Thursday, December 18, 2008

Who are we fighting for?

One comment by Richard Zappelli on the San Jose Inside blog nicely sums up the differences in values between the delusionals who will lie and cheat to get their pet project approved and those of us who made personal sacrifices demanding truth from this otherwise unaccountable transit agency:

“Keep money for capital projects” is not only inconsiderate but criminal. Access to transportation by low-income individuals and families has become limited in our valley as the majority of low-income families reside in the suburbs. With new jobs emerging further and further away from our downtown city center, many low income workers have difficulty accessing jobs, training and other services in our valley such as childcare because of inadequate public transportation in San Jose.

In addition, many minimum wage jobs require working evening or weekend jobs, but VTA transportation system in many areas today do not serve their neighborhoods during these times.

Access to affordable transportation for low-income workers, elderly rural residents and their children makes the trip to work, school and medical appointments possible. Our present buss and light rail system within our city and county helps these people attain self-sustainability, promotes independence and permits spending on other important household needs to take care of their families.

Some people do not believe that VTA would be willing to sacrifice transit service for a pet project. The reality is that VTA was (and still is). The past attempt to cut service in 2003 was avoided because of the effort from the transit advocates.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Things that VTA should have told voters about

At the VTA Board workshop yesterday, General Manager Michael Burns told what a lot of us have been suspected but was denied by the supporters during the Measure B campaign.

"It's clear we can't see the BART project getting ($750 million in federal) money if we're spending our local money on other projects," Burns said in an interview earlier this week. "That just doesn't add up."

During the meeting, VTA also admitted that it would receive $2 billion less from the 2000 Measure A than what was projected earlier.

Basically Burns was saying that all the other projects would be off the table, even the airport people mover, a project that has no operating funds identified. The BRT project along Santa Clara Street, which replaced light rail as originally listed on the 2000 Measure A, is also at risk.

Although some think that the bickering should stop, the bickering will never end as long as VTA has to deploy deceptive tactics to get a tax passed. Burns said that BART was approved by voters twice, but we all know that VTA did not put other projects on the ballot twice for voters to approve. VTA controlled which projects go onto the ballot, controlled how much tax to collect, and controlled what information released relevent to voters. VTA has become a Russian style "democracy."

Given the election results in Los Angeles and the North Bay, VTA could've been better off by being more honest.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A cover for bus cuts?

On the December issue of VTA Take One newsletter (apparently it is not available online, but available on the bus), there's a short article about VTA's "Annual Transit Service Plan":

VTA will present its proposed Annual Transit Service Plan to the public in January 2009 at several public meetings throughout Santa Clara County. The purpose of these meetings is to introduce our initial transit service proposal to our riders as well as to obtain public input to ensure that we develop and implement the best service plan possible.

The transit service plan is developed to improve future efficiencies and ensure VTA meets service demands. From January through March 2009, VTA staff will host public meetings and gather recommendations and comments from the public. The revised plan, based on service analysis and public input will be presented to VTA committees and the board of directors. If approved, the proposed Transit Service Plan will be implemented in July 2009.

By law, VTA is required to obtain public input when it proposes significant changes to the bus system. For the past few years, other than the COA, VTA only held public meetings on route changes when it planned for opening of new light rail lines and when it planned for service cuts.

As we all know, there's nothing on the pipe in terms of new rail lines opening. However, there are strong indications that VTA will receive less revenue from local taxes and from the state next year. Unfortunately Measure B only makes the situation worse.

Although VTA has seen ridership increases throughout this year, it is still not clear how much of the ridership increases came from the new service plan or just because of high gas prices. We should have a better picture soon since gas prices have come down tremendously. Despite the ridership increases, there's a report that the farebox recovery rate has actually worsened. VTA spent two years in developing the COA before the plan was released to the public last year. VTA should not have to make major changes again if COA actually fulfilled its original promise.

Proposing major bus changes soon is not a good sign for transit riders in any way. It is likely that areas with less service today will get even less service. Given the tight budgetary situation and misguided VTA priorities, will service be "reinvested" in other areas, or just be eliminated altogether?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Historic trolley

This holiday season, VTA will operate historic trolley service every Saturday from 2:30pm to 10:00pm. The trolley will run every hour between San Jose Diridon Station and Civic Center Station. Any ticket or pass valid on the light rail is also valid on the historic trolleys.

Operating historic trolleys on the light rail system has always been a part of plan when light rail was conceived in the 1980s. For many years when VTA had more operating funds, VTA ran historic trolleys daily during the summer and the holiday season between Civic Center and downtown. VTA also operated a variety of trolleys, including those that once ran in San Jose before the last original trolley system was torn down in the 1930s.

Today, VTA only runs car #2001, which once ran in Milan, Italy. Originally the Milan cars were all single-ended. The San Jose Trolley Corporation had to obtain a second Milan car for parts to convert car #2001 into a double-ended car.

In addition, the other feature of car #2001 is a modern pantograph. Original Milan cars, like most other historic trolleys, were built with trolley poles. The Milan system eventually converted them to run with pantographs. While the VTA light rail system was built to accommodate trolley poles in downtown San Jose, the overhead catenary elsewhere in the system can only handle pantographs. Car #2001 can therefore operate anywhere in the light rail system, even though it cannot operate as fast as the modern light rail cars.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Secretary of State + County Registrar = Katherine Harris

George Bush got chosen to be the president 8 years ago when the Supreme Court ordered a stop to the Florida recount. Today, attorneys from the Secretary of State and the County Registrar conspired to avoid a recount of Measure B.

Basically, when TRANSDEF went to court in Santa Clara County yesterday, an attorney from the Secretary of State pulled a technical maneuver by demanding that the hearing to be moved to San Francisco because the secretary has no office in Santa Clara County. The plaintiff refiled the case in San Francisco today. During the hearing today, an attorney from the County Registrar said that it had already certified the election earlier in the morning. Therefore, the plaintiff was not able to get a temporary restraining order to stop the certification, which would give the plaintiff time to argue a case for a 10% manual recount based on the Secretary of State's emergency order and the U.S. Constitution.

Basically the issue of whether there should be equal protection was not addressed. This is another dirty tactic to prevent a recount of a tight election. This is contrary to the earlier intent from the Secretary of State that votes be counted fairly and accurately. We will never know what election irregularities there could be. Meanwhile, other candidates and campaigns elsewhere have the right to receive a recount.

This is another example of how Measure B was approved based on unethical and sometimes illegal tactics. Before the campaign, VTA deceived boardmembers and the public with misleading operating costs. At the start of the campaign, the yes side filed frivolous lawsuits to strike words from the ballot arguments. In the midst of the campaign, VTA staff assisted the yes campaign during working hours. This time, the Secretary of State and the Registrar conspired to prevent a recount, while other tight elections receive them.

Did they prevent a recount based on political convenience? or just simply a countywide recount is too expensive? Neither case is justified. There was no justice.

Did the other side win fairly? No. Is Measure B enough to fulfill what they promised? No. Will there be tough fights ahead to preserve bus service and other transit projects? Yes.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Yes for equal protection

Today, Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF) sued the Secretary of State trying to get an automatic 10% manual recount of the Measure B votes. The hearing has been moved from Santa Clara County to San Francisco.

A few weeks before the November election, the Secretary of State adopted new emergency regulations that mandate a 10% manual recount on tight races with a margin less than half a percent. However, the Secretary of State worded the regulations this way: “For ballot measure contests, including recall contests, the margin of victory is the difference between the percentages of votes for and against the ballot measure.”

Because school bonds require 55% and most other taxes require 2/3 to pass, the wording was probably an honest mistake on the part of the Secretary of State. However, a lawsuit is necessary in order to get a recount because the county's Registrar of Voters refused to do so based on its strict interpretation of the regulations.

Those who voted no on B deserve equal protection from the law like those who voted for other ballot measures and candidates. It is clear that Measure B was only passed by an extremely small margin. There's no legal or moral gounds to deny an automatic recount in this race but not other tight races. Remember, that's how Bush got into office when the Supreme Court ordered a stop to the recount in Florida 8 years ago.

Also, if Measure B were defeated by the same margin, the yes campaign would certainly take actions to get a recount.

