Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Muni's TEP vs. VTA's COA

After months of extensive data collection and research, Muni in San Francisco released its draft route change proposal yesterday.

In many ways, Muni's Transit Effectiveness Project is following VTA's footsteps, from the initial research to recommendations. Muni and VTA hired the same consultant to conduct their service evaluations (compare VTA's 22 to Muni's 14). Some elements of Muni's route change proposal are strikingly similar to VTA's COA, such as elimination of less popular routes that closely parallel to major routes.

However, Muni and VTA are vastly different systems. Muni's plan maintains its 1/4 mile transit coverage in most of San Francisco, and only proposes to eliminate service in the Presidio, which is already served by its own shuttle system, the PresidiGo. On the other hand, VTA initially recommended to cut service in much of the outlaying suburbs, as well as to the community colleges located there. Passenger complaints forced the VTA staff to keep some of the service in these areas.

Another difference between Muni and VTA is their implementation process. Given San Francisco's politics, it is not inconceivable that some necessary changes to speed service will be vetoed because of some individuals' desire to maintain a bus stop on every block. In addition, some of the changes will require infrastructure changes, because much of its bus network is consisted of trolley buses running under overhead wires. Don't anticipate such a major service change to happen overnight like what VTA had last month.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Boneheaded CARB regulations hurt transit riders

The outcome is clear: the hydrogen fuel cell technology is not ready for primetime.

Why is it relevent? According to the timetable set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), VTA will need to purchase more of these as it replaces older buses.

In order to comply with regulations over transit bus emissions, VTA, along with many transit agencies in the Bay Area, made a choice eight years ago to continue operating diesel buses rather than switching to an alternative fuel such as CNG. In return for not switching to CNG, VTA agreed to experiment and to eventually switch to hydrogen fuel-cell buses. Funding for fuel cell buses was included in the 2000 Measure A.

Three years ago, VTA began its experiment with three fuel cell buses in operation. Because these buses were not as reliable, they were placed as extra unscheduled runs on various routes. The drivers and machanics had to be specially trained to operate and maintain these vehicles. Even though the experiment was officially over, these buses are still operated the same way today as they were three years ago.

While the fuel cell buses may be ready eventually, VTA is running out of options. Diesel hybrid buses, despite their benefits, are not yet approved for use by CARB.

Under a waiver by CARB, San Francisco Muni introduced hybrid buses last year. The hybrids not only reduce pollution and save fuel, they provide a quicker acceleration suitable for busy San Francisco streets. Hybrids have been tested in environments such as New York and Seattle before being introduced in San Francisco.

While CARB's insistence of pushing the fuel cell technology could be viewed as visionary, riders and operators alike prefer more economical and practical solutions. Diesel and hybrid buses, despite their pollution, are still cleaner than the automobiles riders could've driven.

In order to make transit an attractive option to automobiles, transit has to be both affordable and reliable, which neither fuel cell buses can provide for now. CARB will do more for the environment by encouraging transit use than by their boneheaded push for a new technology.

Friday, February 22, 2008

VTA to close Children's Discovery Museum and Virginia stations for platform retrofit

On Monday, Children's Discovery Museum and Virginia stations will be closed for platform retrofit. The construction is expected to take two months to complete.

Bus bridge will not be provided at either station. Passengers at Children's Discovery Museum station can either walk to Convention Center station or take line 23 bus on San Carlos Street to Convention Center. Passengers at Virginia station can walk a few blocks south to Willow Street to catch line 25 bus to Tamien station, or just walk all the way to Tamien.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sham VTP 2035 public outreach process begins

With less than a month to go before the deadline for submitting a project list to MTC, VTA scheduled a number of public meetings to receive feedback on VTP 2035.

VTA also includes an online survey, which asked a number of questions about transportation priorities. The survey does not ask participants to weigh between cost effective Caltrain/ACE improvements and the wasteful BART extension, rather it lumps everything together as "regional rail improvements." The survey, however, asks the participants to pick priorities between new metering lights, new carpool lanes, and freeway widening.

How can this be a true public process when the BART extension alone will cost more than the entire VTP 2035 highway program?

