Little Portugal Residents Fume over Stalled Road Work

A seven-mile stretch of orange barricades, A-frame signs and dug-up asphalt cuts through Little Portugal. For a year-and-a-half, construction has turned San Jose’s Five Wounds corridor into a fender-bender inducing maze that chokes off traffic to a slew of small businesses.

“It’s killing us,” says Raab Bui, who runs Giants Barbershop, which his grandfather opened nearly 50 years ago. “It’s killing our business. Traffic is mayhem. Customers can’t find us.”

Regulars manage to navigate the “cone zone” labyrinth for a cut from Mr. Raab, as they call the third-generation barber. But walk-ins have dropped off by about 60 percent, by his estimate. The inconvenience would have been short-lived. And the payoff—a state-of-the-art rapid bus line connecting San Jose’s East Side to downtown—would make up for the headache.

But on July 13, everything stopped.

Workers abandoned their posts. Tractors shuttled away. Caution tape went up to cordon off upended swaths of thoroughfare. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) halted the $114 million project days after a third-party contractor hit a live gas line on July 9. Five weeks later, the VTA says it’s unclear when work will resume, how long it will take to finish and how much it will drive up costs after a series of blunders by what the agency has deemed an incompetent contractor.

“Now what?” Mr. Raab wonders, eliciting affirmative nods from customers waiting their turn in the lobby. “It’s a ghost town.”

After a decade of planning, the VTA broke ground on the Santa Clara-Alum Rock Bus Rapid Transit line in March of last year. The high-speed buses promised to quicken travel through some of the most transit-dependent communities of Silicon Valley at a fraction of the cost of rail. Funded by state and local bonds, the 7.2-mile route would be the first of three rapid bus lines in Santa Clara County to converge in the heart of San Jose.

BRT Plan

Three planned bus rapid transit routes would span El Camino Real, Stevens Creek Boulevard and Santa Clara-Alum Rock. (Source: VTA)

Limited-stop service would link the Eastridge Transit Center, by way of Capitol Expressway and Alum Rock Avenue, to the SAP Center. Eleven stations—bigger and more elaborate than typical bus stops—would flash digital schedules and boast designs by local artists. Sleek hybrid buses would arrive every 10 minutes, prolonging green lights at intersections and skirting traffic in dedicated bus lanes.

“It will basically transform the streetscape,” says Tamara Alvarado, director of the Mexican Heritage Plaza, which lies along the unfinished route. “If you live in downtown, you can whip down here in seven minutes. That’s a huge long-term benefit.”

With all the delays, though, that vision is a long way off. Meanwhile, roadwork has made it a struggle to draw new people to the community center.

“We’re busting our butts to activate this space, but people think we’re closed,” Alvarado says. “They see the construction tape and the orange cones and it’s just not inviting.”

In November 2013, VTA’s Board of Directors awarded a $54 million contract to Goodfellow Top Grade. The Livermore-based company pitched the lowest bid—$7.2 million below the VTA’s own project estimate—and won out of a field of eight contractors.

A competing company asked the agency to reconsider the deal. Graniterock Construction noted the “highly irregular manner in which VTA staff has come to recommend project award, having rejected all bids, returned bid bonds and re-advertised the contract.” VTA dismissed the appeal, deciding that Goodfellow’s low-ball bid would save money and keep things on track to finish by fall 2015.

“At the beginning of the project, hope was eternal,” says Scott Knies, head of the San Jose Downtown Association. But problems cropped up fairly early. The contractor missed deadlines, uprooted too many trees and fell behind on ordering materials, according to the VTA.

“There were certainly signs that this wasn’t on schedule,” Knies says. “The work by the arena was not that big of a project, but they still had issues getting all the details right. It’s not as bad as what they’re going through at Alum Rock, but it is a concern.”

From his father’s CPA office at Alum Rock and North Third Street, George S. Mattos said he has seen an inordinate surge in car collisions. A security camera in the lobby caught several run-ins on video in the past few months alone.

“There are no safe turns out there,” he says. “People keep running into each other and we can see it all from right here.”

VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress says the agency will hold Goodfellow Top Grade accountable for traffic control during the project’s stand-down. By press time Tuesday, VTA remained locked in contractually required negotiations with the company over how to move forward. Calls to the contractor were not returned.

“Now I’m scared,” says Manuela Torres, who owns the Padaria Popular Bakery on Alum Rock. “Back-to-school is busy for us. Halloween is busy. I hope this doesn’t hurt us, you know.”

