Just how many new riders would jump on a train to one of Silicon Valley's most desired destinations?
About 200, it turns out -- and it would cost taxpayers up to $175 million to build the rail line to Los Gatos.
The new projections come from the Valley Transportation Authority's updated forecast for a long-envisioned light-rail extension. Still years from reality, the Los Gatos line would be one of the least-used light-rail extensions planned in the nation -- and would reduce South Bay vehicle traffic by a mere 0.01 percent.
"You could buy every one of (the riders) a Bentley and a driver," said Dave Fadness, a longtime Santa Clara County transportation commissioner. "It's crazy."
So why is Silicon Valley's transportation agency planning it? With a new bill of fiscal health, the VTA wants to connect a West Valley community that historically has been underserved by public transit to the rest of the county, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and generating economic activity.
That explanation was part of a fresh environmental assessment released last week by the VTA for its 1.6-mile light-rail extension of the Mountain View-Winchester line, which currently ends in Campbell. The new pair of tracks would extend south, through an existing railroad corridor parallel to Highway 17, but stop short of Los Gatos' popular downtown. It would end at a new station at Netflix headquarters on Winchester Boulevard.
It would be light
"The stars are lined up now," said VTA vice chairman Joe Pirzynski, a Los Gatos councilman. "I think there's no question that this could be a real winner."
Pirzynski touted the line as a new way for West Valley residents -- particularly seniors and youths -- to get around.
Still, he conceded the VTA board is not locked into the project and the rider estimates are at the "forefront" of their minds.
"There are some who say, 'If you build it they will come,' but, at the same time, that can't be a wish. It has to be validated," Pirzynski said. "I do believe that we have to be realistic in our evaluation and take a long, hard look at the benefit."
The Los Gatos line would feature fewer riders per mile than 13 of 14 light-rail extensions proposed around the nation, according to statistics compiled by San Francisco Muni. Only a line in Salt Lake City would have fewer passengers.
The San Francisco light-rail extension to Chinatown, while virtually the same distance as the Los Gatos line, is expected to attract about 17,000 people per day at a cost of $2.2 billion. The cost-per-daily-rider is about one-tenth that of the Los Gatos line.
In 2005, the VTA opened a $315 million, 5.2-mile light-rail line from San Jose to Campbell. It carries about 3,500 people a day.
At the time that line was built, there was not enough money to extend it to Los Gatos, and funding is still an obstacle. Part of the money would come from Santa Clara County sales-tax revenue earmarked for transportation projects, while officials are hoping to secure the rest with matching grants from the federal and state governments -- perhaps a long shot given the lack of appetite in Washington for big spending.
VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress said the project is still competing for funding with other South Bay transportation needs, including the only other light-rail extension left on the table, to Eastridge Mall in East San Jose. That 2.3-mile line is estimated to cost $310 million and attract fewer than 1,000 riders a day, VTA estimated.
The VTA's estimates show that from 2015 to 2035, the Los Gatos leg would carry an additional 430 one-way riders daily, or 215 people taking roundtrips. That's 0.007 percent of the town's population.
Another few hundred people who now get off in Campbell would ride through to the new Los Gatos stop. A second stop in the middle of the extension could add an additional 100-or-so passengers, though scrapping that stop could save millions of dollars off the construction cost.
"You got to take a look at that number: How many riders per dollar, and that extension, predictably, is very low," said Fadness, who currently leads the county roads commission.
Netflix, which declined to comment for this story, told the VTA it has more than 500 employees on site.
Childress said park-and-ride lot expansions and other project elements could be dumped to help reduce the cost.
She argued that the planned expansion of Netflix's headquarters -- part of a larger commercial development near the proposed station -- would help the agency's goal to have more housing and jobs near transit.
"That's exactly the kind of development that these projects support," she said. "Each of the towns (along the route) are trying to be an attractive place for employers to move and provide jobs. The economic impact comes full circle when you have accessible transit in the area, where people can leave cars at home."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenberg17.
What: VTA community meeting on Los Gatos light-rail extension to provide input on proposed project
When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Campbell library, 77 Harrison Ave.