4 meetings are scheduled on VTP 2035:

San Jose
February 25, 2008 from 6:00 to 8:00pm
MLK Library, Rooms 225-229
150 E San Fernando Street

February 26, 2008 from 6:00 to 8:00pm
Campbell Community Center, Roosevelt Room
1 West Campbell Ave

Morgan Hill
February 27, 2008 from 6:00 to 8:00pm
Morgan Hill Community Cultural Center, Madrone Room
17000 Monterey Road

Mountain View
February 28, 2008 from 6:00 to 8:00pm
City Hall, Plaza Conference Room
500 Castro Street

With a short timetable, the public meetings are more or less a task of "going through the motion."

Amgen bike race to impact transit in San Jose

Tomorrow, the Amgen bike tour (stage 3) is scheduled to end at the San Jose City Hall in the afternoon. In San Jose, the tour will be routed through McKee, Toyon, and Piedmont, then again Piedmont, Mabury, Taylor, 2nd St, St. James, 3rd St, and Santa Clara. Riders should anticipate delays on routes serving along those streets.

Friday, February 15, 2008

VTA Board restructuring and Brown Act

While the San Jose City Council is facing a Brown Act controversy concerning the naming of "Saigon Business District," the VTA Board (which quite a few members are also on the San Jose City Council) didn't seem to conform with the Brown Act either by discussing possible board restructuring at its meeting last week.

Margaret Okuzumi of BayRail Alliance wrote a letter to the VTA General Counsel requesting a review over the board's conformance with the Brown Act, which generally prohibits any governing board from discussing or taking action on matters that are not on the agenda.

"I was surprised then to personally witness at the VTA board meeting of Thursday, February 7, 2008, a discussion by at least four members of the board of a proposed VTA board restructuring proposal, which was not listed on the board agenda. As far as I'm aware, there was not a motion to put this item on the agenda; rather it was discussed under the Chairperson's (Verbal) Report.

"At the end of the meeting I remarked that this was a violation of the Brown Act and I believe it still is. It's especially disturbing to me that, this item was not on the paper agenda distributed at the meeting, nor do I recall it being on the electronic agenda on VTA's website that I viewed just prior to leaving my house to attend the meeting, but some time later the item appeared on the website and it appears the electronic agenda was modified retroactively to show that the item was on the agenda. The written Board Governance Recommendations Report, as distributed at the February 7 meeting, did not list what item it was to be discussed under...

"I was disturbed to hear announced that this VTA board restructuring proposal was planned to be presented by VTA staff member Jim Lawson to numerous cities in the county this month, all this apparently being arranged before the proposal has been considered in an duly noticed fashion by the VTA board itself. I was also disturbed to hear board member Greg Sellers state that there was a desire to have the VTA board vote on the proposal at the next board meeting in March. I was surprised to hear member Casas offer that he didn't have a personal gripe with giving up his seat to board member Kishimoto due to her interest and experience; it was as if he had accepted this was going to be the case. It appears that there have been behind-the-scenes discussions about this proposal and arrangements being worked out of the public view.

"For something as important as determining how cities are represented on the VTA board and powers distributed among them, it is a disservice to the public interest for these discussions to be cloaked from public view and a proposal developed by a subcommittee of one member appointed by the board so that subcommittee deliberations were not noticed or subject to the Brown Act."

VTA responded that it takes the Brown Act seriously and will address Margaret's concerns by having the item properly agendized for an upcoming meeting, possibly in March.

Uninspired VTP 2035

Next Thursdy, the VTA Congestion Management and Planning Committee will decide whether to forward the VTP 2035 project list to the Board of Directors for consideration. The board then will decide whether to forward that list to the MTC, which will be evaluated and be included as a part of the Regional Transportation Plan.

Unfortunately, VTA has done nothing to solicit public input on VTP 2035. The deadline for project submittal to MTC is March 5.

The project list includes a variety of highway and transit projects. Some new highway projects (not proposed in prior VTPs) include widening of 101 between CA 85 (Mountain View) and Embarcadero Road, as well as a new toll highway on CA 152 between CA 156 and 101 in the Gilroy area.

As for the transit projects, almost all of them are carried over from the last VTP (actually were proposed as a part of the 2000 Measure A). The only new transit project is the San Jose Diridon station expansion with a price tag of $400 million. Sadly, fraudulent studies and prior agreements have ruled out alternatives to the BART project for further consideration in this RTP.

