If luck is on his side, none of the senators attending confirmation hearings for Norm Mineta, Bush's transportation secretary designate, has ever driven to San Jose during rush hour. Mineta, presently commerce secretary, was once mayor of San Jose and served as a strong advocate for South Bay transit projects when he was a member of the House from 1974 to 1995.
The song may go, "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" But the real question ought to be "Do You Know How Long It Takes to Drive to San Jose?" It takes too long. If he were to minister only to San Jose, Mineta would have to be named secretary of gridlock.
Leaving my home in Oakland at 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday, I drove 36.7 miles to San Jose's Civic Center and -- columnist's bad luck, considering I was writing about the freeway as parking lot -- traffic was unusually light. I clocked my best time ever driving solo to the area: 75 minutes. Usually, it takes me 90 minutes to 2 hours to drive to a morning event in the South Bay. If "drive" is the word for braking and starting while cars with only one visible occupant whiz by in the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane.
And I didn't take any of the notorious routes. Tom Benner, who does traffic reports for Shadow Traffic Services, listed the worst areas as: 101 between Morgan Hill and San Jose, 280 through downtown San Jose and Highway 85 coming out of Saratoga toward 101. New trouble spots pop up, like the 680 corridor from Benicia to Fremont.
"What it boils down to is that there is no good spot during either the morning or the afternoon commute in the South Bay. All of the roads are just packed," Benner added. The reason is simple: not enough road.
When I got to San Jose, I took a ride on San Jose's much-celebrated light-rail system. It was a delight, $3 for a day pass -- after the ticket machine finally accepted my money -- clean, well lit, uncrowded and punctual, according to my fellow passengers. "It's the best thing that happened to our city," said rider Malcolm Fowlks, 29, who takes public transit to his job as a glazier and to the college he attends.
While many critics contend that light-rail is an expensive way to provide transportation more cheaply than by bus, there is something to be said for a city with a public transit system that provides a pleasant commute for even a few of the boomtown's working people. According to the 2000 Commute Profile by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, some 67 percent of Bay Area commuters drive to work alone. That figure is 77 percent in Santa Clara County. Considering that only 0.5 percent (less than 5,000) of Santa Clara commuters use the light-rail system, it would be awfully special if the 715,000-plus solo drivers felt half as good about driving to work as the light-rail users I met feel.
T he drive is so grueling you have to figure that many commuters drive not only for the convenience, but also because their jobs or family situations require it. Many cannot afford homes near their Silicon Valley jobs, so they drive two or three hours each day. They are tied to their steering wheels, and attempts to force them onto transit have failed. Will Mineta come to their rescue? That's what senators ought to ask.