East Side lawmakers worry about light rail extension's future
Robert Bronson, a 75-year old East San Jose resident, boards VTA Bus 71 on April 23. Photo by Kyle Martin.

East San Jose has eagerly awaited a light rail connection to the Eastridge Transit Center since Santa Clara County voters approved Measure A almost 20 years ago.

By imposing a 30-year sales tax, county voters in 2000 decided to expand a light rail service into San Jose, but now it appears the long-awaited Capitol Expressway light rail extension to the Eastridge Transit Center could be at risk of delay because money allocated for it could be diverted to other projects.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who sits on the VTA Board of Directors and for years has advocated for the completion of the extension, said the project had been “shovel-ready by 2007” but a dot-com bubble-bust and two economic recessions forced down taxes and halted construction plans.

And now there's growing concern that his colleagues on the board might once again delay funding the project. Cortese said some North County lawmakers don't see the value in the extension, which he believes is critical for East Side families who rely on public transit.

“That's the concern based on comments that people have made, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Cortese said in an interview. “There had been at least some discussions prior to this prompted by some of the representatives from cities in the North County, like Mountain View... who suggested the project shouldn’t go forward (and) questioned on Friday whether it was worth the investment for only two-and-a-half miles of light rail track.”

But it's not just a couple of miles of track, Cortese argued. The extension is about equity, and would allow families in some of San Jose's most vulnerable neighborhoods to connect with the entire light rail system.

“The importance is that Eastridge is the number one transit hub in the entire county,” Cortese said. “It’s actually the number one bus transportation hub, even beyond Diridon.”

The VTA Board of Directors will vote on the issue June 6.

During a VTA budget hearing Friday, transportation leaders discussed the authority’s new budget and its goal to increase ridership and revenues throughout the county in the coming years.

With the first phase of the light rail extension into San Jose completed, the second phase has been stalled for years — leaving the East Side and Evergreen communities without their promised transit extension. The first phase of the project was finished in 2015, which included new sidewalks, street lights and landscaping between Capitol Expressway and Quimby Road, as well as reconstruction of the Eastridge Transit Center.

San Jose councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who represents parts of East San Jose and Evergreen, last Friday urged the VTA board’s support for finalizing the nearly $600 million project.

Arenas told Lucescamaray Blog that it's about time her side of town gets the transit connection.

“Major parts of our city have this very viable and reliable public transportation system, except for east of the 101 — except for the east side,” Arenas said. “It’s a reliable way to get to school, to get to work, to get home. Some are saying that this portion of light rail is going to be too expensive, but we already have a whole system of light rail. This is just the end of a huge investment that we’ve already made.”

With the final vote on the project looming, she said her part of the city is owed something.

“This community has taxed ourselves. We’ve taxed ourselves for the benefit of others, for minimum benefit for our community,” Arenas said. “They need to have the benefits and they need to have this connector.”

VTA riders on Tuesday agreed, citing the importance of the connection.

Robert Bronson, 75, a self-proclaimed “public transit fiend,” said he's eager to see the completion of the extension to the East Side, having followed along with the project’s steps and delays from the beginning.

“People don’t realize it would take a lot of traffic off the road,” Bronson said. “It would be ideal if you had light rail extended even further.”

He said the region’s transportation authority could go a step further with the project, too. “If they had BART wrapped around the Bay,” Bronson added, “ they could run the BART 24-hours a day and still make a profit.”

Now that support for the extension has once again gained traction, East Side leaders such as Cortese and Arenas are urging transportation authorities to prioritize funding the project.

“My youngest son was born the year that this project was proposed and put on the ballot,” Cortese said. “He’s 19 years old now, a college student, and he has not had one opportunity to park at Eastridge and get on the light rail system — not because the project wasn’t funded, but because VTA in the past has delayed it on multiple occasions.”

Henry Buckner, a 39-year old East San Jose resident and VTA customer, said he uses the Eastridge Transit Center about three to four times a week via bus routes 70 and 71 to get to the Great Mall in Milpitas.

Buckner said he’d benefit from a light rail connection at Eastridge because it would be “easier to get to the Great Mall from here.”

Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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