A few doors down from the Portuguese bakery, Mr. Raab shakes his head, bemoaning another flap over transportation.

“When you go a long time without good leadership, this is what you get,” he says. “You’re left out of everyone else’s progress.”

In the last few years, the East Side has had its county supervisor, George Shirakawa Jr., go to jail for stealing campaign funds and misusing taxpayer dollars. Its councilman and state assemblymember, siblings Xavier and Nora Campos, respectively, were implicated in a rigged election scheme by the District Attorney’s Office. Constituents have been left to wonder who’s sticking up for them while their elected officials are busy defending themselves.

Last year, the VTA nixed plans to build a BART station in the Five Wounds area, the largely Latino district encompassing Little Portugal. Public backlash prompted the VTA to put the station back on the blueprint for 2019. But the slight raised concerns about the agency’s financial stewardship. Now, that worry is coupled with uncertainty over the rapid bus line—how much it will cost and how long it will take to finish. All while the VTA lobbies for a new tax in 2016.

“You don’t see these problems in downtown,” Mr. Raab says. “Nope. It’s always in the East Side.”

Over the weekend, Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco met with a dozen businesses owners affected by the construction.

“They were pissed off,” says Victor Gomez, her chief of staff. “They have every right to be pissed off.”

While the VTA has yet to announce a completion date, Gomez says there’s a chance it will drag well into next year. As a result, Carrasco will enlist county Supervisor Cindy Chavez and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo to help make the streets safer for the time being.

“What we’ve seen with this contractor has been pretty disquieting,” Gomez says. “There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency.”

The VTA's landing page for the Santa Clara-Alum Rock project still lists the completion date as fall of this year and the total cost as $114 million. But a semi-annual report from the agency published in December last year shows a revised cost of $127.1 million and a end date of 2016. It also mentions problems not reflected on the project's info page, indicating that VTA knew the project fell behind and ran over cost at least nine months ago but didn't announce that to the community.

"Due to some utility relocation delays, late permit and contractor delays, completion is now anticipated in Summer 2016, approximately five to six months later than originally anticipated," the December report states. "Major utility relocations are now complete. Alum Rock Avenue widening and station platform construction outside of the downtown area are ongoing and expected to continue throughout 2015."

Those details were never disclosed on the page created to keep the public up-to-date on the project. A lot of residents and business owners in Little Portugal had been referencing an outdated schedule with a year-old cost and deadline estimate. It wasn't until Aug. 11, about a month after work was put on hold, that the VTA acknowledged a delay and admitted it has no idea when this ordeal will wrap up.

Bay Area leaders have called bus rapid transit the future of transportation, a relatively low-cost “subway on tires.” The VTA wanted the Alum Rock line up and running before similar projects in San Francisco and the East Bay, which have languished over public opposition to the prospect of exclusive bus lanes.

But a dozen years after broaching the idea for this high-tech bus, the VTA is behind schedule, over budget and has yet to get one on the road.

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A maze of cones and dug-up asphalt makes it hard to navigate Alum Rock Avenue. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

15 Comments

  1. If VTA had just stuck with widening the streets and fixing the traffic light problems, we could all get to downtown in 7 minutes. Still I have no idea why I’d want to go downtown, it’s always been something to go around!

    • Plenty of reasons to go to DTSJ. You can buy whatever kind of dope you want, you can pay for sex if you want , you can visit the sex shop on Sana t Clara @ 2nd you can go to the Gold Clup and watch bikini girls or Lido and watch bikini men , you can get drunk, puke, piss or defecate anywhere you want.you can get drunk and fight , get drunk and passout, get drunk get in a fight and get robbed then passout, and fight , you can watch drunks do any of rhe aformentioned drunk things to do in DTSJ, you can check out the wonderful sights and smells of the open air toilets and sleeping cubes also known as doorways… DTSJ is a grest place and geting better. It is practically a destination!

      • Now your bringing back memories of cruising 1st and 2nd in the 70’s, but they chased all the car lovers out and kept the riffraff, and moved the politicians in!