TRANSDEF has a history of protecting transit riders when politicians and big money lobbyists abandoned them. In 2003, it issued legal comments in support of using Measure A funds to save bus service. It also fought against many highway expansions in the Bay Area that only encourage more auto dependency.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

$230 million cut in transit funding

While the downtown delusionals got to celebrate for winning a few months of lies, the state is already planning cuts to transit funding. The state is projecting a $11.2 billion budget shortfall for the remainder of this fiscal year. In order to close the deficit, the state is planning tax increases as well as cuts to various programs.

"If the cuts go through, there's no word on what the impact might be on service and fares. But with BART facing a cut of $14 million and Muni $21.5 million, the choices are bleak. There's always the bureaucratic standby of more administrative belt-tightening, but don't be surprised to see fare increases, service cuts and fewer workers to clean buses, trains and stations."

VTA is expected a cut of $9.5 million, which translates into the operating cost of about 30 buses for a whole year.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Campaigning brings out the worst in politics

It is all too common. From the presidential politics and local politics, campaigning generally brings out the worst. In a desperate move trying to win, a lot of campaigns present false accusations, make unfulfillable promises, and hide crucial information.

The Measure B campaign brought the worst in the South Bay politics. From the beginning to the end, the yes campaign made false promises. Crucial information about the cost of the project was hidden by the transit agency and the San Jose Mercury News. VTA did all they could trying to separate itself from the tax, even though VTA would collect the money and build the project. There was virtually no room for substantive debates.

As we already experienced in 2006, regardless of the election outcome, things generally tend to stay the same. The downtown delusionals will continue to advocate to build the project at the expense of everything else. Bus and light rail service will still be at risk. The economic reality at VTA will remain the same.

Even though most voters can't connect the dots between declining VTA service and Measure B, it does not mean that they don't care about the bus service and other VTA priorities. Measure B never directly asked them to de-prioritize these important needs. However, the downtown delusionals have their own interpretation. Expect them to demand VTA to defund these needs.

VTA could hide crucial information during the election, but VTA will not be able to hide it forever. Very soon, VTA will have to face reality. By that time, the dots will be much more easier to connect.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is BART the only thing that voters could ever pass?

In an unprecedented turnout, the yes vote for B barely crept pass 2/3 threshold with the provisional votes. It is unusual because Santa Clara County had a voter turnout of about 70% in 2000 and 2004, but increased by over 15% in just 4 years.

It is a temporary win for the downtown delusionals. As expected, they will say that voters only want BART but not other forms of mass transit, and that somehow VTA can pay for the whole project.

Is that really the case?

  • In Los Angeles, voters approved a 1/2 cent sales tax increase for transit by 67.31%.
  • In the North Bay, voters approved a 1/4 cent sales tax increase for rail by 69.5%.
  • In the East Bay, voters approved a parcel tax for AC Transit operation by 71.9%.
Voters should have easily passed a tax for transit if they actually have confidence in VTA. VTA now only had to rely on voters who don't know about VTA or the tax 8 years ago.

Regardless what the vote margin is, VTA is bound to break its "promise." VTA has not been telling voters how it could build the BART line, or even how much it would cost. In any case, the financial situation will only get tighter with declining state funding and sales tax revenue.

Given the results, it is unlikely for voters to approve a third tax for the same project in the next 8 years, if not longer. VTA will have no choice but to build a shorter line (which was never put on the table before by VTA until right after the election) with the funding it already has. At the end, it may not be a win for the downtown delusionals who want nothing but a subway.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More VTA threats

While the final vote count for Measure B has yet to be certified, we already know plenty whether Measure B fails or passes.

  1. VTA is still a few billion dollars short of what is necessary to build the BART project to downtown San Jose.
  2. The state is expected to make further funding cuts to transit because of the its budget crisis.
  3. VTA is already anticipating shortfalls in sales tax revenue. Automobile sales, one of the largest contributors in sales tax revenue, is expected to fall by double digits from a year ago.
  4. VTA, like many other transit agencies around the country, took advantage of a tax loophole (leaseback transactions of assets) in the past that allowed them to generate additional revenues. Because of the fall of AIG, which is the insurer of most of these transactions, transit agencies are facing the possibility of paying millions in penalties.

Even if Measure B passes, at best it would buy VTA a few more years of lies. In the meantime, existing VTA service would come under an even greater threat.

It is unfortunate that in this valley we have so called "leaders" who are obsessed with the BART brand name and the downtown subway. While their obsession with a type of trains is one thing, their willingness to distort reality and sacrifice existing service is another. If we were, like other regions, put the brand name obsession aside, we would've achieved consensus and deliver quality and cost-effective transit.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A nail biter

The Measure B vote is still too close to call (although still hasn't passed). Meanwhile, unfortunately both Measures C and D passed.

Compared to the Measure A hospital bond and other transportation taxes throughout the Bay Area, Measure B receives the least vote even though SVLG spent more than a million dollars to promote it. It is a testament that enough people know about VTA's mess and that they don't approve of it.

Meanwhile, Prop 1A high speed rail bond passed with minimal promotions.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

VTA couldn't get BART to say that Measure B would be enough

Besides from the biggest lie that VTA has enough local funding to build the BART project (how do you know when VTA is not releasing updated costs?), the other big lie is that Measure B would provide enough funding to subsidize the operation. According to the Palo Alto Daily Post, new Public Records Act documents obtained by the No on B campaign from BART show that VTA and BART still couldn't agree whether Measure B would be enough after it was placed on the ballot:

"If asked if $42m is enough, I don't believe we are in a position to say yes," wrote BART General Mananger Dorothy Dugger in an Aug. 20 e-mail to VTA head Michael Burns. "Until we have an operating plan we really don't know what the costs are." Burns was asking Dugger for help responding to a statement in the Mercury News that VTA's annual obligation to BART was $48 million, not the $42 million the sales tax hike is estimated to generate.


VTA and BART had differences on operating plans. VTA wanted BART to operate shorter trains to save capital and operating costs. BART did not agree with VTA's plan for shorter trains because BART determines the train length according to the ridership demand between San Francisco and the East Bay. Running shorter trains to accommodate low ridership on the proposed line would cause overcrowding further north.

Michael Burns wanted BART to confirm VTA's flawed estimate, which claims Measure B would be more than enough to subsidize BART operations. Although BART was reluctant to endorse VTA's estimate, BART realized that it is in their interest to see Measure B passed anyhow even if it may mean further cuts into VTA's operation. In response, BART issued a letter stated that VTA's estimate was consistent with the 2001 comprehensive agreement, even though it never tried to answer the critical question of whether Measure B would be enough.

"It means that the VTA board placed a tax measure on the ballot without even knowing what the costs of the project are going to be," said No on B spokeswoman Margaret Okuzumi. "VTA is attempting to obscure this, to hide this, to get some kind of political cover from BART."


It is hard to get fair news coverage these days on this issue. Due to media consolidation and bias, the San Jose Mercury News and its associate local newspapers virtually blacked out most news and comments critical of Measure B. Two weeks ago, with three TV stations covering the press conference held by the No on B campaign, San Jose Mercury News provided zero coverage, even though "reporter" Gary Richards showed up and observed the press conference.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

VTA schedules VTP 2035 meetings after the election

Without providing advance notice to its advisory committees, VTA announced it will hold meetings on VTP 2035 right after the election.

VTP 2035 is a transportation wish list (includes highway and transit projects) that VTA has to submit to the MTC every few years in order to receive state and federal funding. VTP will determine the transportation priority.

On the November ballot, Measure C was supposed to ask voters to approve VTP 2035. However, because VTA delayed releasing the plan until the after the election, the Measure C ballot language asks voters to approve a plan "to be adopted" by the VTA board in December.

There's no reason for VTA to ask voters to pre-approve a plan that voters can't see. Without a balanced capital plan for the last two years, there's no reason to assume that VTA wouldn't propose cuts to projects like Caltrain electrification after the election. We already know that Measure B would not be enough to build and subsidize the BART line.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Retiring County Executive Pete Kutras finds VTA/SVLG relationship troubling

In an interview by Scott Herhold on County Executive Pete Kutras' upcoming retirement:


Q. I want to talk a little about VTA and BART, which is not directly your portfolio, but certainly affects the county. When this first came up in 2000, Mayor Gonzales did an end-run around the supervisors and went straight to the VTA to put it on the ballot. And there was a replay this time when they went to the VTA for a one-eighth cent tax. Does the competition with the hospital parcel tax bother you?

