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A Moving Experience: People movers or automated trains such as the type once planned for connecting light rail with San Jose's airport are currently in use at this site in Indianapolis, where they connect the University Medical Center with two hospitals. The cost for this people mover was $43 million, and the builder estimated that San Jose could construct one for $50 to $70 million, instead of the $115 million figure being quoted by city officials.

Crawling to the Airport

As San Jose sits perched on the edge of a $1.3 billion airport expansion and the feds kick up anti-terrorist requirements, the light rail connection has been virtually erased. And some say, this was the mayor's plan all along.

By Loren Stein

WHEN LEO the dog was thrown from a car into oncoming traffic during a road rage incident near Mineta San Jose International Airport two years ago, the story sparked international news coverage and pubic outrage over the callous inhumanity of the act. Few made any connection to the traffic nightmare that routinely occurs in and around the heavily congested corridors leading to the South Bay's busy airport.

But travelers headed to the airport would probably be well advised to keep their windows rolled up and their doors locked, because a bad situation is about to get worse.

If Mayor Ron Gonzales gets his way in a special election this March, San Jose's promised automated people mover/light rail downtown connection to the airport--designed to help relieve airport congestion--won't see any movement, as airport proponents prepare to embark on the most ambitious expansion ever.

Ironically, a little more than half a mile from the airport is a light rail stop already named "Metro/Airport" on downtown's North First Street. But travelers can't get to the airport from there, unless they're in a shuttle van crawling along already choked state Route 87.

The San Jose City Council acknowledged the traffic problem in endorsing San Jose's Airport Traffic Relief Act in late 1999. The law mandated that airport expansion plans would proceed only if major traffic and transit upgrades, including a downtown light rail connection to the airport, were two years away from completion.

But now, in the post-9/11 world, priorities have shifted to sniffing out bomb-wielding terrorists. Despite sensitive and detailed negotiations hammering out the 1999 agreement with transit backers, Mayor Ron Gonzales says he has no choice but to let the light rail airport connection fall by the wayside as he speeds up expansion plans to facilitate airport security.

The decision to drop the light rail link due to lack of funds was made without consulting the Airport Traffic Relief Alliance, the key community player in crafting the original law. The group had struck a compromise with the city to support the ordinance and to campaign against its own ballot measure, Measure O, which was defeated in spring 2000. Measure O would have prevented airport expansion until traffic remedies were within one year of being finished.

"I am angry," says Chip Evans, president of ATRA. "I thought we had a solid commitment from the mayor to make connection to the light rail system a part of airport expansion--and not an afterthought," Evans says. "He's using security issues as a red herring. It's not about security; it's about expanding the airport ahead of a connection to light rail."

Critics say that Gonzales wanted to scuttle the project from the start. "They've been reluctant all along, even when we negotiated with them originally," Evans says. They said light rail wouldn't be well used, he adds. "They wanted to drop it, and we said no. There are not too many airports in this situation: building a light rail system after the fact. But when the negotiations ended, they committed to this."

'Terrible Trouble'

The $1.3 billion airport expansion master plan represents the largest single construction project in the city's history. It includes two concourses, a central superterminal and the addition of nine more gates to the current 31. Initially slated for completion by 2009, funding problems pushed the date back to 2012.

But new federal security requirements enacted in November 2001 forced the nation's 429 airports to rush to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to have all checked baggage inspected for explosives. With little room at San Jose airport, officials plan to temporarily house 18 new bomb-detection machines in huge tentlike structures in Terminals A and C, at a cost of $3 million a month.

Instead of building space for the high-tech screeners piecemeal, only to be have it torn down later to accommodate the new terminal, Gonzales wants to accelerate the airport expansion to allow the building of the bomb-screening facility sooner, saving, he says, as much as $125 million in construction costs down the line. Under the new scenario, airport expansion would begin next summer and finish by mid-2005.

