A New Pedestrian Bridge In South San Jose

San Jose Mercury News

A little boy died in November 2005 at the railroad tracks that separated a residential neighborhood from Monterey Highway (a four-lane expressway) and a nearby shopping center in South San Jose. After his the babysitter escorted him and his brother across the railroad tracks, he followed her back over as she went to fetch her own daughter in a stroller, and was hit by a passing Amtrak train. Although government officials made promises in 2008, the funding wasn’t authorized until this year and the new pedestrian bridge is opening this week.

I used to live down the street from this unofficial railroad crossing in the late 1990’s. While not as dangerous as the crossings next to the busy Caltrain stations in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, you still had to keep a wary eye up and down the tracks for a lumbering freight train as you clambered over the gravel bed. (Amtrak and Caltrain trains operate on these tracks today as Southern Pacific sold the right-of-way to Caltrain and commuter rail service was extended to Gilroy.) You couldn’t run across these tracks. Tripping and falling was more dangerous than being slow and careful.

Until the shopping center opened a few years later, I never had much reason to cross the tracks. If I had to go out to Wells Fargo Bank and McWhorter’s Stationers at Bernal Road and Santa Teresa Boulevard, I would hoist my bicycle over the tracks, ride south on the side of the highway—a four-lane express after the 101 opened in 1973—that went parallel to the tracks, cross the highway at the stoplight, and walk my bicycle up onto the Bernal Road overpass that went above the highway and the tracks.

Crossing the tracks became more frequent when the shopping center opened with a grocery store. Depending on what my mother needed, I would either walk over or ride my bike that had a large basket in front. Walking over with a few bags of groceries in hand wasn’t difficult. Moving my bike with a half-dozen grocery bags in the basket and a few plastic bags hanging off the side was more treacherous. On those occasions, I made damn well sure that I didn’t see the headlight of a train on the horizon in either directions before crossing.

During my first year as a college student, I had to cross the tracks to catch the bus on the Monterey Highway—or Monterey Road when it passed through the incorporated areas of San Jose—to get to San Jose City College. You had to be extra alert in the morning, especially if the weather was foggy and you had less time to see the train headlights coming your way.

Although I may never live in that part of San Jose, it’s nice to know that I could safely walk over the railroad tracks and Monterey Highway. Too bad that a little boy had to die and it took seven years to make this happen.

Paying A Dime Per Mile Freeway Tax

I sometimes wonder if the elected and unelected government officials responsible for transportation planning in the San Francisco Bay Area are smoking something exotic at their meetings when they decide to spend taxpayer money on pie-in-the-sky studies. A new proposal is being considered to charge drivers a dime per mile for driving on the freeways to reduce rush hour congestion and pay for future transportation projects. What are they smoking and where can I get some?

The Bay Area is considering a long-range plan to become the first place in the nation to tax drivers for every mile they travel, with an average bill of up to $1,300 per year.

The proposal is a long way from becoming reality. But under the scenario, drivers would likely have to install GPS-like trackers on their cars to tally travel in the nine-county Bay Area, from freeways to neighborhood streets, with only low-income people exempted.

Transportation planners know they would have a tough time selling such a radical plan but argue the goal of the so-called VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax is to reduce traffic and pollution while raising revenue needed to fill potholes and bolster public transit service.

With my daily commute to my non-writing tech job in Silicon Valley, I would be paying an extra $60 USD per month for the privilege of driving on the freeway under this proposal. Taking the light rail at $70 USD per month would be cheaper, but my commute time would quadrupled to two hours each way since crossing the valley takes forever. As a writer, I could use the four-hour commute time for writing and editing manuscripts. As a rider, I would find it grueling in the morning to be at the light rail station at the crack of dawn and so exhausting that I’ll crash in bed after dinner every night. Before I got my driver license five years ago as a 38-year-old adult, I used to take public transit everywhere and slogged through the four hour grind.

I suspect this proposal will go the same way as the San Francisco proposal for a freeway toll to enter the City from the South Bay that was quickly scrapped after strong protests in 2010. Commuters would take the local streets that parallel the freeway system in most areas to bypass the VMT, increasing their commute time and burdening the surrounding neighborhoods. The only way to get drivers to install a GPS tracker on their car is to make it a registration requirement like car insurance.

Raising the gas tax that haven’t been raised since 1993 would be much more effective and simpler to implement. But, then again, you would have to be smoking something exotic to avoid such an obvious solution.