  2. “The Livermore-based company pitched the lowest bid—$7.2 million below the VTA’s own project estimate—and won out of a field of eight contractors.” This is what happens when public projects are required to accept the lowest bid. It’s frequently a bid by an on-the-ropes bidder, and almost always by a bidder who could never complete the job at the lowball bid price. Then they present change orders to get the agency to add to the contract. The light rail in DT SJ and the incubator on the East Side are but two examples of irresponsibly low bids accepted by the government agencies involved that resulted either in significant delays, project cost overrun, or both. A bid significantly lower than the agency’s own cost projections is always a clue. In such a case either bidding should be reopened or a performance completion bond should be required. When the bonding company does its investigation of the bidder and finds it financially unstable, that bidder should be disqualified from all further bidding on public projects for at least five years. BUT NO! Agencies are hog tied by this lowest bid requirement. Graniterock had it right, but the bureaucrats were too stupid to recognize it and rejected Graniterock’s appeal. This bait and switch has gone on for decades, yet no-one in the public sector catches on. DUH! “By press time Tuesday, VTA was still negotiating how to move forward.” Still negotiating!!?? Months have passed. How long would it take to cancel the contract with Goodfellow Top Grade? The stroke of a pen. Then get Graniterock on the job quickly. Small business owners get hosed while VTA “negotiates.” “But a dozen years after broaching the idea for this high-tech bus, the VTA is behind schedule, over budget and has yet to get one on the road.” That sounds just like business as usual for VTA.

  3. The powers that be are going about this all wrong. Rather than wringing hands and scratching heads just tell residents and business owners who are upset and negatively affected by this project the same things that they tell businesses and residents in Willow Glen who are negatively affected by the Road Diet!

    You know:

    (1) “fewer cars (and if not fewer slower) means increased safety for bicyclists and pedestrians!”
    -or-

    (2) ” if your business model is being negatively affected then you should either change the way you do business and adapt, move your business somewhere that is conducive to the way you have always done business OR recognize that you are a lousy business owner/operator and shut down altogether!” -or-

    (3) There are more people who are happy with the situation (road diet or hated construction situation) than are not satisfied (as proven by unscientific poll results the “satisfied” commissioned and are all to happy to wave in your face to shut down all opposition)

    -or finally-

    (4) you may not like it but plenty of people do so deal with it.

    Now if the powers that be adopt this PR strategy it would either raise the hispanic Little Portugal community’s esteem or lower Willow Glen’s … we are all equal when it comes to sharing the pain inflicted by government’s incompetance.

    • I don’t see the comparison.

      (a) BRT is not a road diet, its BRT.

      (b) VTA is not claiming that BRT will enhance bicycle or pedestrian safety.

      (b) The WGRD was put in almost over night, but the BRT work is taking forever (point of article).

      (c) The WGRD was actually done at the request of the local businesses, and still supported by almost all of them. The opposing business are mostly all outside of the WG downtown area and oppose the project because of fears it would draw more business to the downtown and away from their areas. In contrast, the businesses adjacent to the BRT line did not request the project, but oppose it because its taking too long to finish.

      (d) There is no petition for or against the Santa Clara-Alum Rock BRT Project.

      The two projects have no similarities.

      • My post is satire…a way for the VTA and others to snow the businesses and residents in Little Portugal into believing the stalled BRT is really a good thing . Satire using the same snow that is being dumped on WG after the Test period showed the RD is a fail.

  4. BS! The WGRD is NOT supported by most of the businesses. They were talked into it and sold a bright and shiny bill of goods. Attracting national players and raising the rents was the real intention wrapped in a tidy little package that uses safety as the buzz word. Meanwhile the traffic is horrendous, revenue is down and safety is flat on Lincoln with almost a guarantee of more frustrated and reckless driving on Lincoln and a much more dangerous situation on the side streets as people take to them to get around the Willow to Minnesota daily jam ups. Who’s your buddy Pierluigi or Tim Mulcahy? It’s incredible. You sound just like Richard Zappelli “Tom” The

    • “Traffic calming” and “road diets” are all ultimately local initiatives tied back to the United Nations “Agenda 21″.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda_21

      They have an endless number of cute, fluffy, feel good names for what they are trying to do, but it all boils down to global central planning.

      “Sustainable development”
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_development

      “Sustainable transport”
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_transport

      “Traditional transport planning aims to improve mobility, especially for vehicles, and may fail to adequately consider wider impacts. But the real purpose of transport is access – to work, education, goods and services, friends and family – and there are proven techniques to improve access while simultaneously reducing environmental and social impacts, and managing traffic congestion. Communities which are successfully improving the sustainability of their transport networks are doing so as part of a wider programme of creating more vibrant, livable, sustainable cities.”

      The problem is that you contemptible slugs are not “vibrant”, and the arrogant communists, kleptocrats, and racist theocrats at the United Nations are going to make you “vibrant” if it kills you.

      • You left out a word I just learned, “Degrowth” as in lets move them back to the cave’s so they can eat bat dirt.