Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Same old 2000 Measure A trick

Although it has not been appeared on the VTA web sites yet, this plan demostrates the same old trick that deceived voters in November 2000 for Measure A.

VTA is claiming that it can fund everything that everyone wants in the proposed 1/4 cent tax increase because of new sales tax projection, which was revised upward of course.

In addition to extending BART from Fremont to San Jose in 11 years,the new plan allows for 10 Caltrain round trips to Gilroy by 2010,more than $800 million for a new road repair program and senior transit services, a people mover to the Mineta San Jose International by 2018, and $500 million in the bank when all projects are finished,assuming county voters approve a quarter-cent sales tax next November...

...The plan is based on assumptions that county sales tax revenues will grow by as much as 6 percent a year between 2008 and 2015, compared to projections of 2.9 percent in the fiscal year ending June 2006 and 4.5 percent for the year ending June 2007.

The worse part is that the County Supervisor Don Gage is appearing to fall for the new "projection."

"I'm supportive of the plan as long as we get everything we need in South County," he said. I'm willing to live with the schedule. The only thing is [other board members] may get greedy and say we want more, but I don't think they will."

The problem here is not greed, but trust. There is a lesson to be learned from the 2000 Measure A. Back in 2000, Measure A supporters claimed that the 2000 tax was sufficient to deliver all the projects and then some, even through the Pete Cipolla, VTA's General Mananger of the time, said that an extra tax was necessary:

Published Wednesday, October. 18, 2000, in the Palo Alto Daily News
BART tax will erase VTA losses

By Mark Shahinian Daily News Staff Writer

BART tax supporters said yesterday the booming economy will raise sales tax receipts enough to erase the Valley Transportation Authority's projected losses and will fully fund all operations if voters approve the $6 billion tax.

Sandy Eakins, an alternate VTA board member, said the VTA projects budget shortfalls after 2006. But Measure A, helped by rising sales tax revenues, will bring in enough money to cover the losses, she said.

Eakins said the new sales tax estimates were made by Booz-Allen & Hamilton, a major consulting firm...

...VTA General Manager Peter Cipolla advocated an additional quarter-cent sales tax to make up the shortfall in an August memo Strickland provided to the Daily News.

Of course in less than 3 years after Measure A passed, many officials finally admitted that an additional tax was needed to build BART, but after the presentation of the 1/4 cent tax proposal a few months ago, the City of San Jose and VTA are still refusing to make hard decisions to cut some of San Jose's projects. Instead, it is now making another "new estimate" to deceive voters and other non-San Jose politicians.

While VTA and the City of San Jose could say that they plan to share the benefits of increased revenue to other cities in the county, they are still ignoring the question of how they plan to share the pain. What if the increased projection does not pan out, which is guaranteed to happen, would other cities be giving away tax reveune to build an underused subway in San Jose?

The initial plan, even though it was uninspired, outlined the "pain" (i.e. cutting SJC peoplemover and Downtown East Valley LRT) for the City of San Jose in the minimum. The current proposal that is reported now ignored the issue of pain. What it means is that if the new sales tax passes, the issue of which projects to cut would be discussed in the next few years afterwards along with a new talk for yet another sales tax.

If you believe that fiscal responsibility and regional equity is important, please let Don Gage know at Fool us once, shame on VTA. Fool us twice, shame on Gage.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

VTA withdraws BART extension from FTA's New Starts process

In VTA's press releases, VTA claims that their decision to withdraw the BART project in FTA's New Start process is a tactical move.

Year after year of "not recommended" status given by FTA to the BART project, it is easy to figure out how FTA feels about the BART project and how well this project competes with other transit projects around the country.

Knowing that it will receive another "not recommended" status again when VTA and SVLG is likely to be campaigning for another tax, VTA is withdrawing the BART project from the process to improve the tax's chances for voter approval.

Or more importantly, without FTA close scrutiny under the New Start process, VTA would likely to frontload more local tax dollars for the BART project and then say that there's no affordable alternative to building BART. It is like the Bay Bridge fraud: when enough money is spent on designing a bad bridge, some would argue that it is cheaper to build a bad bridge than to redesign and build a good bridge.

However, it is never too late to get things right, especially in this case.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

County pushing out the VTA with one of its own?

While the SVLG's sales tax poll is private information, a different sales tax poll paid by Santa Clara County is now public information.

A part of the County's survey deals with the public's attitude on major issues. On page 4 of the poll presentation, Education is now a top concerns among the voters. Transportation, used to be the rated as the most important problem back in the late 1990's, has now ranked 3rd behind education and the economy.

The poll asked voters whether to support a general county sales tax either at 1/4 cent or 1/2 cent, which the voter threshold is 50%, over 60% of the respondents said that they support the tax.

Given that the County and the VTA each want its own sales tax increase, the question is who will win and who will lose. Basically, if the County and VTA each have a tax on the ballot in November, most likely both of them will lose. Although these two taxes could be staggered with one in the primary election and the other in the general election the same year, the latter one, which ever that is, would likely to have a higher chance of defeat if the other one passes in the primary.

No wonder why, according to this article, Jim Beall suggested to postpone the VTA tax until 2008.

Since the county proposal is calling for a general tax, it is possible for the county on its own to create a trust fund to support VTA. There's already a precedent with the 1996 Measure A/B tax, which the County Board of Supervisors and the VTA Board hold joint meetings at least once a year to approve transportation projects. On the other hand, the VTA cannot levy a tax that would provide some funds for health care and social services programs.

If the county chooses to support transit (at whatever direction they wanted to) with its general tax, then there is no need for VTA to have its own tax. The City of San Jose (which holds 5 seats on VTA) would not have as much power as they wanted. Perhaps the county could change the course away from the disastrous path since the approval of the 2000 Measure A.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Answer to the people mover question: More money for San Jose

In an attempt to squeeze more funding to support the real people mover between the Santa Clara freight yard, where BART is supposed to end, and the San Jose Airport, San Jose official is now suggesting that part of the non-transit portion of the proposed 1/4 cent sales tax could be suspended to support the people mover.

