Recent Conflicts of Competitors in Santa Clara County

This page, compiled in 1989 from earlier articles by Akos Szoboszlay, is an important history of local transportation. Moreover, it shows the kinds of strategies used by traffic and highway engineers against competitors.

Traffic engineers try to use transit funds for road construction.

The Transit Reserve Fund in Santa Clara County is for the purpose of future construction of guideway transit, including bringing BART to Santa Clara County. The fund is part of the 1/2% sales tax for transit passed by county voters in 1976. An internal Santa Clara County Transportation Agency (SCCTA) memo shows that the traffic engineers contemplated using this fund for road construction as early as 1984. This grew into a $30,000 study by 1985. Their proposal was in violation of state law, and constituted an illegal gift from the Transit District.

SCCTA traffic engineers re-interpreted the definition of "transit" to include private automobiles. They also re-interpreted the definition of "transit facility" to mean a carpool lane. This opened the way for using transit funds for road construction, by designating the lanes for carpools. The main losers would have been transit patrons, but because no transit user advocacy group had resources to sue, and because the transit system is controlled by SCCTA (a conflict of interest), the suit was filed by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265. SCCTA's action was found illegal by a court, and again by an appeals court in 1987. The ruling by Superior Court Judge Robert Ahern stated that "to call a carpool a transit vehicle ... is as realistic as calling an orange an artichoke." SCCTA argued that this would "facilitate transit purposes by moving the buses more rapidly." They failed to state that the cost is equal to paying a toll of $250.00 per bus trip! (This figure is calculated by dividing the number of bus trips over the 20-year roadway life by the lane construction costs.) Guideway, the publication of the Modern Transit Society, called it "an extortion of the taxpayer's original intent to finance a modern transit system."

Stopped by the illegality of their action, they attempted to seek legislation redefining the state definitions. A senate bill (SB 1809) was introduced in 1988. Lobbying for the bill in Sacramento was (then) County Supervisor Legan, who kept his job as marketing manager for Kaiser Cement (the largest regional supplier of cement, an important ingredient for roads) and lobbyists from the Builders Industry Association. The legislators were told that there was no opposition to the bill, yet neither the Modern Transit Society nor the Transit Union were notified about the existence of the bill. Fortunately, it was caught in time for a successful opposition effort.

This episode may not be over. At a June 1989 workshop on carpool lanes, conducted by SCCTA traffic engineers for the transportation commission, the carpool lanes were referred to as "guideways," ostensibly for the purpose of using state guideway funds for road construction. This despite the fact that neither buses or automobiles are guided; they are steered.

Traffic engineers seek legislation to enable County to prevent cities from allowing bicycles

The SCCTA traffic engineers proposed in the fall of 1987 that the County seek legislation that would allow the County to prohibit bicycles from all expressways, thus circumventing the present jurisdiction of the cities. Central Expressway was specifically mentioned as being desirable for prohibiting bicycles. This was approved by the Transportation Commission by a narrow margin in Dec. of 1987. When it came before the Supervisors on Jan. 12, 1988 the Board of Supervisors rejected the traffic engineers' recommendations, and then voted that "It is (their) intent to allow bicycles on county expressways." The vote was 4-1. The "no" vote cast was by (then) Supervisor Legan. [Legan was also marketing manager for Kaiser Cement, and cement is a key ingredient in highways]

Traffic engineers illegally change expressway to freeway

In November of 1981, a Light Rail Transit (LRT) / Expressway / Bikeway was approved to be built in the Guadalupe Corridor. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was completed and published in August of 1983. Without any notice to the public, the SCCTA engineers in late 1984 changed the expressway to a freeway. The FEIS never mentioned a freeway, nor even hinted that the expressway would turn out to be a freeway. A freeway alternative had been previously considered but rejected in the Alternatives Analysis process. Yet, SCCTA literature started mentioning a 6-lane freeway in contrast to the 4-lane expressway of the FEIS.