The RTP has to be fiscally constrained, which means there must be enough funding in the future to support all of the proposed projects. VTA's proposal includes a new local revenue source (a new sales tax that has yet to be approved) as a part of the overall revenue.

The RTP was promised to be visionary and to address issues such as global warming. However, nothing from VTA is visionary. Most Santa Clara County politicians are still stuck in a ill-conceived 8-year old transit plan, and only debate what projects should be excluded from it to pay for the money sucking BART extension. Fortunately, voters do have the veto power and can demand a more visionary plan, free of delusional influence from Carl Guardino and Ron Gonzales.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Around the Valley

Yesterday, a low floor bus on line 68 was spotted in Morgan Hill at Main and Hale transit center. That bus was crowded and was running late.

According to the A-frames placed at the station, Palo Alto bus transit center will be closed from 10:30am to 4:30pm this Sunday due to the Amgen California bike tour. VTA line 22 and SamTrans KX and 390 will make a detour and stop in the west side of the train station on Quarry Road. VTA line 35 and SamTrans 280 and 281 will stop in the east side of the train station on Lytton Avenue. Service to Stanford Shopping Center on these lines will be canceled on that day.

For the next few months, VTA will continue to operate on a single track between Tamien and Virginia stations as Tamien is undergoing platform retrofit. VTA personnel are located at the crossovers (south of Tamien and north of Virginia) to oversee the single track operations. Along with the personnel is a light rail car at each crossover. These cars act as a place to rest and as a way to transport the crew to and from the crossover.

At San Jose Diridon Station, both MST line 55 and VTA line 168 provide express service to Gilroy. MST is partnering with a vineyard to develop locally grown bio-diesel by planting two kinds of mustard seeds.

Recently, passengers with luggage were spotted waiting on Cahill Street south of San Jose Diridon Station at about 5:00pm. For the last six months, passengers have been waiting at the same spot in the morning to board a Megabus to Los Angeles. Apparently, Megabus adjusted its bus schedule and has added an afternoon stop in San Jose for a bus to Los Angeles.

However, the Megabus website still shows the old schedule in the schedule section. The new trip time is visible only by using the "Search and buy" box. Not a good business practice for a company that wants to compete in a market where people tend to either fly or drive.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Extend AC Transit to Silicon Valley

Tomorrow, an AC Transit committee will receive a report on potential express bus service to the South Bay.

AC Transit proposes four express routes from the East Bay to the Great America area. The Great America area has the largest concentration of jobs in the South Bay for East Bay residents, and most of the these East Bay residents come from the Fremont area.

Proposed routes:

1. Hayward BART station, via areas west of I-880, to Union City before entering the freeway to Great America

2. Union City, via Newark before entering the freeway to Great America

3. MacArthur BART in Oakland, via Fruitvale BART

4. Bay Fair BART Station

Because VTA already provides bus service from Fremont BART station to the Great America area in addition to Milpitas and Downtown San Jose, AC Transit chooses to focus on areas in the East Bay, such as Newark, that are not close to BART. However AC Transit proposes to begin these routes at BART stations because these stations, tend to be the hubs for AC Transit local buses, have a greater "rider concentration."

AC Transit estimates these routes would carry almost 2000 riders per day and generate a farebox recovery rate ranging from 30% to 80%. The total subsidy required is estimated to be $1.4 million per year.

However, AC Transit did not identify a funding source for these proposed routes, nor the agency currently has the vehicles needed to operate the service.

AC Transit, which carries more than twice as many bus passengers as VTA, has been entrepreneurial in recent years. It is a major receipient of Regional Measure 2 ($1 extra bridge toll) funds for operating transbay bus service across the Bay Bridge, San Mateo Bridge, and the Dumbarton Bridge, along with the All-nighter owl service in the East Bay. AC Transit has a partnership with Stanford University where Stanford contributes 30% of the operating cost for the U line from Fremont, and in turn AC Transit provides free rides for Stanford students and employees. Also, AC Transit is the operator of the Dumbarton Express service, in which VTA is one of the funding partners.