In a way it is a defiance against SVLG, in which it first suggested to provide funding for non-transit expediture as a way to woo voters. If it is true that there's enough funding for pothole repairs, then why include it in the tax if not to mislead voters?

On the other hand, non-San Jose politicians were opposed to this idea. Not as much as whether the funding is needed, but where the money goes. County Supervisor Don Gage said it correctly in the article, "San Jose wants the big chunk.This is all San Jose." Generally, maintenance funding is spread around the county based on population or need; however, the people mover project mostly involve San Jose, therefore there would be a transfer of wealth if this project were funded instead.

Also, it leads to a more frightening prospect that more transfer of wealth could happen if other non-BART/non-San Jose projects have to be scarificed due to BART and/or people mover cost-overruns.

Finally, the City of San Jose could step further up to the plate by using city or airport funds, instead of taking a larger portion of the county sales tax. Or, the City could suggest eliminating the extra extortion fees for BART based on deceptive ridership projection. Or, in the extreme, a 1/4 city-wide sales tax for whatever project San Jose wants.

Monday, October 10, 2005

VTA's deceptive sales tactic

At VTA's Policy Advisory Committee's meeting on October 13, the committee will decide whether to forward the sales tax plan to the entire board.

After the board workshop on September 16, VTA staff tested various scenarios and is now recommending a specific expenditure plan.

VTA's proposed plan follows the SVLG's recommendation, which is a 30-year long 1/4 cent sales tax. The plan includes the following elements

  • Build BART to Santa Clara freight yard by 2018. In addition to the sales tax, VTA is also counting on other revenue sources such as transit-oriented development (miniscule compared to the expenditure), reductions in expenditures (as if that has happened before on any BART project), and potential increases in tax revenue that might magically allow BART extension to be built sooner.
  • "Phases" in the BART project and the purchase of BART non-standard vehicles. Unlike typical phasing, which the entire line is divided into segments and open for revenue service individually, this so call "phased" service would start with 15-minute peak headways from 2018 to 2030, which by that time, according to VTA, would have 111,500 boardings per day. (By the way, BART stations in downtown San Francisco receive service every 3 minutes to achieve this level of ridership)
  • An extra $913 million extortion fee for the BART project because of the new fraudulent ridership projection recently released by VTA, primarily for "vehicles and station parking impacts."
  • The next light rail extension currently planned, from Alum Rock to Eastridge, would be built by 2019, one year after BART.
  • Based on SVLG's "polling data," a $717 million worth of non-transit expenditures, such as county expressways improvements, is added to support the automobiles, as well as the road building lobby.
  • Although funding for Caltrain electrification (San Francisco to San Jose only) and other improvements is included, VTA irrationally cut the overall funding by 10%, per SVLG's recommendation. Unlike all other projects, VTA placed a disclaimer of how to spend the fund if electrification could not be done.
  • Pocket changes such as a "gradual VTA service increase of 12.4% by 2015, followed by an increase to 24% in 2020," as well as additional funding for senior/disabled services. These improvements were included in the original 2000 Measure A. Why would anyone believe that another sales tax would help these improvements?

A few items got deferred, primarily based on SVLG's polls and limited funding:

  • Light rail along the Santa Clara/Alum Rock corridor.
  • Light rail extension from Eastridge to Nieman.
  • Caltrain electrification from San Jose to Gilroy
  • The real peoplemover to San Jose Airport.

In an attempt to deceive everyone, VTA has included the enhanced bus #10 (free bus service between Santa Clara Caltrain station and the Metro/Airport light rail station through San Jose Airport) as "Phase I of the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport People Mover Project," in the tax proposal, deliberately removed the key word "bus":

Implements Phase I of the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport People Mover Project, which would consist of a special premium non-stop service from the Santa Clara BART Station to the airport terminals using unique station elements to differentiate from VTAÂ’s regular service. Estimated operating cost of Phase I is $94 million from 2018 to 2036.

The real peoplemover project is considered by VTA as the "Phase II" and the funding for it is not included in this tax package. This and other deferred projects might receive funding until other projects got their funds or if other funding sources are identified.

VTA's tax plan is uninspired, essentially it is an extortion scheme for BART. Just like fried rice (which you cook with left-over rice), this proposal is a replay of the 2000 Measure A, only lousier. Because the plan has no vision other than the BART extension to Santa Clara freight yard, these transit programs, including the airport people mover, could be sacrificed to support BART and highways with the approval of SVLG, and only SVLG.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The last rail ribbon cutting for a long, long time

Joined by the top politicians from the Santa Clara County, along with local representatives from the state legislature and the Congress, VTA celebrated the grand opening of the Vasona Light Rail extension.

Among the politicians spoke at the ceremony included County Supervisor Jim Beall, SJ Mayor Gonzales, SJ Councilmember Ken Yeager, Campbell Mayor Jane Kennedy, Los Gatos City Council member and VTA Chair Joe Pirzynski, Caltrain JPB and MTC Rep John McLemore, Assembly Member Rebecca Cohn, and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren. Congressman Mike Honda also spoke through a pre-recorded video.

In addition to the politicians, Leslie Rogers from the Federal Transit Administration (which is working hard to keep VTA from insanity), SVLG's (the sales tax man) Carl Guardino, and the "Father of Light Rail", Rod Diridon, also spoke. Unlike most other public events, VTA's new GM Burns also spoke at the end of the ceremony to congratulate the agency's employees.

BART and sales tax were mentioned by a few speakers during the event, but were not mentioned quite as frequently as farmers' market. Nearly every politician spoke promoted his or her city's farmers' market and how to get there on light rail or by connecting transit.

After the opening day of free rides, this extension, like all rail projects, is on the hands of the riders, who will determine the success or failure of this project.

This is going to be the last rail ribbon cutting for a long, long time because VTA no longer has an active rail construction program and it is lacking funds (due to BART) to build the future extensions currently under study. Even with a new sales tax, VTA plans to open its next rail project - BART, in 2018, more than a decade away. If the politicians want to have another rail ribbon cutting get-together sooner, they should really consider abandoning BART.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Clear cut fraudulent ridership projection

VTA yesterday released new ridership project for the BART project. From the previous estimate of 87,200 to 111,000. VTA claimed the increase in the projection is due to the use of a newer regional projection from ABAG. On the other hand, it begs the question whether it is actually the case of GIGO (Garbage in, garbage out)?