A. Yes.

Q. Tell me why.

A. Because I think medical care is the number one issue in this county, in this state, in this country. And to say a capital project such as BART should be the priority troubles me. I see the priority as physical health, mental health, and frankly, education over BART. That’s my personal view.

Q. If I could follow that up, I’d like to ask a question about VTA’s governance. A recent public records request from former Monte Sereno Council Member Mark Brodsky suggested that the VTA and the Leadership Group work very much hand-in-hand. Carl Guardino asks Mike Burns to lobby people. Burns provides help for their lawsuit. They exchange information on speeches. This is quite extensive. Should a public agency and a private lobby be that close?

A. No, they should not. We’ve all in this valley looked at that relationship. I’ve seen the VTA board make decisions on private polling that’s been done by the Leadership Group. We have tried over the years to see the polling. The leadership group is very selective. They will show you some questions, some information. Because they paid for it and it’s a private poll, you don’t see it. But there’s always a sense of uneasiness. Is the VTA board making decisions in public based on what is on the public record? That’s what’s troubling. I don’t want to join in any accusation, but I’m troubled by it.


On the November ballot, although Measure A Valley Medical Center bond receives virtually no opposition (not even an opposition argument was submitted!), it is nonetheless competing with Measure B for votes.

Two years ago, it was SVLG, using private polls, that successfully lobbied the county to place a 1/2 cent general sales tax increase on the ballot. Voters saw through the backroom deal to transfer the money to VTA and rejected the measure.

When the needs are clearly identified, like the earthquake retrofit of the only general hospital in the county, political factions will come together. On the other hand, Measure B demonstrates just the opposite. Considering the fact that VTA is still withholding new cost estimates on the BART project, Measure B should never be placed on the ballot in the first place.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

BRT Survey

VTA is conducting an online survey about the proposed Bus Rapid Transit. The survey doesn't ask where BRT ought to be aligned (because it is part of same politically motivated process that produced flaw alignments for light rail and BART) or what features it should have, instead the survey asks you to choose between the logo designs and vehicle colors.





While there's nothing wrong with trying to build a brand name and an identity, this effort lacks sincerity. There's no assurance whether the final BRT product would have everything riders expect. For instance, after 3 years, the 522 bus still does not have a predictive arrival system.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Does VTA deserve an award for COA?

Tomorrow, MTC will present an award to VTA for the COA service plan that got implemented in January. Does VTA really deserve an award?

It is important to note that the COA was a reallocation of resources, not to restore the service got cut a few years prior. At every COA related meetings, VTA staff always reminded the audience that any service improvement added to one line would require service reduction on another line. While the ridership growth may look above average, many transit dependent riders either left stranded by the plan or left with a much longer trip requiring multiple transfers (which actually helped boost VTA's ridership count since a trip with a transfer is considered two boardings).

VTA may want to take all the credit, but it was the everyday riders who demanded changes to the original proposal. For instance, under the original plan, West Valley and Foothill college would lose all the bus service except one line for each campus. VTA also proposed to eliminate express bus service like line 104 from Milpitas to Palo Alto and line 122 from South San Jose to Sunnyvale. The staff originally recommended these riders to take the light rail, which would take at least twice if not three times as long.

Nonetheless, some of the useful service got cut anyway. Line 85, for instance, connected Valley Medical Center with downtown San Jose. Line 22 also used to serve Menlo Park.

VTA should only get an award when its bus service is no longer at risk due to its misguided priorities.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Piecing the puzzle on the true cost

With all the exaggerated claims made by Measure B proponents, they have so far provided nothing to back up their promises.

What the documents obtained through the Public Record Act show is that VTA refused to provide updated cost estimates:

Email from Bena Chang (Yes on B/SVLG operative) to VTA on Friday, 8/22 at 4:58pm :

"Could you answer this question for us? We'll need the answer by Monday, cob. WHAT IS THE COST FOR DESIGN AND BUILD OF THE EXTENSION AND HOW MUCH OF THAT IS FUNDED BY MEASURE A AND OTHER FUNDING SOURCES?"

Reply from Brandi Childress (VTA PR staff) to Chang on Monday, 8/25 at 3:01pm:

"On your second request, staff is actually working on a 2008 Draft 65% Engineering cost...actual costs in 2008 dollars based on the design thus far. Is COB today the drop deadline... in other words, is early tomorrow out of the question? Please advise, thanks!"

Another reply from Jennie Loft (VTA PR staff) to Chang on Monday, 8/25 at 3:37pm:

"We are Working on 2008, 65% engineering costs. It will need to go through review process. What we have now available is 2005, trending engineering costs, which you can have now. Please advise and we can provide. Thanks!"

Later at night, Leyla Hedayat, a VTA planner, sent a message to the VTA PR staff about Chang's questions (8/25 at 11:18pm):

"I received an email this evening to talk to Michael, I will try him first thing tomorrow - I suspect it has do with the cost estimate. We have the trended PE in 2005$ but will not have the 65% cost estimate for tomorrow. They are not finalized and VTA mgmt. has not reviewed these costs. I will give an update at our meeting tomorrow."

Reply from Childress to Phil Yost, another SVLG operative, on Tuesday, 8/26 at 4:19pm:

"..The VTA Exec Team is working on numbers based on 65% design engineering costs but we need to really vet them with Mr. Burns which won't be ready by tomorrow. We also want to make sure we are accurate and ready to run with figures that have not even been released through our Federal environmental or new starts processes yet. Our take is that we would rather be safe than sorry..."

Reply from Childress to Chang on Tuesday, 8/26 at 4:45pm:

"..The cost is $4.7 billion in 2005 dollars. The extension will cost approximately $6 billion in year of expenditure dollars (construction year dollars), projected by year 2017. This figure considers inflation of the dollar and does not mean the cost has increased from $4.7 billion..."

Another message from Hedayat to the VTA PR staff about Chang's questions (8/26 at 10:35pm):

"...Can you make sure that Bena knows that $4.7 Billion is the Preliminary Engineering (35%) estimate. This is important later when the a 65% estimate is released. We should be careful about emphasizing "This figure considers inflation of the dollar and does not mean the cost has increased from $4.7 billion." It is okay to say inflation of the dollar but lets not focus on this does not mean the cost has increased."

Essentially Hedayat admitted that the actual cost (yet to be released) would be much higher than the cost told by the PR staff.

Nearly two months after the email exchanges between SVLG and VTA over the cost of the project, VTA is still officially withholding the updated cost estimates. Soon after the press conference held by the No on B campaign, Michael Burns told KCBS what the No on B campaign has long suspected:

"Burns said the new estimate due early in 2009 would likely be in the $6 billion range, a figure consistent with Okuzumi's projection based on a 30 percent increase in construction costs."

Burns told the media that it would be irresponsible for him to provide new numbers before the work is finished (scheduled to be completed after the election). However, it is actually more irresponsible for him to withhold that information until after the election. Since 2000, VTA has not shown once that it could afford to build the BART project without gutting the rest of the transit system and/or more tax increases. Measure B is just another attempt to mislead voters into believing that VTA could build the BART project cheap.

Besides the outdated figures, VTA also refused to include bonding cost. Numerous studies have indicated that VTA will require billions more in bonding cost to maintain cash flow if it wants to build the entire project in 10 years. VTA could scrap every project it promised earlier, but VTA could not refuse to pay the bonding cost.

Using outdated numbers and omitting bonding cost, Measure B simply would not be enough for VTA to deliver the BART project. However, it would allow VTA to hold back on other transit improvements, if not cutting more of the transit services that we have.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Santa Teresa station and more

Santa Teresa and Cottle are the only stations under construction. While Cottle is closed during construction, Santa Teresa remains open with a temporary platform.


Construction at the Santa Teresa platform.


This is the temporary platform in the tailtrack area. Notice the wheelchair ramps and the hatchmarked area at the edge of the platform.


Light rail cars occupy that hatchmarked area. For some reasons, the temporary platform isn't level with the train.