The change will decrease future LRT patronage, both by forcing them to be in an unfavorable environment (50% more noise and exhaust), and by making access difficult by using long ramps. The transit system has to pay for these ramps. Worse, it is forced to pay about 1/3 the cost of the freeway bridges, without receiving any benefit. The FEIS stipulated a green traffic light for light rail vehicles. The change to a freeway meant that an alternate route would have been much more advantageous for light rail, but it was too late to change the routing because of the federal funding which specified the route based on the FEIS.

Bicyclists kicked off "expressway" in violation of FEIS

After the illegal change, Caltrans pressured the Guadalupe Board to prohibit bicyclists from the "freeway" in Dec. of 1985. This violated the FEIS, which states that "Bicyclists will have access to the expressway shoulders except north of Curtner Ave." (where the expressway intersects I-280). Bicyclists who supported the LRT/Expressway/Bikeway alternative felt double-crossed. Even with a freeway, there was no logic in prohibiting bicycles. The alternative route, Monterey Rd., forces bicyclists to merge with 50 mph car traffic whenever there is a parked car! The shoulders of a 55 mph freeway are much safer.

Grade separation (bridges at intersections) was no excuse for prohibiting bicycles, nor the 5 mph increase in speed (the 55 mph Rt. 237 is a Caltrans suggested bicycle route). The Guadalupe would have provided an important (and only) non-stop north-south route in the county for bicyclists.

On Feb. 20, 1987, Caltrans and the County were convicted of violating environmental law, and the court stopped freeway construction south of I-280. The suit was filed by the Pinehurst Residence Association. The Transit District, which was never even mentioned in the suit, and therefore not convicted, was forced to pay for defending Caltrans and the County! Why? There is a continuing conflict of interest in combining transit and road operations, to the detriment of transit. They are run by the same agency (SCCTA) and the Board of Directors of the Transit District is the same as the Board of Supervisors.

Instead of following the FEIS, the Board of Supervisors issued a new supplementary EIS (paid for by transit funds!), which changed the expressway to a freeway and prohibited bicycles.

Caltrans' Alternatives Analysis is highly prejudiced

People decide where they will work and live, in part, based on what transportation facilities exist (freeway, guideway transit, etc.). A transportation facility will encourage people to live further from work. It also has an effect on land use. For example, San Jose has already approved a "trigger" that will develop 12,000 homes in Coyote and Almaden Valleys upon completion of the Route 85 freeway. This is more homes than exist in the city of Saratoga. But Caltrans refused to acknowledge this fact in the Alternatives Analysis and the Environmental Impact Statement that they authored for the West Valley Corridor. One car from each of the 12,000 homes represents 111% of the two hour carrying capacity of a 6 lane freeway in the peak direction. This effect cancels any promised "traffic relief."

Caltrans assumes that 100% of the users of the freeway would come from existing paralleling routes, 0% from new development resulting from building the freeway (e.g., the 12,000 "triggered" homes), and 0% from the freeway encouraging longer distance car commuting (e.g., Morgan Hill residents encouraged to commute to north county). These assumptions are disastrous for transit, which needs greater patronage to survive. Not only is ridership deemed to be much smaller than it would be, but the freeway and its parallel routes both end up looking a lot less congested than they really would be. The freeway inevitably becomes congested. Transit, on the other hand, can add or lengthen trains, becoming more efficient with lower cost per person and more frequent service.

For the West Valley Corridor, the Alternatives Analysis was so biased that an existing railroad paralleling the proposed freeway was not even considered for use as a light rail transit line. A suit was filed by Protect Our Valley against Caltrans for writing the flawed EIS. The "Traffic Authority," using our sales tax money to hire a group of high priced attorneys, was able to get the suit dismissed on a legal technicality.

Update: In an almost identical case, U.S. District Court Judge Conlon (in Chicago) ruled in Jan. 1999 that the EIS by the Illinois Dept. of Transportation (DOT) for the proposed I-355 Freeway Extension was deficient because it assumed the same population and employment levels in the road corridor for both the build and no-build cases. The Illinois DOT has the same goals as Caltrans.