Several reasons why this projection is fishy:

1. By dividing the 111,000 ridership to six stations, each station would have on average 18,500 entries and exits. Using the 2000 BART ridership breakdown (which has declined since then), only 5 BART stations (all in San Francisco: Powell, Montgomery, Balboa Park, 24th Street, and Embarcadero) have a higher non-transbay entries and exits than 18,500. For reason for using non-transbay ridership because, unlike the transbay corridor faced with limited highway capacity and the $2 toll effective at that time, the drivers Santa Clara County have multiple free routes to and from the East Bay as well as San Francisco. About half of the BART ridership is transbay.

Two major factors should be considered when reviewing BART ridership in San Francisco: 1) San Francisco permits Muni Fast Pass holders unlimited rides on BART within the city, which VTA probably will not allow for its passholders. 2) San Francisco has a considerably higher density than San Jose (16,634.4 persons per square mile in SF v. 5,117.9 persons per square mile in SJ)

If transbay ridership is included, only 9 BART stations have overall ridership over 18,500. In addition to the 5 SF stations, they're 16th Street/Mission, Civic Center, Oakland 12th Street and Downtown Berkeley. So far only the land use around the downtown San Jose station could match downtown Oakland or Berkeley, but without the benefit of the transbay ridership base. Stations in the East Bay further away from the Oakland/SF core tend to have lower ridership, and the land use around these stations are typically similar to the South Bay.

2. VTA's new projection is similar to the LA's Red Line subway, which is 18.6 miles long and carries about 117,543 riders per day. The LA's Red Line has 16 stations, serving downtown LA (which has much taller buildings than San Jose), the Wilshire Corridor (more dense than El Camino, with Metro Rapid buses operating every 2 minutes duplicating the Red Line), Hollywood, and the south end of the San Fernando Valley. It has links to the Blue Line (with 75,000 riders per day) and Gold Line light rail, as well as Amtrak and Metrolink. LA's Red Line uses the same fare structure with its bus and light rail counterparts, offering a flat fare, along with day and monthly passes. It is also a subway line using the proof-of-payment system common with light rail.

LA's sytem was originally projected to carry about 300,000 riders per day.

LA has four times the population of San Jose, and its population density is higher than San Jose but lower than San Francisco.

3. VTA, after years of fare increases and service reductions, have fewer than 100,000 riding on its bus system today. The projected BART ridership is higher than the current systemwide bus ridership. The system in LA, even with 117,543 riders on the Red Line, has over 1.2 million boardings per weekday on its bus system. San Francisco Muni carries over 700,000 riders per weekday on its bus and rail system, more than twice of BART's overall ridership.

If for some magical reasons, VTA achieves the high density developments needed to support 111,000 riders on BART, how many would be riding its buses and light rail? (hint: probably 7 to 10 times higher than BART) And will VTA have the necessary funds to support a bus and light rail system that could carry over 1 million riders each weekday? (probably VTA is assuming that everything else stays constant)

This BART extension isn't the New York subway or London Underground, a higher BART ridership along with a low bus and light rail ridership defies common logic!

Why GIGO? Like in the past, VTA has been certifying lies to win elections. Back in 2000, when Pete Cipolla reported that an additional tax is necessary to provide additional operating funds, some of the directors said in public that a new tax was not needed because the economy was doing so well and the tax money was pouring in. Today, many years sooner than Cipolla originally estimated, VTA plans for a new tax. VTA and the SVLG will likely use this new figure to try mislead voters to support a new tax as well.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

VTA insane tax talk heats up

The proposed 1/4 cent sales tax will be the main topic at the upcoming VTA board workshop scheduled this Friday.

In addition to the basic expenditure on assumptions drafted by Gonzales earlier, VTA also evaluated additional assumptions submitted by SV"L"G and the cities in the north county.

In both scenarios submitted by SVLG and the north county, the opening of the BART extension would be delayed for three years to 2018. For the SVLG scenario, the tax would be a temporary tax with a 30 year life, whereas in other scenarios would be permanent. In the case of the north county scenario, the reason for the 3 year delay is to use the extra funds to support Caltrain electrification sooner.

The SVLG version would fund roads and bicycle program, and would eliminate funds for the Downtown-East Valley light rail, along with cutting funds for Caltrain electrification arbitrarily by 10%. The reason for cutting light rail and reduce funding for Caltrain electrification is that these projects don't poll well according to SVLG. SVLG also recommended a 30 year life, rather than a permanent tax, for the same reason.

Caltrain electrification

SVLG underestimated the benefits Caltrain electrificiation, and arbitrarily splited Caltrain station and service improvements (which polled better according to SVLG) from electrification. Currently Caltrain is studying to replace the entire passenger fleet, which most of the vehicles are 20 years old, with new low floor vehicles. The new vehicles would enhance accessibility for the disabled, decrease dwell time, and further improve acceleration.

If a total fleet replacement is to be considered as a waste for Caltrain, wouldn't the total fleet replacement for light rail be a waste as well? VTA replaced its 15-year-old high floor fleet two years ago, with low floor vehicles that, other than improved accessibility, deliver no additional improvements.

Why didn't SVLG arbitrarily split BART into segments (say to Milpitas and then downtown San Jose)? Would one of the segments poll better than the other?

Downtown-East Valley

This is a comment made by the City of San Jose (included in the VTA workshop packet) that demostrated the city's lack of knowledge in transportation:

The Mayor asked for both full and partial light rail options to be brought forward. That means single car light rail all the way down Alum Rock and Santa Clara streets and single car and multi-car light rail down Alum Rock to stop at the BART station at Alum Rock with passengers going down Santa Clara Street to change to bus rapid transit at the Alum Rock Station.

Similarly, bus passengers going up Santa Clara who want to proceed up Alum Rock would change to light rail. The mayor wants the full range of options considered and not just bus rapid transit or single car light rail all the way up or down Santa Clara and Alum Rock. Only then will the San Jose members be in a position to sort out the best option the area.