A folding tent is serving as a shelter.


There's no direct exit from the platform to Santa Teresa Avenue.

Measure B is finally shown on VTA's site

After an earlier complaint from this blog, VTA finally included information on Measure B on VTA's site.

Friday, October 17, 2008

VTA's PR spin

A day after being slammed with bad news, the VTA's PR department (also happened to be a taxpayer-funded propaganda department of SVLG) suddenly announced "record" ridership increases.

Well, VTA's ridership never broke any records. Systemwide, it is still more than 10% lower than the record ridership in 2001. Ridership on VTA buses was more than 18% lower than in 2001. Ridership increases on light rail helped compensate the loss of bus ridership. However, as we all know, VTA operates a larger light rail system (that replaced some bus lines) today than in 7 years ago.

Caltrain's ridership indeed broke record. Its most recent count showed the ridership exceeded the last record made in 2001.

Typically ridership numbers are not released this early, but VTA did so in an attempt to repair its image. If VTA is really interested to repair its image, VTA should be releasing new cost estimates for the BART project now, not after the election.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

VTA staff illegally collaborated with the Yes on B campaign

Earlier today, the No on B, C, and D campaign held a press conference at the VTA headquarter and released copies of written communications between VTA and SVLG staff, which the campaign has obtained from VTA through Public Records Act. These documents show that VTA has been withholding updated cost estimates for the BART project and that VTA employees have illegally collaborated with the Yes on B campaign.

The entire documents are available here.

From the press release...

"An August 25, 2008 email from VTA staff member Brandi Childress to SVLG/Yes on B staffer Bena Chang, stated, 'On your second request, staff is actually working on a 2008 Draft 65% Engineering cost…actual costs in 2008 dollars based on the design thus far.' The following day, she sent an email stating, 'The VTA Exec Team is working on numbers based on 65% design engineering costs but we need to really vet them with [VTA General Manager] Mr. Burns which won’t be ready by tomorrow.' The fact that the project cost has still not been released nearly two months later, and it is less than 3 weeks before the election, can only mean one thing: the project doesn’t work financially with a 1/8-cent sales tax."

In the documents provided also include clear evidence of VTA staff illegally collaborated with the Yes on B campaign. Messages were sent to VTA from SVLG staffers requesting customized maps and talking points to be used on campaign collaterals. VTA staff not only complied with the campaign's request but also actively sought their assistance to ensure consistent messages between Michael Burns and the campaign.

Even though state laws prohibit public funds to be spent on campaign advocacy, maps produced by VTA using public funds has appeared on many of the Yes on B campaign collaterals.

In a memo to the VTA board, VTA's general counsel has denied any illegal activity between VTA staff and the Yes on B campaign. The counsel claimed that the communications were legal because VTA staff only provided factual information. However, the documents indicate that a SVLG employee has told VTA that information from the agency would be used on campaign materials (page 391):

"Editing your original drawings are exactly why I would like a vector copy of your map. Naturally, this would be undertaken with an eye to preserving your good work. Moreover, since we use graphical material relating to BART/VTA in so many of our documents & presentations, it makes sense for me to have a copy (working in tandem with Oxo [a VTA employee]).

Projects of note that will require maps / VTA materials:
- Speaking engagements concerning the Bart To San Jose Campaign
-Collateral produced by the Bart to San Jose Campaign
-Outdoor / Indoor Advertising Relating to the Bart to San Jose Campaign
-SVLG's 'Projections' Report, touting the Bart to San Jose Campaign"

Instead of spending its limited tax dollars on improving transit, VTA used its resources to promote its new tax. From the press release...

"'I’m personally appalled that VTA staff would conduct themselves in a way that not only brings dishonor and discredit to the VTA, but also contradicts the ethics training that VTA staff received at Santa Clara University at the beginning of this year,' David Casas, VTA board member. 'Their actions call into the question the validity of the Yes on B campaign in its entirety.'"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Where's Measure B

As we all know, VTA placed 3 measures on the November ballot: B, C, and D. VTA recently put up an information page about its ballot measures on its web site, but Measure B was clearly missing.

VTA is trying all it can to distance itself with the sales tax, even though VTA is the actual agency that will collect the money and build the project. Why is VTA trying to hide itself?

VTA transferred 49ers bus to a private company

Probably due to mounting operating losses by charging regular express bus fares, VTA turned over the 49ers express bus service to Silverado Stages last Sunday. Silverado is also the operator of the 49ers service in San Mateo County formerly provided by SamTrans. A recent federal regulation has prohibited transit operators from providing special event service at premium fares.

The round trip fare on Silverado is $25, $4 more than what VTA charged last season. However, Silverado operates intercity coaches which are more comfortable and provide onboard restrooms, unlike the standard city buses VTA runs.


A line of VTA buses parked at a 49ers home game last month. On the left is a Silverado Coach.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The same false promises with Measure B

One thing that's true in Santa Clara County is that it is almost impossible to have a sincere, rational discussion about transportation. The delusionals are so obsessed about the BART brand that they're forgetting the fact that it is just a very expensive, non-standard train.

Measure B is all about them being delusional. 8 years ago, Carl Guardino at least tried the featherbed the 2000 Measure A with other projects to make it looked more equitable and fair. This time, with all the VTA failures, all they could sell is a BART brand and a BART delusion without mentioning "VTA" and "new tax." (try to search both phases in the article and you'll see.)

With little credibility left, the delusionals are trying to associate the BART project with all the poll-tested, feel-good buzz words of the day.

Reduce dependence on foreign oil? Reduce greenhouse gas emissions? As Scott Herhold wrote earlier, whatever fuel saving benefits are minimal: "By my back-of-the envelope figuring, the proponents' current estimate of 12,000 gallons of gas saved a day is only three-tenths of 1 percent of total Bay Area usage."

By the way, Caltrain already uses more diesel fuel than that everyday. VTA can do more to reduce oil dependence and emissions by spending just a fraction of the cost to electrify Caltrain. Instead, VTA/SVLG continue to delay the project and trying to mislead others by blaming San Francisco.

A full rail car removes 200 cars from the road? The reality is that neither a BART nor a Caltrain car has that much seating capacity. In fact, even with VTA's inflated ridership numbers, one out of three seats would be empty during the morning rush hours between Fremont and Milpitas. Also, more than half of the projected ridership would be diverted from existing buses and trains.

Of course we must not forget that the BART extension to Millbrae has failed to meet ridership projections and nearly bankrupted SamTrans.

One would wonder why these delusionals are hitting us again for another tax. 8 years ago, voters believed Guardino when he declared that the 2000 tax would be more than enough. After all these years, Measure B supporters could have chip in more of their own money if they really believed BART as a worthy form of investment. Instead, what they did was to shift more of the tax burden onto the residents in this county.

In 2003, Carl Guardino flat out rejected a proposal calling for a VTA payroll tax. If the employers wanted BART because it would somehow help them import more cheap labor from the East Bay, shouldn't they pay their fair share? After all, even a VTA-sponsored "economic study" of the BART project has indicated that workers from out-of-county would only spend about 5.7% of their income in Santa Clara County, mostly on their lunches.

Also, since 2005, SVLG has lobbied for legislation to exempt companies from paying sales taxes.

These days, there are too many false promises everywhere. It is time to have a sincere, rational discussion. Only a NO vote will help us get there.

Monday, October 06, 2008

VTA minor bus service change

Today, VTA implemented a minor bus service change.

Highlights:
22, 23, 68 - Friday and Saturday night detour on San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose will be discontinued. Buses will stay on Santa Clara Street at all times.

23 - Terminal on the west end has been relocated to a driveway inside the De Anza campus.

An additional round trip has been added to lines 34, 120, 121, 168, and 330.

Schedule changes for routes: 22, 23, 32, 35, 40, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 58, 65, 88, and 89.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Palo Alto considers opposing Measure B

The City of Palo Alto is considering a resolution opposing Measure B tomorrow. It is the only city in the county to do so.

It is the right time to consider such resolution. For too long, Palo Alto and other cities have been giving away their tax revenue with little in return. 8 years ago, Palo Alto supported the 2000 Measure A because of funding for Caltrain electrification, Palo Alto transit center, Dumbarton Rail, and increased bus service. Today, not only Palo Alto would not receive any benefit from Measure B, it threatens all the previous promises VTA made to Palo Alto.

