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.