VTA did not study a light rail extension from Capitol Avenue to 28th Avenue and shouldn't be. Today, passengers riding along that corridor between downtown and East San Jose have a one-seat ride. Building light rail to 28th Avenue means that these passengers would have to transfer between vehicles. Although passengers from the east to downtown could transfer to BART (as Gonzales and SVLG would want them to) for a rail-only trip, most passengers won't because of the high cost involved, along with the inconvenience of walking to and from the subway stop for otherwise a 10-minute bus ride.

If they support BART because it would eliminate a transfer for some out-of-county residents, why would they support a half-ass light rail extension that would add a transfer for in-county residents along the most utilized transit corridor?

San Jose Airport People Mover

Yoriko Kishimoto of the Palo Alto City Council asked about the People Mover, and VTA responded that the project is currently under study. Despite all the promises of a people mover today, the reality is that the project won't go anywhere.

San Jose voters approved a measure in March 2003 that allowed the airport to expand without the people mover to the light rail station on North First Street. The people mover was included in the original expansion as a way to mitigate the anticipated increase of airport traffic:

The expansion of the people mover to the other side of the airport is more expensive and complex than to go to the light rail on North First Street. Although having the people mover going under the runway (rather than going around) would shorten the trip time significantly, it seems rather unlikely due to the security sensitivities after 9/11. Also, we don't know who is going to pay for the operating cost of the people mover.

The likely case is that passenger from BART, just like Caltrain and light rail passengers, would have to take bus #10 to get to the airport, even with an extra 1/4 cent sales tax.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

San Jose's first subway

Besides the Grand Prix, on July 29, 2005, the City of San Jose made history by opening its first subway, thereby joining other cities such as New York and London that have rail underground. Although it is only about a quarter mile long, the ride through the subway offers a full BART-extension experience today, from the sight and sound, as well as the (lack of) fellow riders on board the trains.

What happened to the employees from the SVLG sponsoring companies who should be filling up the trains?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Who's at fault for the Vasona LR opening delay?

Yesterday VTA announced the delay in the full opening of the Vasona extension to Campbell, yet set the partial opening of the extension to San Jose Diridon station two weeks ahead on August 1. The extension to San Jose Diridon station is set to temporarily open starting tomorrow for the San Jose Grand Prix, where the light rail system would be severed in downtown San Jose where the race track crosses the light rail line at two intersections. Under the original plan, the extension to San Jose Diridon would be closed after the Grand Prix weekend and reopen on Aug 12 along with other stations.

Starting from the San Carlos/Woz Way intersection, where the new light rail line splits from the existing line, the tracks follow an exclusive right of way, and then a short subway, to San Jose Diridon station. From the San Jose Diridon station, the tracks follow the Vasona freight line to Winchester station. The line south of San Jose Diridon shares many grade crossings with the freight line and, at one location, there is a freight spur crossing the light rail line serving an industry.

Unlike many of the startup delays, like those associated with the BART extension to SFO, this was announced two weeks before the scheduled opening date (whereas BART had not yet set a date when delays were announced), where associated bus route changes have taken place (whereas in previous openings the associated bus route changes occurred after the opening of the rail extensions), and where publicity materials and the new light rail timetables have been published and distributed.

Apparently the reasons for the delays are in regulatory nature. In its statement, without mentioning any specifics, VTA blamed the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for imposing additional changes before granting waivers. Actually to make things simple, there are two issues at stake: exemption from federal railroad-based rules, and exemption from the federal horn rule.

In an article appeared on today's Mercury News, VTA requested a waiver for various railroad-based work rules that are not applicable to transit operations. In that article, a representative from the FRA blamed VTA for submitting the application for a waiver not early enough.

A search from the Department of Transportation's web site found documents of VTA applying for a waiver related to the railroad-based rules. Apparently at present VTA is trying to renew its existing waiver on the Mountain View line and extend it to include the Vasona line. In the Federal Register published on July 21, FRA recognized the August 12 opening date originally set by VTA and said that it would be willing to give a temporary relief to VTA to open in time.

In a related opinion piece by Scott Herhold, Herhold brought up the FRA horn rule and said that a delay in the Vasona line opening would please the residents along the line, since VTA would have to blow horns at grade crossings until a waiver from FRA is granted. Last month, FRA imposed a horn rule affecting all railroads as well as light rail lines that share track or corridor with railroads. As the result, VTA implemented the FRA's horn requirement on a segment of the Mountain View line, while working with FRA and cities to start "quiet zones," a exemption from blowing horns.

There is a consent agenda item on the August 4 board meeting to approve additional construction for the Vasona line to qualify for horn waiver. The cost of the work is $100,000.

What is clear is that VTA is not revealing a seemingly complicated nature of the regulations. Margaret Okuzumi, a member of the VTA Citizen Advisory Committee, says on VTA Riders Union group: "If there are other reasons VTA should be up front about them. I think it's strange because in my limited experience, the CPUC has requirements that are even more stringent than FRA's."

While I heard others blaming FRA for making surprise decisions (thereby giving a benefit of a doubt to VTA). I think VTA actually has more of the responsibility. Since the federal government works slowly, VTA should have an opportunity to get a head's up for upcoming regulations and could've act sooner to comply with any of the existing or upcoming regulations. Since VTA has already received a waiver from FRA five years ago, VTA should've known when to turn in the "homework" and know the process.

As to the horn rule, VTA could've chosen a initial service plan that only includes service during the daytime, and therefore would minimize the impact on neighbors until the "quiet zone" waiver is granted.

On the other hand, VTA could've chosen a more conservative path and only announce the opening date after all these waivers have been granted. Why did VTA hurry to get this announced? Is it because of the new 1/4 cent sales tax?

Monday, July 25, 2005

SamTrans set hearings to consider weekend closure of two Peninsula BART stations

SamTrans, the agencies that financially supports the BART line south of Daly City, is proposing to close South San Francisco and San Bruno stations on weekends to reduce costs. In addition, SamTrans is planning to further increase the fares between San Mateo County stations (except Millbrae) and SFO by $1, beyond what the BART board of directors has approved.