The Unsinkable Titanic II Direct From China

Clive Palmer, an Australian billionaire mining magnate, is planning to build a $500-million USD  replica of the Titanic that was sunk century ago. Although nearly identical to the ill-fated ship, the Titanic II will have diesel engines to replace the coal engines, a bulbous bow and other modern features below the waterline.

The ship will be built in China, which has never built a luxury cruise liner as most are built in the European shipyards, and the Chinese navy will escort it from United Kingdom to New York City on it’s maiden voyage in 2016. Not sure how the British and American navies would take to the Chinese navy plowing the North Atlantic waters.

Although the new ship shouldn’t sink this time, a norovirus infection can doom a cruise ship faster than any rogue iceberg.

If you can’t wait for the maiden voyage of the Titanic II, check out the 2010 direct-to-DVD movie, “Titanic II,” from Asylum Studios. The ending is somewhat predictable.


When The Titanic Came To San Francisco

The “Titanic – The Exhibition” came to the Metreon in San Francisco in 2006. The most impressive item was the “Big Piece,” a 40-foot tall, 15-ton hull section. The Titanic was 11-stories tall and had more rivets (three million) than the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge (1.2 million). Although scientists and historians might come up with new reasons for why the Titanic collided with an iceberg, we must never forget that 1,500 people died in this tragedy and the captain’s last words were, “Every man for himself.”

Rolling 125,000 Miles On The Old Speedometer

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Today I rolled 125,000 miles on the speedometer for my 1994 Pontiac Grand Prix. Not that I had driven all those miles. My Dad bought this car from a little old lady 12 years ago when the speedometer had 50,000 miles. (Why a little old lady would drive the descendant of a classic American muscle car  still baffles me after all these years.) When he abandoned the car in my carport three years ago as a birthday present (he told my brother that the car was worth $1,000, but not the way he meant: the Blue Book value was $400 and it cost me $600 in insurance, registration and smog), the speedometer had 13,000 miles. I drove 7,000 miles since then, half in the last year from driving to and from Sacramento where Dad lives. Since he got out of the hospital and stayed with me for two months before going back home, the social worker required that someone from the family pays him regular visits to help him stay out of the hospital. I was in Sacramento when the speedometer turned over.

Since I started working as a disconnect/reconnect PC technician for a moving company on the weekends, I been driving all over San Mateo county (north-west of Silicon Valley). I started my day at 7:30AM in Palo Alto for six hours of work at Facebook. (Several weeks ago I actually walked past Mark Zuckerberg as I arrived for and he was leaving work; seldom do I walk pass Silicon Valley royalty, much less a bona fide billionaire.) When I drive to Sacramento from my apartment, I take the 680 up the east bay, the 580 into Stockton and the I-5 to Sacramento to avoid paying the $5 bridge toll at Benicia. On the way back I take the 80 to the 680 since there is no bridge toll going south. Going from the west bay to the east bay over the bay was something I never done as a driver, although I did drive over the Golden Gate bridge for a Cheech & Chong show in Roseville.

I took Page Mill Road out to the 101. There are no tolls for going east on the bridges. I could have taken the Dumbarton bridge but that wasn’t the most direct route to where I was going, and the rain storm passing through the region flooded out the connecting road. I drove over the San Mateo bridge into Hayward. The bridge itself goes up and over  from this side to allow small ships to enter the south bay. At one point in the 1920s, San Jose was supposed to be a seaport that would rival San Francisco, Oakland and Stockton. Never did happen because dredging the deeper channels for larger ships became too expensive. Once you’re over the bridge, a man-made road cuts across the bay. Being surrounded by water on both sides and pouring rain coming straight down made me wonder when a tsunami wave or sea creature would come over the road to wash everyone way.

Dad told me that I could take the 92 out to Jackson to drive through Oakland into the 580, but he haven’t driven in the area for over 20 years. The 92/880 interchange is currently being rebuilt and the Jackson exit no longer exist. I ended up on the 880. Fortunately, the 238 to the 580 was the very next exit and my stay on the 880 was brief. Traffic was horrible since a soccer game was scheduled to play at the Oakland Coliseum. The 880 is probably the most miserable stretch of freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I used to take Amtrak to visit my parents in Sacramento, I always dreaded taking the train that ended in Oakland and continued on bus to San Jose. Those buses had unpadded seats and I had felt every vibration driving through pothole paradise.