Because AC Transit does not operate nor plan to build rail lines (that is the job for BART in the East Bay), AC Transit can only focus on delivering higher quality bus service. For many transbay commuter lines (including the U line to Stanford), AC Transit operates over-the-road MCI coaches. Compared to the standard buses that VTA runs on express routes, these coaches provide a quieter and more comfortable ride. Some of these buses also offer free wi-fi service.

Extending AC Transit service to the South Bay is certainly a possibility. Unlike the BART extension, it would provide direct point to point service within the East Bay to South Bay employment destinations, which are located far away from the proposed BART alignment.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Light rail platform retrofit to impact Tamien station

This weekend, southbound light rail trains will not stop at Tamien station due to the platform retrofit project, which all platforms will be rebuilt at light rail stations along the Santa Teresa and Almaden lines south of Convention Center. VTA advises southbound passengers to change to a bus bridge at Convention Center to Tamien and from Tamien to Curtner. Another alternative is to get off the southbound light rail at Curtner station and transfer to a northbound train to Tamien. Partial weekend closure like this is expected sometime during the next few months at this station.

Tamien and Santa Teresa are the only stations that will not be completely closed for the construction. From late February until early next year, a group of stations will be closed for a few weeks at a time. A bus bridge will provide temporary service to the closed stations.

Once the construction completes at all stations, the light rail system will have level boarding at all doors at all stations. Currently a wooden ramp is required to board wheelchair passengers at stations without the retrofit.

Again, VTA has done a mediocre job to communicate construction impacts to passengers. There's no direct link from VTA's home page to the page about the platform retrofit. The project page, which contains the links to the construction information in PDF, is cluttered with a lot of outdated materials. The rest of the information concerning the construction is available in February's VTA Take One newsletter, also in PDF.

Friday, February 08, 2008

VTA Board to restructure?

Without having a separate agenda item on the topic during the VTA Board meeting yesterday, the VTA Board discussed various proposals to restructure the board after a consultant report was presented.

Margaret Okuzumi, executive director of BayRail Alliance, reported on last night's meeting at the VTA Riders' Union mailing list:

"Basically they are proposing to re-jigger the city groupings so that there are the same 5 city groupings, but now Morgan Hill and Gilroy get their own group with incipient city San Martin, and Milpitas to be grouped with Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, and the other two groups are modified somewhat also.

"There is also a proposal that representatives from each city group be elected to represent the group for 4 years instead of the current 2-year rotation...

"...It was stated that VTA staff member Jim Lawson is working to appear before all 15 city councils this month and present the proposal for their approval. So if you disagree with the proposal, now is the time to talk to your local council members!"

The restructuring, however, will not fix the conflict of interest between roles as a transit operator and as a congestion management agency (highway builder). Okuzumi has a alternate proposal that would split the current VTA into separate agencies with different functions.

Unfortunately, the new board chair Liz Kniss brought back the old Ron Gonzales tradition of scheduling the public comment at the end of the meeting. Gonzales originally began the practice in 2002 when he became chair. It continued through 2003 and was ended when Don Gage became chair in 2004. Scheduling public comment at the end of the meeting hurt transit riders because the meeting can take hours and transit services operate less frequently as the night goes on.

Kniss is expected to face a tough reelection battle to keep her County Supervisor seat this year. Will she join Dean Chu and Cindy Chavez and lose reelection while being the VTA Board Chair?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

COA growing pains

Happy Lunar New Year

As reported on the VTA Riders' Union message list earlier, VTA is reviewing some of the changes implemented last month. In particular is line 68 south of Santa Teresa light rail station. On January 14, the peak hour frequency on line 68 south of Santa Teresa was reduced from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes, resulting in overcrowded buses with some passengers standing between Santa Teresa and Morgan Hill. VTA is considering possible service changes to address complaints about the overcrowding.

Some of the line 68 resources were reallocated to the new line 168, which operates every 30 minutes in peak directions. However, it is not a complete substitute for the 50% reduction in local service, especially in the reverse commute direction (morning to Gilroy) where no express service is provided.

On the other hand, the ridership on the express service appears promising, with some buses carrying 20 passengers.

In addition, VTA realigned line 54 last weekend to avoid the unnecessary loop south of De Anza College and clarified the timepoints in the area.