Eliminating service to station is similar to the Caltrain's new operating plan to be implemented on August 1. Under Caltrain's plan, Broadway and Atherton stations will lose weekday service but will retain weekend service.

SamTrans cites low ridership and high costs as reasons to eliminate service at these two stations on weekends. SamTrans plans to reduce and hopefully eliminate operating subsidies in the next few years. Before the extension was opened, SamTrans actually had operating "surpluses" from Daly City and Colma stations.

Why was SamTrans able to have negative operating subsides before the BART extension to SFO and Millbrae opened? The reason is SamTrans gets to collect the total fare from all passengers riding to and form San Mateo County, but is charged for incremental operating costs within San Mateo County. For example, for a trip between South San Francisco and Embarcadero, SamTrans gets to collect the entire fare of $2.95, despite the fact that only a fraction of the trip mile is made in SamTrans-funded San Mateo County.

The likely argument for this type of accounting is that the BART district is not operating any more trains within its own district than it would have without the extension, and that San Mateo County riders are just using the excess capacity.

Although not specifically mentioned, Caltrain is also using the same type of accounting to support the service to Gilroy (page 29) , which still presented a high farebox recovery despite large ridership drops due to the bad economy and the widened US 101.

The amazing thing is that even with the "special" accounting applied to the BART-SFO extension, the line has far fewer riders and still requires large operating subsidies.

Is this a future for VTA?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

BART's averted strike and the VTA tax

The morning after the the strike was averted, someone told me that, if the strike had happened, it would hurt the VTA tax in 2006 as voters will remember the strike and would question why they should pay more taxes to support a system that might not operate.

While I agree in part, I think if the strike happened there might be unintended consequences that no one can calculate.

Nonetheless the public showdown outside the bargaining table between the labor and management is showing a troubling aspect for Santa Clara county. During the showdown, the labor did not receive much sympathy and was often criticized as being a group of highest paid employees wanting to get more. Although the tentative agreement has averted the strike and its impact, it still leaves the impression and the possibility that riders would have to pick up the tabs because of these generous contracts. Before the tentative agreement with labor, BART has already approved a fare increase next year, making the most expensive transit system to ride even more expensive.

As for VTA, what choices do they have? Basically as an agency that contracts its service to another agency, VTA would not be at the bargaining table to negotiate with BART unions. It leaves the possibility that the BART board and management in Oakland might agree on a contract that would shift more burden to VTA than what VTA had planned. Since only BART can run a BART line, VTA cannot control the operating costs by contracting the operation through competitive bidding or using its own employees. In constrast, Caltrain's operation is competitively contracted, in addition to VTA having representation on the Caltrain board.

A new sales tax basically means a blank check for the BART management and unions in Oakland, at the expense of VTA riders, employees, and taxpayers.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

VTA's minimal job to start its first rapid bus line

Next week, VTA will start its first rapid bus line on the El Camino corridor. The cost to improve the corridor was $3.5 million. Since the project corridor is about 26 miles long, it comes to about $134,616 per mile. BART would cost at least 1000 times more per mile and it certainly won't have 1000 times the ridership as the 22 corridor. The rapid bus, similar to the Baby Bullet Caltrain service, has the potential to substantially increase service and ridership at a reduced cost. That's why VTA has been dragging its feet when it comes to implementing rapid bus: trying to protect its senseless BART project.

LA's Metro Rapid set a standard for rapid bus, an initial implementation of fuller scale bus rapid transit. On its web site, MTA stated its characteristics:

Key Metro Rapid Attributes:
  • Simple route layout: Makes it easy to find, use and remember
  • Frequent service: Buses arrive as often as every 3-10 minutes during peak commuting times
  • Fewer stops: Stops spaced about a ¾ mile apart, like rail lines, at most major transfer points
  • Level boarding: Low-floor buses speed-up dwell times
  • Bus priority at traffic signals: New technology reduces traffic delay by extending the green light or shortening the red light to help Metro Rapid get through intersections
  • Color-coded buses and stops: Metro Rapid’s distinctive red paint makes it easy to identify Metro Rapid stops and buses
  • Enhanced stations: Metro Rapid stations provide information, lighting, canopies and “Next Trip” displays

VTA's proposal for 522 met most of the charactistics as the LA's Metro Rapid, except with the minimal required frequency for headway based service (every 15 minutes) and the lack of enhanced stations. Except with the special Rapid signs, the rapid stops are just regular stops with regular shelters, and there won't be any next trip displays that would come in handy for passengers to decide whether to wait for the rapid bus or take the next bus they see.

Although it would cost more for VTA to implement these features, the cost would be relatively small and would enhance the effectiveness of the faster service. Unfortunately, VTA would rather spend more money on consultants for the preliminary engineering of the BART project, which all by itself it doesn't improve transportation.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The 2006 Measure A sales tax campaign starts now

At the special VTA board meeting scheduled for June 16, the VTA board is asked to approve a request by the SJ Mayor Gonzales, essentially giving an early endorsement for a 1/4 cent sales tax.

Gonzales's request is to direct the VTA staff to come up with a capital expenditure plan "tax plan" primarily with the following assumptions:
  • 1/4 cent sales tax
  • Full BART extension ASAP, including the appendage to the Santa Clara freight rail yard
  • Cutting one of the two proposed BART subway stations in downtown San Jose
  • Reduce cost initially by cutting the number of BART rail cars to be purchased
  • More of the same as to funding other projects and programs, but to assume that these projects would speed up implementation by decreasing costs on their own
  • No airport peoplemover at least until 2020

Gonzales specifically recommended the board not to look at funding scenarios with no new tax. He also refer to the SVLG's own private poll specifically as one of the factors for these assumptions.

Through this memo, he is attempting to reach a compromise for a new tax. He is willing to give up one of the two downtown San Jose BART subway stations, but he is still asking for a full extension, with the appendage to Santa Clara rail yard, to be built all at once. Still, his insistance signals a unwillingness to follow a common practice performed at other agencies, and continues to pose a risk for other projects from having their funds raided for BART, despite the token protection listed in the memo for Caltrain electrification and other projects through some undefined savings.