VTA General Manager Michael Burns once again tries to deceive the voters by justifying the $91 million funding shift from Dumbarton Rail and VTA's attempts to delay Caltrain electrification. What we know is that VTA has not provided an expenditure plan, which would tell what projects would be funded or not. What we also know is that VTA is withholding a revised cost estimate for BART until after the election, which would tell how much funding, if any, would be available for other projects. Can Michael Burns be trusted? Of course not.

SVLG and VTA will continue the path of deception. Only a NO vote on Measure B will send a clear message that it is not acceptable.

If you live or work in Palo Alto, please consider sending an email message or attend the City Council meeting to express your support for the resolution opposing Measure B.

From BayRail Alliance:

Monday, October 6, 2008 6:30 PM (agenda item #28, so it will probably be heard no earlier than 8 PM)

http://www.city.palo-alto.ca.us/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=13685

Location:
Palo Alto City Hall
250 Hamilton Avenue
Palo Alto CA 94301

If you can't make it to city hall at that time, or even if you plan to, please send an e-mail to the city councilmembers and staff expressing your opposition to Measure B.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Blanca Alvarado speaks out

Santa Clara County Supervisor Blanca Alvarado is one of the few public officials that have steadfastly opposed to SVLG/VTA's effort to deceive taxpayers. For the last 8 years, she believed that transportation planning shouldn't be limited to people like Carl Guardino making backroom decisions.

In 2000, when Guardino and Ron Gonzales announced a plan to put a sales tax on the November ballot for the BART project, they first approached the Board of Supervisors for a 20-year general sales tax which required a 50% voter threshold.

Throughout that time, Alvarado withstood pressure from SVLG and instead support a community-based process to draft a plan for the 2002 election. After the Board of Supervisors failed to put the tax on the ballot, Guardino and Gonzales quickly turned to VTA to place an all-transit tax on the November ballot.

Although Alvarado was the chair of VTA, Guardino and Gonzales convinced other VTA board members to support the tax. At a special board meeting when the rest of the board voted to put Measure A on the ballot, she casted the only dissenting vote.

Six years later, when Guardino arranged backroom deals to put a half cent general sales tax on the ballot. Alvarado also casted the only dissenting vote. She wanted to support a 1/4 cent general tax increase for county services that would not include funding for VTA.

Two years later, Guardino is at it again asking for a tax increase to fund the same ill-conceived project that put riders at risk.

Alvarado has been right all along. If the county had waited a year or two to present a transportation plan, the county would've known that BART was unaffordable all along, that VTA riders wouldn't have suffered as much from service reductions and fare increases, and that voters wouldn't have faced the same tax on the ballot election after election.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What have we got after 8 years?

After 8 years, driving alone is still the dominant transportation mode in the Valley. In the Bay Area, Santa Clara County ranks the highest on percentage of commuters who drive alone, and among the lowest on the percentage of commuters using transit.

Today, Carl Guardino continues to claim that he's a transit advocate, and that he knows the "missing puzzle piece" that would somehow magically make transit work in the Valley.

A look back in history shows that Guardino and VTA have actively make transit less viable in the county:

In 2000, Carl Guardino and Ron Gonzales conceived a new sales tax to build the BART project. Riding on a bubble economy, they insisted that the sales tax couldn't be delayed and that Measure A would provide "traffic relief now," even though it was clear that BART was at least 10 years away. In the process to rush the tax on the ballot, many stakeholders were left out of the planning process. However, some were appeased when VTA and SVLG included some funding for their pet projects in Measure A, such as a study of a BART extension from Santa Clara to Palo Alto. Even so, VTA General Manager Pete Cipolla warned the board that Measure A wouldn't provide enough money to operate all Measure A projects through the life of the tax.

Later in October, in the middle of the 2000 Measure A campaign, VTA suddenly came out with a new sales tax revenue projection that claimed it has all the money needed to operate all the Measure A expansions.

In the meantime, VTA successfully sabotaged a fully funded Caltrain connection between San Jose and BART in Union City. VTA claimed it dropped the project because of opposition from Fremont, but the reality is that VTA could not afford to have a viable rail alternative in place while pursuing this overpriced "missing puzzle piece."

After the passage of Measure A, VTA began to reduce bus and light rail service. Initially VTA claimed shortage of drivers and light rail construction as reasons for cut backs, but those excuses gave way to actual tax revenue downturn as the bubble economy bursted.

Worried about the revenue downturn would impact that "missing puzzle piece," SVLG led a "business review team" that recommended huge fare increases and service cuts to seniors and the disabled in 2002:

"Under the current proposals, seniors and disabled riders will see the largest fare increases across-the-board - with costs for rides and passes doubling in some cases - as well as some reduced service.

"But those changes would come off the top of historically 'deep, deep' discounts and enhanced levels of paratransit service that are above Americans With Disabilities Act mandates, said VTA spokeswoman Lupe Solis."


These recommendations caused riders to leave VTA and did not significantly improve VTA's farebox recovery rates.

As the tax revenue declined further in 2003, VTA threatened a 21% transit cut. After months of protests by transit riders and workers, VTA reluctantly accepted a proposal to bond against the 2000 Measure A tax revenue to fill the revenue shortfall. If that 21% transit cut were implemented, line 180 would only operate between Fremont and light rail in north San Jose. Riders heading to and from downtown San Jose would have to transfer to light rail. VTA would like everyone to believe it was all because of the economy,but it was really more than that:

"By November 2002, the economic nosedive combined with skyrocketing costs for the BART extension had combined to create a $6 billion operating shortfall during VTA’s 25 year planning horizon.

"On November 8, 2002, a majority of VTA board members directed staff to develop a few balanced, or “live within your means,” budgets. VTA staff responded the next month with three scenarios for balancing the agency’s budget. The first scenario was still not balanced, with expenses exceeding revenues so greatly as to ultimately lead the agency to bankruptcy. The third scenario was simply infeasible. The only long-term balanced scenario required cutting 70% of VTA’s bus services and abandoning all planned expansions except two: BART to San Jose and East Valley Light Rail."


Responding to the funding shortfall, VTA convened an ad-hoc Financial Stability Committee to explore additional options to address the problem. One of the committee findings is that VTA was too reliant on sales tax revenue, which was considered to be too volatile. Some committee members suggested a new 1% payroll tax like the one in San Francisco. Because a payroll tax would hit squarely on the employers, Carl Guardino quickly rejected it:

"Carl Guardino said a 1 percent payroll tax would average roughly $1,000 per employee annually - a heavy burden on struggling companies."

As always, he prefers sales taxes, which are regressive and hit people who don't earn an income. SVLG has also advocated bills to exempt high tech companies (its member companies) from paying sales taxes on certain taxable purchases.

Meanwhile in 2003, because of the widening of 101 between San Jose and Morgan Hill (lobbied by SVLG in 1996 as a part of the 1996 sales tax plan) along with a fare increase recommended by VTA, Caltrain ridership south of San Jose dropped dramatically. The ridership continued to decline years after the freeway widening, even as the rest of the Caltrain system experienced ridership increases because of the Baby Bullet.

Three years later in 2006, because SVLG worried that a county general sales tax increase would render another VTA sales tax unwinnable, SVLG made backroom deals resulted in the 2006 Measure A. Even though that sales tax could not legally specify any projects, VTA pursued a parallel process in drafting an expediture plan that would use half of the county's new tax revenue. Fortunately voters saw through the backroom deals and rejected it.

Undeterred, soon after the defeat of the 2006 tax, VTA approved an unbalaced and unworkable expenditure plan and kept continue to waste funds on that "missing puzzle piece." It was clear that VTA would pursue another tax in the next two years. Last year, VTA and SVLG lobbied Sacramento to pass a law permitting VTA to put 1/8 cent sales tax increases on the ballot, which resulted in Measure B.

To this day, VTA is still unwilling to produce a balanced spending plan to finance that so-called "missing puzzle piece." Nonetheless, as much as they try to ignore it, we already know a lot about Measure B: Is Measure B the only tax needed to build BART? Absolutely not! Is Measure B be enough for BART's ongoing costs? Absolutely not! Will Measure B threaten other VTA priorities like Downtown East Valley and Caltrain? Absolutely!

