San Jose, Los Angeles, And High Speed Rail — SPUR Talk Takeaways

Yesterday we had a fascinating discussion of the respective rail transit histories of San Jose and Los Angeles at SPUR San Jose, with a bunch of high speed rail tidbits thrown in.

It was a particular pleasure to hear from Rod Diridon, who is basically the father of rail transit in Santa Clara County, from the VTA light rail line to the under-construction high speed rail (slated to come to San Jose in the next decade or so).

Some takeaways from San Jose/Santa Clara County’s rail transit history:

  • County leaders achieved a 56% voter approval on a local sales tax initiative to launch rail back in the 1970s, partly in response to a prominent New York Times article calling San Jose the worst planned city in the country, partly due to the highly educated technology workers coming to the area, and mostly due to strong leadership at the local, state and federal levels.
  • The local measure required public review of the system development every four years, which in practice meant a ton of outreach to the public, which in turn resulted in widespread awareness of the system and much public buy-in.  Part of this process involved colorful mailers sent to everyone in the millions, which also provided good advertising and elicited more political buy-in.
  • Diridon noted the importance of steady local leadership.  He, Congressman Norm Mineta, and State Senator Al Alquist occupied their positions at various levels of government in the area for decades, allowing each to take ownership of the transit system and ensure that projects were built on time and on budget.

We also touched on high speed rail. Diridon chaired the High Speed Rail Authority and is a big booster.  He surprised me by saying that the first segment from San Jose to somewhere around Bakersfield will make money by turning the Valley into bedroom communities.  My impression is that the daily fare (up to $80 in today’s dollars, roundtrip) will be cost-prohibitive for most people living in the Valley.

In response to a question about getting rail from Union Station in Los Angeles to Palmdale, Diridon admitted that the route to Palmdale, which will add 15 minutes to the total ride, was made only because L.A. leaders like Supervisor Antonovich and Mayor Villaraigosa insisted the train stop there.  Otherwise, he said, they wouldn’t have gotten the train built.  It’s further evidence of the sad political compromise on the route.

In an irony though, he said the recent decision to change the route to now serve San Jose first is because of that Palmdale stop.  Horse ranchers along the path from Palmdale to Burbank/San Fernando don’t want the train coming through, so they’ve created enough hassle to make the High Speed Rail Authority hold off on the Southern California section for now.

All in all, lots to learn in comparing the rail journeys of the two cities, which will one day be linked by high speed rail.


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