This latest attempt for a compromise could mean a higher 2000 Measure A tax for less of the 2000 Measure A program. The 2000 Measure A, no matter how many times "71% voter approval" Gonzales and Guardino repeat over and over, is a damaged good.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Mr. Burns to become VTA's general manager

It is still not entirely clear at these point why VTA would chose him over other candidates. If they think that hiring Michael Burns as a new general manager would make their worthless BART project to look more worthy, they are wrong. No one can turn chicken shit into chicken salad.

It apprears that Michael Burns' strength is on transit operation. He was hired as the head of San Francisco Muni after the infamous Muni Metro Meltdown in 1998. Since then, the performance of the system has improved. He has advocated for plans to make the system more efficient, and a vision that is similar to what Rescue Muni advocates.

On the other hand, during his tenure in Muni, the only major capital project that went into operation was the F-line streetcar extension to Fisherman's Wharf in 2000, with planning and construction began many years before him. The only expansion project that was developed partly under his watch is the Third Street Light Rail, which is currently under construction. Also, Burns has not managed any highway projects in San Francisco. With Pete Cipolla at VTA, three light rail projects went into construction and two of them were opened, with the last one scheduled to open two months from now.

However, given Burns' strength in operation, perhaps he could take actions to improve the system with what VTA already has. Trying to do that at VTA would certainly be easier than trying to do anything in San Francisco, where the political crap is many times more worse than in Santa Clara County. Up in the city, every little thing could trigger a power trip with the politicians. Also, incompetence, fraud, and waste not only are tolerated, but are considered to be justified.

On the other hand, no matter how competent the general manager is, the success and failure of the agency also depends on the board of directors. Sadly, the board is very political and its policies is largely driven by non-transportation agendas and conflicting interests. With VTA's agenda wrong all these years, would Burns try to correct the situation? Or would he just bendover and go against professional sense? Could he become another Pete Cipolla?

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

VTA's unequal treatment

As usual, when a new light rail line opens, there's will be changes to bus routes as well. Mostly likely it would involve shortening long trunk bus routes coming from downtowns to the nearest new light rail stations, and the rest filled by short feeder bus routes between the new light rail stations and the neighborhoods.

When the Tasman East/Capitol light rail opened last year in Milpitas, lines 70 and 71, long mainline bus routes connecting East San Jose and Milpitas, were both shortened at the north end at the Great Mall light rail station. Services in Milpitas were then replaced by short feeder bus routes 46 and 47. The replacement services are less frequent and with shorter operating hours than 70 and 71.

For a trip that took only one bus trip between these two neighborhoods now takes two, in addition to the transfer penalty, it also increased the fares for riders without monthly passes. Passengers now either have to pay twice on the one way fares or buy day passes.

On the other hand, similar proposals were presented to Los Gatos for the opening of the Vasona extension scheduled in August, but the wealthy folks in Los Gatos would get a much sweeter deal.

Under the current service plan for July 2005, lines 60 and 62, both long mainline bus routes, would be shortened at the south end at the Winchester light rail station and Good Samaritan Hospital respectively. Services to the south would replaced by new feeder routes 48 and 49 from the Winchester light rail station.

Unlike the services in Milpitas, both routes 48 and 49 would be as frequent and would have a similar operating hours as the mainline bus routes (all night services to and from Los Gatos end at about 9:00pm currently). The best of all, however, is that these feeder services would be FREE for everyone!

Can't you see what's wrong? People of color and lower income in Milpitas and East San Jose faced de facto service deterioration with feeder services that are less frequent, have shorter service span, and are more expensive than the previous mainline services. Meanwhile primarily white residents in million dollar homes would receive free feeder services to Light Rail that would be as frequent as the mainline services.

While VTA would try to justify free and more frequent service in Los Gatos because of the smaller buses that would be operated by private firms, VTA is nonetheless providing unequal treatment. Milpitas and East San Jose has a much larger minority and lower income population than in Los Gatos.

Where do the Milpitas and San Jose politicians stand on this? It seems that they are okay about the unequal treatment as long as they get the stupid BART extension through in the next 20 to 30 years. For them, an expensive rail system that is even more expensive for their constituents to ride would sure make things right!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Guardino's flip-floping

Guardino is no transportation expert, but just another pseudo-politician whose opinion is based on the direction of the wind.

In a recent Gilroy Dispatch article. You can see his flop-fliping in action.

At first, the article mentioned a recent poll by SVLG that argued that voters all over the county favor BART more than any other transit projects. Laura Stuchinsky of SVLG was quoted on the paper defending its poll: "I think a lot of folks in the county who won't have BART coming to their doorstep recognize it will be a service that will benefit the entire region."

If SVLG's intent is not to play favorism, to pick fights, or to try to defund other projects to support BART, then why are they asking for voter preference over false choices? SVLG has been saying recently that BART should be the priority because of voter preference based on the poll SVLG has conducted.

When Don Gage, a VTA director and a County Supervisor representing the south county said in the article that there are real trade-offs for BART versus other transportation improvements in the South County, Guardino flip-floped and said: "We think it's false choice to say 'it's either or' when."

Earlier they said BART over everything else, later they said that they're not trying to pick a project as a priority, classic flip-flopping!

The most ridiculous part is that Guardino is saying that other projects could get by through trimming: Guardino said that light rail improvements budgeted at $1 billion could be accomplished for $250 million if done efficiently.

So what about BART? Has SVLG ever supported measures to cut costs on BART, such as build the extension in phases, or keep more of the line on surface, or cut the the appendage from San Jose to Santa Clara that would parallel Caltrain, ACE, and Capitol Corridor (three regional rail services!!!)? Instead they've been lying about the costs ($7 billion vs. $4 billion), condoned VTA to lie about the existence of financing costs, and supported VTA to say no to the federal government's request for a real study. If SVLG thinks that others could do more with less funding, why did SVLG do just the opposite with BART?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The big fat Mercury lie

"BART's latest extension, to San Francisco's airport, has had disappointing ridership compared with projections -- but even so, it's carrying nearly as many riders per day as the whole Caltrain line from Gilroy to San Francisco."

This is a big fat lie that the Congress deserves to know.