"We must start to make improvements to our airport as soon as we can so we can comply with federal security requirements and start seeing the benefits of a better airport for San Jose and Silicon Valley in the most cost-effective way possible," says Gonzales in a statement.

The airport is "in terrible trouble," says a source knowledgeable with airport security plans. "If the city doesn't do anything, the airport stays a mess, perhaps even a dangerous mess." With the new bomb-detector devices temporarily housed in tents, lines of people may be backed up into parking garages as they wait for their baggage to be screened.

Under the mayor's new timetable, completion of other promised roadway projects would be pushed out from two years to three. They include construction of Route 87 between Interstate 280 and Highway 101, improvements to Route 87-Skyport interchange, building a new Coleman Avenue-Interstate 880 interchange, creating a double-tiered road that would serve the new central terminal, and increasing capacity on airport access roads. The road projects are estimated to cost upward of $500 million.

In a tense meeting on Nov. 26, the City Council green-lighted the mayor's request for a March special election to put the new measure, dubbed the Airport Security and Traffic Relief Act, before the voters. Councilmembers say the vote (which needed 10 yeas to put the single measure on the ballot, an election that will cost taxpayers between $1.7 and $2.4 million) was sprung on them at the last moment.

"The mayor's been working on this for a year, but the City Council got his memo two weeks before the vote," says Councilmember Ken Yeager, the only member to vote against the proposal. Yeager wanted a task force to work up recommendations for the council in time for placing the measure on the June ballot. "We didn't have a chance to convene the players and work out a compromise," he says.

The wording of the ballot measure as it relates to the airport light rail connection is confusing and, at worst, deceptive, say Yeager and other informed insiders. They point to one phrase in particular: "[The] City Council identifies funding to connect Airport with BART or light rail ..." The language makes it seem as if the downtown people mover/light rail link might actually happen sometime soon. What the mayor is really doing, critics say, is shifting the ATRA requirement for a downtown light rail airport connection to the distant hope that BART will eventually link to the airport, which, given the shaky economy, is now only a long-term goal.

"The mayor's position leads people to believe that mass transit to the airport or the people mover is still likely," says Yeager. "But the Valley Transportation Authority [which was to provide $200 million for the people mover/light rail connection through Measure A] is going broke. We're basically killing the people mover to the airport."

Yeager adds, "If voters knew realistically that [the measure] means they're not going to get mass transit to the airport and approve it anyway, that's fine--but they shouldn't be under the assumption they're going to get a people mover anytime soon." What's more, tagging the measure to the issue of security in a post-9/11 world also means that voters are apt to vote blindly for it without realizing that the airport light rail connection will almost certainly not be built.

Inflated Figures

One area of agreement is that the airport is in desperate need of an overhaul. Originally designed to accommodate 7 million passengers a year, by 2000 the airport was bulging at the seams, processing some 14 million passengers a year. Under the master plan, the airport will be able to handle 17.6 million passengers a year, this time comfortably. According to City Hall, the expansion is essential in transforming the airport into a modern, user-friendly facility that will lift San Jose's stature as a destination city.

But with even more traffic congestion and noise from low-flying jets winging over the city, it's paramount that highway upgrades and the light rail connection go hand in hand with airport expansion, say worried residents. Without these in place "there'll be traffic pandemonium," predicts Kenneth Hayes, who with his wife, former San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes, heads up Citizens Against Airport Pollution. "Gonzales' vision of San Jose is maximum expansion without particular thought to quality of life," he says.

City Councilmember Linda LeZotte, who voted for the March ballot measure, is alarmed as well. "If we're trying to have traffic relief, and the only option is to get into your car and drive to the airport, the congestion will only get worse," she says. "The airport is an island; it's landlocked." Referring to the decision to put the people mover on low-priority status, she adds, "We can't throw the baby out with the bath water."

The mayor's main priority, says LeZotte and others, is BART. If funds can be found, they say his chief commitment will be to build the airport connection from the BART station on the west side rather than the North First Street light rail connection, which will benefit outsiders more than city residents.