To make transit work in this Valley, what we need is not the "missing puzzle piece." What we need is a changed VTA with new priorities. Instead of focusing on contractors, consultants, and downtown delusionals looking for financial benefits, VTA should focus on riders first, who have already suffered from years of service cuts and fare increases. Over the years, Carl Guardino has been nothing but a negative influence on VTA by lobbying for policies that were against riders' interest. VTA, including the General Manager Michael Burns, has also failed to serve riders' interest by continuing to justify and support flawed policies.

Measure B is a summation and a continuation of the past failed policies of the last 8 years. No wonder why Santa Clara County has made little if any progress in getting more people out of their cars all this time. Only a rejection of Measure B, C, and D will send a clear message to the VTA. Like the rest of the Bay Area, transit priorities ought to be planned openly by the entire community, not by Carl Guardino with his secret polls. We cannot continue to allow SVLG to be the political wing of VTA.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Bus bunching

One of the major factors contributed to today's collision on Santa Clara Street is bus bunching, which is when a number of buses travel in a pack because of some late buses. Hours after the collision today, bus bunching continued on the line 22 in both directions throughout the afternoon.

Even though service on the Santa Clara Street east of downtown has a combined frequency of 6 minutes (lines 22 and 23), it is often unachievable because of bus bunching, especially on line 22. Bus bunching forces passengers to wait longer for a late and crowded bus, and makes the next bus that comes minutes after underutilized. Buses could end up leapfrogging each other.

Observations made after the collision:


While on a westbound 22 bus, it goes past a 22 bus (a non-articulated bus) just before downtown San Jose.


On the same bus at Santa Clara and 1st, the bus is about to pass another 22 bus stopped right in front.


The collision occurred at this location at Santa Clara and 23rd. Just a few minutes after this picture was taken, a pedestrian got hit on a crosswalk at Santa Clara and 24th by a turning car. This area is not particularly safe for pedestrians.

For the past 8 years, with all the wrong priorities, VTA has yet to implement a system that provides real-time bus arrival predictions. Such systems are already in use by Muni in San Francisco and AC Transit's BRT lines in the East Bay. Real time arrival predictions are valuable for riders in areas where service is less reliable or on lines that don't operate on a strict timetable (like the 522).

VTA bus collision on Santa Clara St

About two hours ago, an eastbound VTA line 22 bus rear-ended another line 22 bus on Santa Clara Street near 24th Street. About 6 or 7 passengers got injured.

State's budget cut on transit hurts

The loss of $238 in state transit funds this year is expected to hurt transit riders throughout the Bay Area:

(San Mateo Daily Journal)
Caltrain, which runs Peninsula rail service from Gilroy to San Francisco, could have received $11.8 million from the state this year. It received $3.7 million. SamTrans, which runs bus and paratransit service in San Mateo County, could have received $13.7 million but the state only allocated $4.3 million, said Christine Dunn, spokeswoman for both agencies.

Already, SamTrans and Caltrain are considering fare increases to keep up with fuel costs.

BART riders could also feel the impact, Gail Murray, president of the BART Board, suggested a fare increase called "Sacramento surcharge" to make up for the $37 million loss in state funding.

According to MTC, VTA also lost $26 million of state funding this year, but so far VTA hasn't issued any public statement regarding the loss, perhaps in an effort to hide itself from the Measure B sales tax.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Guardino robs everyone to pay for his pet project

In an effort orchestrated to promote Measure B, the California Transportation Commission plans to allocate $239 million to backfill whatever VTA wasted on the BART project. Gary Richards, as biased as usual, neglected to mention that Carl Guardino, the brainchild of Measure B, sits on the CTC. How could the timing be more perfect to create an illusion that VTA could afford BART?

Guardino and SVLG will do whatever they can before the election to create that illusion. The only news that they will withhold until after the election is the ugly reality of further transit cuts. 7 years ago, just 5 months after the 2000 Measure A passed, VTA announced its first transit cut.

Rather than a real "momentum" as the MTC spokeperson claimed, it is just another zero-sum game, like the diversion of funds from the Dumbarton Caltrain extension. An ugly reality is that the Bay Area just lost $238 million in transit funds this year alone because of the state budget crisis. With the current state of the economy, expect further cuts in transit funds in the years to come.

Other than that Guardino scored political points to deceive voters, what has the Bay Area really gained?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Last phase of light rail platform retrofit

After month and a half of construction, Blossom Hill and Cottle stations will reopen on Friday, September 26. Construction at Santa Teresa and Snell stations, the last two remaining, will start on Monday, September 29.

At Santa Teresa, passengers will board and exit on a temporary platform during the construction. At Snell, the station will be closed and no bus bridge will be provided (because Snell is less than a mile away from Blossom Hill). However, line 66 will still go into the station during construction.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

VTA and ATU reach agreement

The contract was ratified by ATU members on Thursday. Below is the press release from VTA, via VTA Riders' Union:

VTA NEWS

CONTACT: Jennie Loft - (408)994-7001
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 19, 2008

VTA Reaches Agreement with Amalgamated Transit Union

ATU members ratify new contract that reflects economic reality

San Jose, Calif. -After 11 months of negotiation, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 265 (ATU) have successfully come to terms on a new contract. The terms of this new agreement were ratified by ATU members yesterday and will be presented to the VTA board for approval on October 2, 2008.

"VTA's transit system plays an integral role in ensuring the economic vitality of Silicon Valley, as well as improving the quality of life of residents who benefit from less congested freeways, reduced greenhouse emissions, and a cost-effective alternative to driving," said VTA Board Chair, Liz Kniss. "I am extremely pleased that VTA and ATU have successfully concluded negotiations and, by working together to address both sides' concerns, that we were able to avoid any interruptions to transit service in the process."

Negotiations have been on-going since November 2007 and reflect 11 months of analysis and dialog. The new contract term is from February 2008 through February 2011 and includes:

* 7.5% Increase in Wages over the term of the agreement.
* Due to the rising cost of health care, the agreement provides for shared costs between employees and VTA.
* Provision was made to ensure operator rest and meal periods during assigned shift does not interrupt route schedule.

"This new agreement is a fair contract for all involved and reflects today's economic reality," said Michael T. Burns, VTA General Manager. "It is also reasonable in relation to wage and benefits offered by transit agencies and other employers in the region."

The VTA Board of Directors will vote to approve the new contract at its regular meeting on October 2, 2008. The ATU union represents approximately 1,400 employees including bus drivers, light rail operators, and mechanics.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Measure B puts Caltrain electrification at risk

Caltrain, one of the most neglected and underfunded transit modes in the South Bay, is also one of the most successful. This year, Caltrain's weekday ridership has exceed 40,000. Even so, Caltrain is also facing difficult operational challenges with ever rising diesel prices and an aging fleet. To keep operating costs under control and allow the trains to run faster and more frequently, Caltrain has been planning to electrify the rail line for more than eight years. However, despite promises made in the 2000 Measure A, VTA has been and continues to put Caltrain electrification at risk.

Currently, the cost of electrification (between San Francisco and San Jose) and new rolling stock is estimated at $1.5 billion (year of expenditure), or about $30 million per mile, which is less than the cost to build a light rail. Along with state and federal funds, which Caltrain is trying to obtain, the rest of the cost will be shared by the three counties that Caltrain serves (San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara).

Eight years ago, VTA and SVLG included funding for electrification and other Caltrain improvements in the 2000 Measure A. Because of Caltrain, that tax received endorsements from north and south county cities that otherwise wouldn't receive light rail or BART.

Since the passage of the 2000 Measure A, Caltrain outlived its usefulness as an endorsement asset and slowly became a liability for VTA. Simply, a successful Caltrain undercuts reasons to build BART. For less cost, Caltrain can take passengers to San Francisco faster. Unlike the BART extension, there's no complicated scheme to fund Caltrain operations that puts bus and light rail service in jeopardy. However, what Caltrain won't do is to appease the Downtown Delusionals.