You can see for yourself here:

SamTrans ridership report on BART - read page 4
Caltrain ridership report - read page 3

For a fair comparison, you should also subtract Colma from the total ridership without Daly City, since the Colma station has been in operation since 1996, 7 years earlier than the entire SFO extension. Also, number of including Daly City is not comparible since the Daly City station has been in operation for over 30 years and half of the service area around the station belongs to San Francisco.

March 2005
21,638 BART extension (SSF, SB, SFIA, Millbrae)
29,118 Caltrain

The number is not even close, even with Colma added.

Also, the BART numbers most likely include boarding and exiting. It would be fair if riders are coming from stations outside the county, which is primarily the case, but riders traveling within the county would get double counted.

As much as the Mercury News editors and Guardino/SVLG like to put it, the issue is not about vision, but how to get to the vision. These folks don't have enough experience with mass transit to know what is really needed. They could sit in their cars for 15 to 30 years for a "vision" to be realized, and afterwards they'll still be stuck in their cars.

People who ride transit today cannot afford to wait 15-30 years. If a 10% improvement in the quality of service could be delivered next year, and for years after that until the "vision" realized, they'll take that instead. Caltrain is basically the latter, an incremental improvement to become a rapid transit system.

Looking back in the ridership numbers. Caltrain was able to deliver a 12% ridership increase in one year in a slumping economy without additional operating subsidy. BART could not have delivered that.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Faux debate on BART - Unfair and unbalanced

The Commonwealth Club, along with the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State, California State Automobile Association, and SVLG, will host a forum on BART on the afternoon of April 21 at the County building. Supposedly Greg Perry of Mountain View was invited to serve as a panelist along with Cindy Chavez of San Jose, Carl Guardino of SVLG and Dennis Kennedy of Morgan Hill.

Guardino is obviously a strong supporter of that project and SVLG is bring Chavez along to prep her to become another Gonzales. Kennedy is opposed to the project but is nowhere close compared to Perry when it comes to the knowledge about VTA and the project.

Rod Diridon Sr., who got a nice job being the director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, recently removed Perry off the panel for some reason. Bay Rail Alliance and VTA Riders Union wrote letters to complain. It is no surprise that Diridon kicked Perry out because Diridon is afraid of Perry telling the truth behind the BART project. Diridon replaced with a token opposition Ron Swegles of Sunnyvale to make themselves look good.

Apparently, as reported in the ba.transportation newsgroup, the executive director of the Commonwealth Club - Gloria Duffy, is the wife of Rod Diridon. So no phone calls need to make that work, just some pillow talk!

Friday, April 08, 2005

VTA trying to cheat the system

VTA is trying to have things both ways: phase the project without phasing it.

VTA is splitting the BART project into two segments. The first segment is from Warm Springs to Berryessa, and the second segment is the stupid downtown subway and a portion that parallels Caltrain to Santa Clara. VTA plans to submit the first portion for federal funding and leave the second portion be locally and state funded.

Basically by putting the first portion to be federally funded. The cost for the federal funded portion would be smaller and thus appear more cost effective. VTA also plans to request a smaller amount, about $500 million or so, first the first segment. Since the second portion would not be federally funded, VTA could spend as much as it wants and screw cost effectiveness.

But the interesting thing to the story is that VTA intends to build both portions all at once.

Federalizing a portion of a greater project has been done before even in the Bay Area. For example, the Tasman light rail line, and the 3rd Street light rail and Central Subway in San Francisco. But the differences are that these projects, as their entirety, are more cost effective, and that they all were or to be built and planned in phases.

What VTA is trying to do is to cheat the federal government.

Aside from poor cost effectiveness and increased construction cost to VTA (due to the smaller federal funding request), VTA has cash flow problems for construction, as well as the lack of operating funds. If VTA were to build the BART project in phases, VTA's problem would be much less severe, and therefore VTA would likely argue for federalizing a segment based on these benefits. However, this is not VTA intends to do. VTA intends to build the whole project at once based on false benefits and with all the harms.

VTA could cut bus service to pay for the subway part of the project without federal oversight. Also, if cost overruns occur for the subway portion of the project, VTA could literally run out of funds and would not be able to produce matching funds for the federalized portion. Without checks and balances for the most expensive and unstable portion of the project, the foolish BART project would be another Bay Bridge East Span. Instead of a large fishing pier, it would be disconnected wide gauge track segments suitable for a train musesum displaying trains from India.

Carl Guardino of SVLG is quoted “With this innovative agreement the federal government has shown they know the answer to the 1960 song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” – it’s on a BART train, all the way to downtown San Jose, and onto Santa Clara.” May be he is actually talking about these trains without carrying any actual passengers.

I hope the federal government would see this crap right through.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

FTA's new recommendation and San Jose/VTA's response

FTA's recent letter expressed its intention to raise the cost effectiveness score to medium in order to receive federal funds.

This is the response from Gonzales on FTA's letter.

Essentially, FTA is saying that it needs a minimum of C grade to pass the class, and that Gonzales is protesting the shift because VTA is working hard to get a D grade.

If this project were cost effective, the change in minimum score should have no impact, just as a A grade student would pass the class no matter what.

In the past FTA has suggested VTA to phase the extension, a practice that all other transit agencies, including even VTA, for rail projects. Gonzales stubborness against phasing is one of the reasons why VTA is where it is right now in the eyes of FTA.

An article in today's Mercury News covered the story on the differences between FTA and VTA over the cost effectiveness score, and also covered SVLG's effort to get another sales tax passed. It is important to note that because SVLG is a sponsor of the tax, any polls done by that group is biased and is geared toward promoting the tax. SVLG's pollster will likely go over the pro-VTA tax talking points before getting a response whether to support or oppose.

Perhaps these arguments should make voters to think again:

-VTA over estimated BART ridership. For instance, BART extension to SFO opened in 2003 has far fewer riders than estimated, and required SamTrans, the local bus agency, to pay for BART operation.

-If VTA chose to phase the BART project at least to Milpitas and connect to light rail, there's no need for the tax increase for now and the initial phase would at least open 5 to 10 years earlier than if the project were to be built as a whole.

-The Santa Clara county Grand Jury found VTA as unaccountable and needs reform.