Wasn’t long before I drove through Castro Valley for the first time, a place that I had heard frequently about from the radio traffic reports but never quite knew where it was, crossing over the 680 to take my regular route to Sacramento. There was no fog going through Altamont Pass, which can be eerily experience seeing a solid wall of fog and knowing that there was a cliff face on the other side of the guardrail. I would have preferred the fog over driving through every variation of rain. It got worst on the I-5. One moment it would be a light sprinkle, the next moment a near zero visibility downpour. When I got to Dad’s place in Sacramento, he told me it has been raining like that for the last two weeks.

Dad is doing quite well. He finds new ways to keep himself busy while helping out the neighbors. One neighbor works for a vending machine company, where he has to take old vending machines to the county dump that cost $30 each. Dad strips down the vending machine to salvage all the wood and metals, keeping the $10 he gets from taking everything down to the recyclable center. He takes the unused wooden pallets from another neighbor, pulls out the old nails for the recycling center, and gives the lumber to a recently retired neighbor who started building birdhouses and chicken coops as a part time job to keep himself busy as his wife continues to work. Everyone in the neighborhood is happy.

When he was still doing construction work, Dad was the ultimate road warrior. He had a one-ton flatbed truck that he drove for ten years before he and the truck both retired, criss-crossing the San Francisco Bay Area to turn the speedometer over after one million miles. Every year Dad and I would crawl underneath the truck to replace the throwout bearing in the transmission. One year, after the engine blew up from going over the Santa Cruz mountains on the 17 and was rebuilt at the repair shop, he was in a screaming fit because the mechanics had replaced all the American-sized nuts and bots with metric-sized nuts and bolts. We spent one miserable weekend replacing every single one of them since he didn’t want metric nuts and bolts in his American made truck. He eventually sold the truck to another construction company that had salvage the engine from a similar truck  that was totaled in a rollover.

My 17-year-old car is still running fine after fixing nearly every major problem that Dad had trouble with but forgot to tell me about. An oil change is three months overdue, the shocks needs to be replace, and a tune up is badly needed since the last one was ten years ago. Expensive repairs that need to be done as I soon as a get a regular full time job. The 1984 model year was a very good year for the Pontiac Grand Prix (although my car is half 1993 and half 1994 when it comes to finding parts). If properly maintained, my car could last another 125,000 miles. At $320 per year for car insurance, I just might drive it into the ground.

Watching Nature On The Train

My trip home from work got delayed at the Caltrain train station in Mountain View. The conductor was trying to get a pair of drunken college students off the train, as they came back from an afternoon baseball game in San Francisco. The train car reeked with the smell of alcohol that the air would catch on fire with a match. Unlike the conductors of yesteryear who would not hesitate to throw someone off a moving train, the conductor can only beg the couple into leaving the train.

The boyfriend was so plastered that returning to the living wasn’t a viable option for him. The girlfriend kept pulling his arms, slapping him in the face, doing a lap dance to arouse him back into mobility, cussing at the conductor for not helping her, and announcing to everyone that this wasn’t a normal day for them.

Unsuccessful in getting the couple off at the Mountain View station, the conductor signaled for the train to depart. When the woman tried to take her clothes off to revive her boyfriend with sex, she got into a huge shouting match with the conductor. Alas, the boyfriend was too far gone. The rest of us were enjoying the show as the girlfriend strip down to her black underwear.

As the train pulled into San Jose four minutes late, the station supervisor and a pair of cops were waiting. All the passengers except for the couple had to leave the train as this was the last stop. Unlike today’s train conductors, cops can arrest and manhandle passengers off a non-moving train.

Watching Someone Almost Get Splattered

I got off the southbound light rail train on my way home from work, and walked over to the crosswalk to wait for the northbound train to leave the station, when I noticed this young woman with a cellphone to her ear walking towards the departing train. She was completely oblivious to her surroundings.

I remembered what the shuttle bus driver at the Caltrain train station in Mountain View told me earlier this year about a suicide he witnessed. He saw the guy jump in front of a speeding baby bullet train, got splattered into big meaty chunks and the woman standing nearby got splashed with blood from head to toe. The shuttle driver, being in the merchant marines for 40 years and seen far worse, wasn’t bothered from watching the police dump chunks of the guy into garbage bags.

The train horn blared in passing. The woman jumped backwards in little bunny hops, as the train rush past her by mere inches. She screamed into her cellphone that she almost got run over by a train. After the train left the station, she walked into the crosswalk against the light. While still talking on the cellphone, she almost got hit by a delivery truck but didn’t notice as she went on her way.