Ever since, VTA and SVLG have done the most to drag their feet on Caltrain electrification. At the beginning, VTA proclaimed to have the money but refused to spend it because VTA said that other counties have yet to pay their share. In 2005, SVLG recommended a 10% funding reduction for Caltrain so that VTA could fund BART with a 1/4 cent tax increase. Last month, VTA decided to underfund the Caltrain's capital program [page 66], which would fund engineering work for electrification, by a measly $700,000 (out of a total VTA budget of almost $750 million this year) because VTA wants to wait until after the election.

By now, San Francisco (2003 Prop K) and San Mateo County (2004 Measure A) have funding available for Caltrain electrification, which were both passed by over 71% without any BART extensions. They're all looking at VTA to see whether it is still dragging its feet.

Today, even though VTA and SVLG have included the word "Caltrain" in the Measure B ballot language and on other Measure B propaganda in an attempt to get votes, make no mistake about it: Measure B would not provide any funds for Caltrain and would actually give VTA an excuse to negate earlier promises on Caltrain, particularly electrification. If Measure B passes, VTA could cut Caltrain funding just by interpreting the Measure B outcome as a vote against Caltrain. Is it possible that more voters support Caltrain than BART? No one knows because it is not what Measure B is really asking and it is not the question that SVLG and VTA want to have an answer for.

Also, given an MTC committee's vote to divert bridge toll funds from Dumbarton Rail to BART Warm Springs extension, VTA and SVLG have no problems with cutting one project to fund another. As we all know, Measure B would not be enough even for BART operation, maintenance, and required contributions.

There's nothing more threatening to Caltrain than Measure B. The choice is more clear than ever.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ATU members to ratify contract

Nearly a month after threatening to strike, ATU local 265, which represents the drivers, mechanics and customer service representatives, has scheduled a membership vote this Thursday to ratify a contract with VTA. There are no details at this point on the agreement between the labor and management.

Monday, September 15, 2008

VTA to study express buses

VTA is currently looking to hire a consultant to study express buses in the Valley. VTA call it "highway-based BRT" to differentiate with the other type of BRT (bus rapid transit) that operates on main thoroughfare like the 522. The study will be an addition to the work, such as market analysis, already performed for the COA.

An outcome of the study is to provide a list of improvements that can be completed for the next 10 years. After that, VTA assumes that BART would be extended and that somehow everything about the transit market would be different.

Unlike other cities, Santa Clara County is different when it comes to express bus service. In most cities, express bus service focuses on bring people from the suburbs to downtown. Just in San Francisco, express buses operated by various agencies take riders from the East Bay, the North Bay, and San Mateo County to downtown.

Until recently, the only express service to Downtown San Jose was line 180 from Fremont. In January, VTA added another express bus route (168) to downtown from Gilroy and Morgan Hill. The rest of the express bus routes take commuters from Fremont and other parts of the county to major office parks on the north and west side of the county, such as Lockheed Martin/Moffett Park and Stanford Industrial Park.

Unlike Downtown San Jose, these office parks provide ample free parking, and offer few if any outside amenities within walking distance. In these environments, some commuters would want to bring their cars just so that they can run errands during lunch time.

Also, some of the major Santa Clara County employers provide their own shuttle service. The most prominent one is Google, which some said its shuttles from San Francisco is influencing the real estate prices there. Besides Google, Apple, Yahoo, and VM Ware hire charter bus operators to shuttle their employees. Part of the study will ask whether VTA is providing the service that these employers are looking for, and whether VTA could fulfill their needs.

Finally, VTA does not have its own fleet for express buses. Agencies like AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit operate MCI coaches that provide more comfortable rides. Regular buses with high back commuter seats are used on Dumbarton Express and Highway 17 Express. On the other hand, VTA uses regular buses, often filthy and sometimes without padded seats, on all of its express routes. VTA once operated commuter buses in the past, but these buses were retired in 2003 without replacement. The study will consider providing better passenger amenities, including onboard wi-fi internet access.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

High speed rail brouhaha

A brouhaha is being stirred in Menlo Park between supporters and opposition over the proposed high speed rail and Proposition 1A. On Tuesday, the City of Menlo Park held a study session with board members from the High Speed Rail authority, advocates for the Altamont Pass alignment, and neighbors living near the Caltrain tracks, who were concerned about impacts of the proposed project. The study session was attended by over 150 people. Last month, Menlo Park joined a lawsuit against the High Speed Authority over the EIR, which the HSRA used to justify the selection of Pacheco Pass rather than Altamont Pass.

After the study session, the debate continued online. At the California High Speed Rail Blog, the author, Robert Cruickshank, suggested that Menlo Park and Atherton "believe it is their right to make decisions for the other 36 million people in California," and that the study session was used by HSR opponents to "to push their anti-HSR arguments to the media."

Cruickshank may want to try to make the issue black and white, but the brouhaha is actually a product of Rod Diridon, who has done more to divide people and destroy the natural coalition necessary to make high speed rail a reality.

Realistically, high speed rail is still largely an unknown. A lot of studies need to be done as to the exact infrastructure and mitigations needed. Because high speed rail proposes to use the Caltrain alignment, Caltrain will also have to work out with the High Speed Rail Authority to maintain local train service. Although the city should keep an open mind about the project, there's nothing wrong with the neighbors expressing concerns and asking hard questions.

At the session, Rod Diridon told Menlo Park that several cities in the East Bay voted against the Altamont Pass. In reality, Diridon got their opposition to the Altamont Pass by using the same political tactics HSR opponents used in Menlo Park and Atherton - by telling them that HSR is so scary and would destroy their neighborhoods. Last year, Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the HSRA, told Pleasanton and Livermore that under the Altamont Pass alternative, a 6 track corridor would run through their city. If Rod Diridon believes that HSR shouldn't impact Fremont, Pleasanton, and Livermore because that, why should Menlo Park and Atherton be any different? Should HSR run through Menlo Park and Atherton because the residents there are wealthier than those in Fremont, Pleasanton, and Livermore?

Even with all the right reasons for Cruickshank and others to support high speed rail, Rod Diridon is not their friend. Just because of the selection of Pacheco Pass, HSRA is being sued for its biased EIR. Some environmental and transit groups, who are otherwise natural allies, are withholding their support for Proposition 1A because of it. Besides high speed rail, Rod Diridon is the "father" of the failed VTA light rail system and supports the misguided Measure B on the November ballot in Santa Clara County. How could any serious transit advocate want to associate with and beholden to him?

Despite the brouhaha in Menlo Park, Menlo Park and Atherton won't be able to kill high speed rail. The key swing votes on high speed rail are in the Central Valley and Southern California. High speed rail supporters like Cruickshank should be more concerned of what Proposition 1A won't do for residents in cities like Tracy, Stockton and Modesto.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Emergency evacuation instruction

As a result of a light rail derailment in March, VTA has placed car cards on emergency evacuation procedures inside buses and light rail.



Friday, September 05, 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008

Michael Burns' true priority: shutting down free speech

At a time when one of VTA's union has threatened to strike, VTA General Manager Michael Burns instead chose to spend his time supporting an SVLG operative in frivolous lawsuits against Measure B opponents over ballot arguments.

This isn't the first time for SVLG, back in 2006, an operative unsuccessfully sued Measure A opponents for telling the truth.

This time, the arguments against Measure B are sharper and more to the point, summarizing VTA's misdeeds and deceptions over the last 8 years. Getting alarmed by the facts, Michael Burns collected "evidence" on behalf of SVLG in its cases against the opponents and he was present at all court hearings.

At the hearing earlier today, Judge Kevin Murphy threw out all the SVLG/VTA's allegations except two, which were upheld based on technicalities.

The following were challenged unsuccessfully by SVLG/VTA and were kept on the ballot argument and rebuttal:

- VTA does have the worst performing light rail in the nation

- VTA cut service resulting in lost ridership,

- VTA did cut or delay key projects (in the main argument),

- VTA has delayed key projects (in the rebuttal argument),

- VTA is not delivering on prior commitments of adding new transit service.

- John McLemore, who is a former VTA board member, a former MTC Commissioner and former member of the Santa Clara City Council., was eligible to sign the ballot argument.