-Caltrain's Baby Bullet has already achieved a service and speed that BART cannot match, and it costs pennies to the dollar on construction and operation compared to BART.

More talking points later...

Sunday, March 27, 2005

VTA's new buses and more

Appeared on the March 30 agenda is a recommendation to approve the purchase of smaller buses. VTA plans to initially purchase 5 28-foot buses through the state's contract.

Also on the agenda is a resolution to oppose the closure of College Park Caltrain station, as well as a decision on the San Jose Grand Prix. The map of the new race course is included in the packet.

The two last minute resolutions on the College Park and the Grand Prix were submitted in the same "SJ Council/VTA board members' memo to the board" manner, essentially locking in five votes on the board.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice...

Palo Alto's City Council voted to oppose the VTA's proposed sales tax increase. It is good that Palo Alto is seriously considering the impact of the proposed sales tax increase and the benefits they would, or would not be getting.

Five years ago the same council supported the original Measure A. Sandy Eakins, a member of the PA's City Council at that time, sold herself to the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group and was a strong advocate for the sale tax plan. During a VTA special board meeting on August 9, 2000, when VTA was about the place Measure A sales tax on the ballot, Eakins moved to amend the language of Measure A to include funding to study a BART extension from Santa Clara (where the original proposal ends) to Palo Alto. She did so after hearing a suggestion from her colleague at work!

Why is Palo Alto getting screwed in the 2000 Measure A? It is because of poor representation at the time when the plan was drafted. Instead of evaluating the project list seriously and negotiating a plan that ensures regional equity. Its representive choose to accept a fantasy idea from her colleague! It was a good thing that the voters kicked her out of the council in 2001.

VTA thought that they could go back to the council with the same lame plan and hope that some confused members would get fooled again, but not this time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

VTA to restart its restructuring committee

Date: Thursday, March 24, 2005
Time: 4:00 PM
Location: County Government Center 10th Floor Conference Room 70 West Hedding Street San Jose

Monday, March 14, 2005

Gilroy Caltrain service spared for now

Despite the current budget crisis Caltrain is facing, Caltrain plans to keep the Gilroy service pretty much as it is for now.

Caltrain Joint Powers Board held a budget workshop earlier today, and presented revenue increasing and cost cutting measures. Instead of massive service cuts, as VTA has done to its service over the last few years, Caltrain is suggesting adding more popular Baby Bullet service, as well as a fare increase.

During the budget presentation, the staff argued to keep the Gilroy service, despite its low ridership and excess train capacity, because of the high level of fares collected. The JPB staff also argued and that cutting the service would result in relatively small savings. However it appears that the JPB staff included the total fare paid by Gilroy riders (beyond the Gilroy-South San Jose zones) in its calculation of revenue generated by the Gilroy service.

Let's see how serious VTA is regarding the Gilroy service and whether it is going to do anything to improve the ridership on that line.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

VTA partly at fault for Caltrain's fiscal emergency

This week, the Caltrain Joint Powers Board will meet and vote whether to declare fiscal emergency. If the board approves as expected, the Caltrain staff will propose train cuts and fare hikes to close the budget gap.

Transit agencies in the three counties that contribute operating funds to Caltrain (San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara have their contribution frozen for the last few years. It is hard to demand an increase in contribution in light of the current economic climate, esepcially in San Francisco where Muni is facing a $50 million plus budget gap. It is time to look at the system where the greatest savings can be achieve with the fewest riders impacted.

One of the area where the ridership and revenue continues to be sagging is the Gilroy-San Jose segment. Due to the VTA sponsored freeway widening, along with the dot-come bust, the ridership declined. Back in 2000, these trains used to be nearly full.

Falling ridership means falling revenue for Caltrain, which partly contributed to the current budget gap of about $11 million.

While that portion is solely funded by VTA, it would be a wise for VTA to reduce service on that segment and shift funds to protect the service and the ridership between Palo Alto and San Jose. Meanwhile the Gilroy-San Jose corridor could be serviced by express buses using the new VTA sponsored lanes on the freeway.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

More tax for more of the same

VTA is trying hard to sell resell the 2000 Measure A.

An honest agency would at least try hard to deliver as much as the agency can with what it has, before asking the voters for more taxes. VTA does things the other way: ask voters to put pay twice as much to VTA in sales taxes for the same projects. And the worse part is that VTA has yet to collect one cent from the 2000 Measure A!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

VTA's so-call "investment program"

Late last week, VTA released on its web site a document called Long Term Transit Capital Investment Program to justify putting a new VTA 1/2 cent sales tax on the ballot. It is basically a recap of the projects listed in the 2000 Measure A. After four years, could VTA have reevaluated its projects based on merit in light on recent economic condition? Of course not.

Besides of what VTA considers to be a mandate, such as the San Jose deep tunneling project, VTA also included $1.3 million to study "new rail corridors" this year, and almost $3 billion to construct "at least two" of these new corridors:

• Sunnyvale/Cupertino;
• East Valley Extension to Guadalupe LRT;
• Santa Teresa/Coyote Valley and potential extension south to Morgan Hill;
• Stevens Creek Boulevard;
• West San Jose/Santa Clara;
• North County/Palo Alto;
• Vasona LRT to Vasona Junction.

I doubt any of those on the list has any merit. The most ridiculous corridors to be included are Santa Teresa/Coyote Valley and the North County/Palo Alto. These corridors are already served by Caltrain in which VTA is not interested to support. Also, if these light rail projects were built, the travel time from Palo Alto and from Coyote Valley to Downtown San Jose would likely take over an hour.

Although as usual planning for rail is a long process and that eventually there may not be any funding available to do whatever VTA wants, but studying new corridors now clearly demostrates where VTA's priorities are.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Welcome to VTA Watch

Welcome to VTA Watch.

After the November 2000 election, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has gone down the wrong track when it comes to transit planning and operation. During the last five years, VTA experienced dropped ridership, increased fares, and reduced service, yet VTA is still pretending that the agency is doing well. It is not. It is time to demand a competent governance and management for VTA.

With the increasing noise from the special interests like the SVMG against common sense transit policies. Now is the time where the other side gets heard.