carriers can’t handle the weight. With so many different interests and interest groups pinning their hopes on Diridon, several government failures are converging there as well.

The state should set up a single government agency to take over the San Jose transportation hub and require the high-speed rail and local authorities to defer their decisions.

The high-speed rail plan is such a jumble of delays, consultants, and overspending that state officials are focused on only one small part of the project: Bakersfield to Merced. The most optimistic plans call for the high-speed rail to reach San Jose in 2031. It’s a better bet that the entire project will be mothballed by then.

There are also reasons to worry about regional lines. Plans are underway to extend ACE trains to Sacramento and beyond Stockton to Modesto and Merced. But BART extension to downtown San Jose is becoming increasingly time consuming and expensive.

Originally approved by voters in 2000, this six-mile, four-station project is fast becoming one of California’s largest and most challenging infrastructure projects. Its main problem is local officials’ insistence on using an expensive and less proven method to build one of the largest subway tunnels in the United States. What was once described as a $4 billion project due for completion by 2026 is now a $9+ billion project that won’t be completed until 2034.

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

The debate over the troubled BART expansion has become divisive, distracting San Jose from what should be a focus: integrating transit into Diridon. Various agencies involved in the planning — from Caltrain to the High-Speed ​​Rail Authority to the City of San Jose — don’t seem to be on the same page when it comes to redesigning the station to improve connections. And beyond Google’s plan, there is no clear vision to make Diridon and its surroundings a real tourist destination. The train station has to be a beautiful and distinctive place in itself to lure Californians there.

More worrying than the planning difficulties is the current traffic situation in San Jose. Newer BART stations in San Jose are ghost towns that have been left empty due to the pandemic shift to remote work.

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

Traveling the various VTA lines on a weekday, the few passengers I saw appeared to be homeless people living on the train. At several points I was the only passenger on board. That made sense. The trains are so slow and stop so often that driving is more than twice as fast as driving.

When it comes to that, the transformation of San Jose into a transportation capital may not be so sluggish. All Californians have a part in San Jose that connects us, especially the railroad.

The state must intervene, take responsibility and remove regulatory barriers. The remodeling of Diridon Station should receive the same exemptions from environmental and other laws that the state grants to new sports stadiums. The state should set up a single government agency to take over the San Jose transportation hub and require the high-speed rail and local authorities to defer their decisions.

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

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

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