The two other allegations (whether VTA would save more money than the 1/8 cent tax by improving efficiency, and whether VTA promised full funding for operation) were upheld based on narrow technical grounds. While SVLG and VTA had 10 days to prepare a case against the main argument and rebuttal, tax opponents only had 5 days to prepare a defense on the main argument and did not have any opportunity to submit evidence to defend their rebuttal.

“We succeeded in documenting their falsehoods and in submitting convincing evidence to the court under enormous time pressure," said Margaret Okuzumi, of BayRail Alliance, "Although we weren’t allowed to file evidence in response to their challenge to the No on B rebuttal, evidence that we have that readily rebuts their claims, we were able to fend off two out of three challenges to our rebuttal arguments.”

Other factors may have contributed to the judge's decision to uphold two of the claims:

-Hearing was scheduled on a Friday before the long Labor Day weekend

-Submission deadline from the registrar's office is September 2, right after the long holiday weekend.

-If opponents were to successfully defeat all claims, the judge will have to hear the countersuit against the SVLG operative on filing frivolous lawsuits.

Although inherently unfair, simply upholding one claim on each case on technical grounds allows the judge to close the cases early with no follow up lawsuits.

Given the absurdity of these lawsuits, it begs the question of what is Burns' true priority. "VTA General Manager Michael Burns should spend his time and taxpayer paid resources to fix the VTA, not to assist with lawsuits to shut down free speech that VTA finds inconvenient." said Greg Perry, a former VTA Board member who signed the main argument against Measure B.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Michael Burns says they are still talking

While there's no word yet on today's vote by the ATU members whether to accept VTA's final offer, Michael Burns told KCBS that both sides are still talking. ATU has announced that it could go on strike after negotiations failed two weeks ago.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A VTA union warns of possible strike

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, which represents the front line employees and mechanics, is warning of a possible strike on September 8. VTA and ATU reached impasse on July 9 and state mediation failed last week. While VTA and ATU will not publicly discuss details of the negotiation, many ATU members were present at the last VTA Board meeting and addressed the board after the end of the closed session. According to the union, wage, health care and pensions are the primary issues.

For now, expect VTA to miss some runs. ATU has asked its members not to work overtime.
On August 27, union members will vote on the VTA's final offer, which was rejected by the union leadership. A no vote by the union members may lead to a strike.


Downtown light rail closure this weekend

This weekend, light rail service will be suspended in downtown San Jose from Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. to facilitate the replacement of old rails at 1st and Devine streets. Construction is expected to end before the start of the Monday morning commute.

During that time, light rail service from Mountain View and Alum Rock will end at Japantown/Ayer Station. Service from Santa Teresa and Winchester will end at Convention Center Station. A free bus bridge will connect with light rail at Civic Center and Convention Center stations, stopping at all stations in between.

Although light rail passengers from the north can stay onboard until Japantown/Ayer, VTA advises anyone requiring a transfer to get off at Civic Center.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ohlone/Chynoweth light rail and more

Last Saturday, all stations served by the Almaden shuttle were reopened.





Although Ohlone/Chynoweth is a transfer station, it has outside platforms. Before the retrofit, the platforms were at the same level as the curb on the opposite side. The new platforms pose a tripping hazard with the one step difference. For now, the only warning are orange poles and construction tapes.

Perhaps VTA should have built a center platform at this station. The current configuration requires passengers to run across two tracks to make a tight connection from the Almaden shuttle.

Below is Almaden station.



Blossom Hill and Cottle closure

These two stations will be closed tomorrow for about two months to retrofit the platforms. In the meantime, a bus bridge will run between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Santa Teresa stations, serving all stations in between.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Three ill-conceived VTA measures to defeat

This November, the ballot will be very crowded with various state and local propositions. Also on the same ballot will be three ill conceived VTA measures (B, C and D). All deserve to be defeated.

Besides the 1/8 cent sales tax, which titled Measure B to please Carl Guardino, the others are related to an old legal mandate that required VTA to submit a transportation plan to be approved by voters every six years. The first measure (C) asks voters to approve VTP 2035, which has yet to be finalized and wouldn't be approved by the VTA Board until after the election. The second measure asks voters to end the legal mandate and instead direct the "2000 Measure A Watchdog Committee" (i.e. VTA Citizens Advisory Committee) to review VTA's plan every six years.

It is strange for VTA to ask voters to approve a plan that is still in the works. It is even stranger for VTA to ask voters to give up their right to weight in on VTA's plan. Basically, it is all part of the same deal driven by SVLG delusionals to spend billions more of our tax dollars with less public oversight, esepecially when the board is appointed and not directly elected.

In order to fix VTA and the dysfunctional board, all these measures need to go down in flames this November.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Light rail station reopening and Jazz Festival

Tomorrow, the Almaden light rail shuttle will resume service as Almaden, Oakridge and Ohlone/Chynoweth stations reopen. A week later on August 16, Blossom Hill and Cottle stations will be closed for platform retrofit. Bus bridge will be provided at both stations to connect with light rail at other stations. At Blossom Hill station, the entrance at Velasco Drive will be closed.

Once the construction completes at Blossom Hill and Cottle, Snell will be the last station to be closed for retrofit. Santa Teresa station will remain open through the construction period.

Also this weekend, due to the San Jose Jazz Festival. All buses that operate on San Fernando Street west of 1st in Downtown San Jose will be rerouted to San Carlos Street. Routes 22 and 23 that normally operate on San Fernando during late Friday and Saturday nights will remain on Santa Clara Street.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

VTA approves placing 1/8 cent sales tax increase on the ballot

With David Casas,Yoriko Kishimoto and Don Gage dissenting, the rest of the VTA board approved the proposal to place the 1/8 sales tax increase on the ballot to pay for the BART extension.

This is a great sample of how dysfunctional the VTA Board is and how most of the board members, already deeply delusional, forget their fiduciary responsibility.

On Monday, VTA General Manager Michael Burns sent a last-minute memo to the boardmembers stating that the proposed 1/8 cent sales tax not only would completely cover the cost of running the BART extension but would produce a surplus. This was a 100% flip-flop over his earlier statement to the press that the 1/8 cent tax would not cover the entire cost.

The memo appeared convincing at the first glance, but BayRail Alliance issued a counter-memo at the meeting showing that Burn's memo left out key details and that the 1/8 tax will only cover about 80% of the cost running the extension.

The key details left out of the Burn's memo are:

  • VTA is obligated to pay BART in advance at $48 million per year (in 2001 dollars) and adjusted quarterly thereafter to the growth rate of the sales tax revenue. In other words, BART gets a percentage cut of the sales tax revenue from VTA. That percentage cut happens to be larger than the 1/8 cent sales tax. As a result, the 1/8 cent tax will never completely cover VTA's financial obligation to BART.


  • According to the agreement between BART and VTA, VTA's maximum payment on the capital reserve is 30% of the operating and maintenance cost along with the allocated overhead cost. Burn's memo claimed that VTA is obligated to the maximum of the 20% of the operating cost, which, according to the agreement, is actually the minimum payment after 15 years of operation. Unless the advance payment from VTA and fare revenue can completely cover the operating cost plus a 30% capital reserve, BART will not return any funds back to VTA. Calculations by BayRail show that the maximum BART subsidy, which includes a 30% capital reserve, will exceed the $48 million annual advance payment from VTA. Therefore, surplus is not possible.

When Kishimoto pressed Burns about the advance payment, Burns said that VTA is not committed to the $48 million but rather the operating cost, a concept that violates the agreement between BART and VTA.

In response to the BayRail's numbers, Burns pointed out that the tax would be collected years before opening, which would produce a surplus in the early years. Even so, a simple calculation shows that VTA would still leave a deficit of about $200 million under the BayRail scenario, assuming that VTA would not use any of the funds in other ways, which is very unlikely.

Instead of asking hard questions, reviewing VTA's financial obligation to BART, and figuring how this tax relates to other VTA projects like Downtown East Valley, most of the boardmembers were instead telling stories about their delusions. Carl Guardino deliberately rushed this tax at the last minute directly to the board to avoid serious discussions and analysis, especially at the committee level.

Unfortunately, the same carelessness displayed by most boardmembers tonight have led to budget crises at the agency in the past eight years. Does VTA deserve more of your tax dollars? The choice is clear in November.