The near-empty trolleys that often shuttle by barely faster than a jogger confirm that the car is still king in Silicon Valley -- and that the Valley Transportation Authority's trains are among the least successful in the nation.

Today, fewer than 1 percent of Santa Clara County's residents ride the trains daily, while it costs taxpayers about $10 to subsidize every rider's round trip.

The VTA system is one of the most inefficient light-rail lines in the nation:

  • Compared with the U.S. average, each VTA light-rail vehicle costs 30 percent more to operate and carries 30 percent fewer passengers.

  • The cost to carry one passenger round trip, $11.74, is 83 percent more than the U.S. average and the third worst in the nation, ahead of only trains in Pittsburgh and Dallas.

  • Taxpayers subsidize 85 percent of the service, the second worst rate in the nation.

  • A critic: "It is an unmitigated disaster and a waste of taxpayer money," said Tom Rubin, a transportation consultant based in Oakland. "I think the original concept was very seriously flawed."

  • A defender: "I believe we are ultimately going to realize the (original) vision," said Kevin Connolly, VTA's transportation planning manager. "But I think what's happened is that it wasn't quite as easy or quick as originally conceived of 30 years ago."


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    Connolly noted that the South Bay's first light-rail line was built along onion fields, where planners had expected homes and businesses to pop up along the route.

    For the most part, the density never materialized in Silicon Valley.

    "In our case we tried to graft a big-city transit type of mode onto a suburban environment, and it's still kind of a work in progress," Connolly said.

    Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.