But the mayor's office says that the ATRA ordinance was passed before the San Jose BART connection got overwhelming public approval in 2000. Giving the option of either a BART or light rail connection to the airport in the new measure increases flexibility, says the mayor's spokesperson, David Vossbrink. "We want the greatest transportation benefit by making sure BART is in there as a possibility," he says. "We want the best investment for the best result for traffic relief and access to the airport. Until that analysis is done, it's really premature."

Some say the people mover/light rail connection is the weakest link in the ATRA traffic-relief ordinance and, based on figures from other airports, would have low ridership and carry a small percentage of airport passengers. The system is designed to carry 1,235 people an hour in each direction.

Advocates say the $115 million price tag estimated by the mayor's offfice for the people mover is grossly inflated. "They think it [the connection to light rail] is such a small contribution to the master plan, and the project cost makes it not worth it," says Kenneth Hayes. "They figure it's peanuts in the grand scheme of things and not worth building. The community feels otherwise." He notes that a 1999 poll of San Jose residents showed overwhelming support for a people mover/light rail airport connection.

Guido Schwager, of San Jose's Schwager Davis Inc., a leading expert in designing people movers, has built an Indianapolis-based people mover three times longer than the .6-mile distance from North First Street to the airport (if the line is a straight shot). And they did it at a cost of $43 million. "We could build it [San Jose's light rail connection] for $50 million to $70 million and in two years' time," he says. San Francisco Airport just commissioned a people mover from the San Bruno BART extension, he adds, noting that at least eight other airports have people movers, including New York's JFK, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Detroit.

Terminally Stalled: A photo simulation shows what the 'people mover,' once promised to connect the light rail station on North First Street to airport terminals, would look like. Critics say that voters in the March special election may not realize that they are being asked to give it up.

The Long Haul

Regardless, some say the mayor is in a tight financial spot. The drop in air travel has slashed revenues, and the downturn in general tax receipts has shrunk revenue for Measure A. "He can't build all that was projected, because the revenue is not there--it's not his fault," says Rod Diridon, head of San Jose's Mineta Transportation Institute. "Between the 9/11 disaster and tax revenue decreases, the revenue to do all the construction that was hoped for is not there; it's impossible." The mayor should complete the airport expansion but also work diligently to find funding for the people mover/light rail link, he says.

Where could those funds come from? (The airlines won't ante up for the light rail connection, and Measure A funds won't begin accruing until 2006, with the BART-to-San Jose project its top funding priority.) Other options include raising ticket surcharge and landing fees, federal grants or a tax measure, Diridon says. However, getting either federal grants or a tax measure passed would be an uphill battle, he adds.

Some question whether the airport master plan should be scaled back, what with the dramatic (and for airlines, devastating) plunge in airline travel over the past year. (Oakland Airport, for example, announced this summer that it has downsized its expansion plans until the economy looks rosier.) That's not an option, says Gonzales' spokesperson, Vossbrink, explaining that the mayor doesn't make plans based on boom-time optimism or slump-inspired pessimism. "Sure we have a recession now, but we're in business for the long-term," he says. "We have to make decisions today that will benefit the community 10 years, 20 years or a half-century from now. They'll be many economic cycles in the future."

Whether the airport can be a regional asset and a good neighbor is still up for grabs, despite Gonzales' stated hope that he can achieve both goals. Some say the mayor has consistently been one step behind, and now the FAA is breathing down his neck. "The mayor's been reacting to airport issues since day one," says a source familiar with airport issues. "He doesn't have a clear vision of what the airport should be, and that's the fundamental reason why people are confused about which direction he's going."

Not so, says Vossbrink, who insists the mayor did not spring the new measure on the City Council at the last minute. "Two weeks before a City Council vote is a long time," he says, adding that the mayor has been working with stakeholders to try to meet ATRA requirements and come up with solutions to airport security issues. "It turned out to be an impossible equation to solve, despite lots of hard work and many long conversations over many, many months."

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From the January 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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