Caltrans' unstated goal

It is important to consider what incentives organizations have when doing a report, if the report will be acted upon to make a decision that will affect that organization. Military contractors write proposals for the purpose of getting the contract. How useful the equipment is for national defense is irrelevant to the goal of getting the contract. Likewise, Caltrans writes Environmental Impact Statements in such a way as to achieve their desired result: the contract to build the highway. Most of the actual construction is done by subcontractors, just as most larger military contracts have subcontractors doing most of the work.

By getting the contract, Caltrans provides money and prestige for itself, its employees, and the greater possibility of promotions for existing employees as the number of employees is increased. Conversely, if too many contracts are lost, there is a possibility of lay-off (although this possibility is much less for government employees than for private industry). The same motivations exist at large corporations. I presently work at Lockheed where there is often intense competition, by competing departments whose functions overlap, to design and build various sections of a contract. At IBM, I found competing departments want to design computers. Job interest is another factor, with design and construction being much more interesting than maintenance, whether its a freeway, a computer or an aircraft. A Lockheed vice-president recently boasted, "We don't have any dull programs." Profit is not the only motive.

The Alternatives Analysis is supposed to be an impartial modeling so that optimum decisions can be made by elected officials. The false information supplied by Caltrans serves only the narrow interests of Caltrans (and others in the automobile, trucking and highway construction business). For the "Devil's Slide Bypass" in San Mateo County, Caltrans was shown to have censored sections of the EIS (prior to release) that were unfavorable to constructing the highway. Yet, Caltrans cannot be blamed for doing a biased study. To expect an unbiased Alternatives Analysis and EIS from Caltrans borders on naiveté. The problem arose with politicians who allowed Caltrans to do the study, instead of an independent consulting firm (as was done for the Guadalupe Corridor). This is analogous to asking a defense contractor to do a study on which type of defense system is best, the one it manufactures, or that of a competitor.

Caltrans' unstated goal is to maximize road construction. (This goal complements goal #1 and goal #2.) To help achieve this unstated goal, Caltrans wants automobile usage maximized. (Likewise, defense contractors want the defense budget maximized, and IBM wants computer usage maximized). This is also a self-fulfilling goal, because each road construction encourages more automobile trips and longer distance car commuting. As was shown above, Caltrans refuses to admit this because it is politically easier to sell a road if "traffic relief" is promised.

Transportation competitors

More bicycle and transit usage decreases automobile usage, and therefore indirectly impedes Caltrans' unstated goal: maximizing road construction. While it is speculative how much transit and bicycle usage would increase if Caltrans was able to take an impartial transportation perspective, the fact remains that Caltrans often discouraged bicycle and transit usage, even when it would not impede goal #1 or goal #2. Two local examples (described above) are the erroneous West Valley Corridor EIS, and instigating bicycle prohibitions on the Guadalupe. Again, Caltrans cannot be faulted, since no one can expect it to do otherwise. The error lies with elected officials who consider Caltrans as the transportation expert: the West Valley Corridor Policy Advisory Board (who had Caltrans do the "impartial" analysis), and the Guadalupe Corridor Project Joint Powers Board (who let themselves be pressured by Caltrans into prohibiting bicycles).

Is this attitude of discouraging competition to automobiles also found in SCCTA or city traffic engineers? This is best answered with an example. Foothill Expressway is one of the most used bicycle routes in the county. Entire families are seen bicycling in the bike lane because the parents know that Foothill is safer not only for themselves, but also for their children. Newcomers find it hard to imagine that bicycles were ever prohibited from bicycling in the bike lane (then just called a "shoulder"). But the battle to allow bicycles took two years. What was the reason for opposition by the city traffic engineer? It can definitely be stated that goal #1 and goal #2 are not applicable. Liability has repeatedly been shown to be no problem (because the state absolves cities and counties of virtually all vehicular-caused accidents). The only plausible explanation remaining is a desire to minimize a form of transportation that competes with the automobile, by prohibiting it wherever possible under state law.

Traffic engineers have, at times, opposed the competition (transit and bicycles) even though the competition would not have interfered with the traffic engineers' stated goals #1 and #2. In such cases, can the traffic engineers be faulted for opposing the competition, either by eliminating it, or by reducing its market share? The answer is that it is irrelevant because, at fault or not, it will continue to happen. The solution is to minimize its effect as described in the Purpose.


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