Friday, March 28, 2008

VTA April updates and more

Finally Suzanne Gifford, VTA's General Counsel, is retiring. The VTA board is scheduled at its meeting next Thursday to appoint one of her deputies, Kevin Allmand, to become the acting General Counsel until a permenant replacement is hired.

Gifford's record at VTA wasn't spectacular. One of her biggest failures at VTA is losing a $2.1 million lawsuit filed by a scooter-bound VTA rider who got injured inside the bus. Even Dave Cortese, a VTA board member, thought that Gifford should've settled early on. Because of that lawsuit, VTA instituted a policy in 2007 to require wheelchair passengers to be secured inside the bus. Although its intent is to improve passenger safety, some disabled riders argued against the policy because it would increase the time needed to board and exit wheelchair passengers.

VTA working with groups to address the Hotel 22 problem

About 30 volunteers from Victory Outreach Church and Tzu Chi Foundation will ride the Hotel 22 tonight to provide homeless riders with information on community resources and housing. A small gift bag will be given to interested homeless riders.

VTA to restore some 68 peak hour service in the South County

On April 7, VTA will restore 3 peak hour trips each way (northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon) on line 68 between Santa Teresa light rail and Gilroy. As part of the January service change, VTA eliminated 15-minute service on line 68 south of Santa Teresa, which led to numerous compliants about overcrowding on buses.

A minor community bus problem

In the photo above, there's a yellow strip located right under the window frame. That's the stop request strip designed to be used by wheelchair passengers. Apparently, a lot of regular passengers who sat in the front accidentially triggered stop request by simply leaning their bodies on to the strip. Some drivers tell these passengers to keep away from the strip. Some drivers decided not to bother the passengers and instead reset the visual messaging board that shows the stop request.

Proposed VTA Board reform rejected by the CAC

On its March 12 Citizen's Advisory Committee meeting, VTA staff presented the board reform proposal for the committee to consider. Although many members believed the proposed reform is a good first step, it is not enough to address VTA's governance problems. Moreover, many believed that additional public input is needed on this matter. At the end, the CAC voted not to recommend the proposal and requested the board to "take a holistic and strategic approach on the whole issue of governance and begin an interactive process with all appropriate community stakeholders."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Temporary single tracking is not an unusual practice at VTA

The crossover that was the site of last Friday's derailment has been used in the past for single track operation.

The crossover was built around 2002 to faciliate construction of the Vasona line. The construction of the track junction at Children's Discovery Museum station required single tracking through the area. Also, it required VTA to reduce light rail frequency to every 15 minutes. At that time, because of funding shortfall, VTA already approved reduction of light rail service from every 10 minutes to every 12 minutes.

After construction of the Vasona line, the same crossover was used again for single tracking during the construction of carpool lanes on highway 87 in 2005. The freeway construction required rebuilding of railings adjacent to light rail tracks.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tamien station partial closure and bus bridge

The retrofit to the southbound side of the platform is complete. The northbound side is now closed for construction. New signs have been placed to notify riders about the temporary loss of northbound service.

Friday's derailment prompted VTA to stop single tracking in the area. A bus bridge has been set up between Curtner and Convention Center to provide northbound access at Tamien. Earlier today, there were supervisors at Tamien to make sure buses come on time.

The bus bridge goes from Tamien directly to Convention Center via the freeway. There's no bus bridge service for Virginia and Children's Discovery Museum stations even though they're completely closed for construction.

Tamien station is now closed in the northbound direction

Due to the train derailment last Friday, which damaged the crossover north of Virginia station, VTA no longer operates on a single track to serve Tamien station. For the next few weeks, light rail will not stop at Tamien in the northbound direction until the completion of the platform retrofit there. Trains however will stop at Tamien in the southbound direction.

VTA is operating a bus bridge between Curtner and Convention Center stations.

Monday, March 24, 2008

VTA blames human error for light rail derailment

Two VTA employees are on administrative leave after a train derailment last Friday night at a scissors crossover north of Virginia Station. VTA has ruled out mechanical failure as the cause of the derailment.

For more than a month, trains have operated on a single track in the area in order to serve Tamien station, which is undergoing platform retrofit while remain open to passengers. Virginia and Children's Discovery Museum stations are currently closed during the platform retrofit construction.

An employee is stationed at the crossover to oversee the single tracking operation.

When the train was derailed, it hit a power pole and the first two axles of the train were on top of the opposite crossover track. According to photographs and some eyewitness accounts, it is plausible that the southbound train encountered some problems while on the crossover. VTA is still investigating this incident.

Monday, March 17, 2008

March VTA Committees update: New fare boxes

This Thursday, VTA's Admin and Finance Committee will vote on a consulting contract to develop proposals on the replacement or upgrade of existing bus fareboxes. The current fareboxes were purchased in 1988 and were obsolete. VTA needs new or upgraded fareboxes that can support some form of electronic payments as well as improved data collection from passengers.

AC Transit, a neighboring agency, has more advanced fareboxes that can issue and validate customized transfers and passes. As a result, AC Transit offers 31-day passes rather than monthly passes, which are more convenient to those who need to travel on buses mid-month to mid-month.

In the meantime, SamTrans is also looking into replacing its fareboxes. Unlike VTA and AC Transit, SamTrans does not offer transfers nor day passes. SamTrans wants new fareboxes so it can implement day passes without the administrative overhead typically required.

The Admin and Finance Committee will also consider refinancing many of VTA's bonds without bond insurance. Previously, VTA has issued insured bonds to lock in lower interest rates. However, the subprime mortgage crisis caused many bond insurers to be downgraded, resulting a huge jump in interest rates. Two of three VTA's bond insurers were recently downgraded and VTA is paying much higher interest rates on bonds insured by the downgraded firms. The State of California has decided earlier this month to stop using bond insurance.

The Congestion Management Committee will receive a report of the South County Circulation Study.

The Transit Planning and Operations Committee will decide whether to take legal actions to obtain access rights needed to relocate the existing Union Pacific track off the right of way now owned by VTA in Milpitas.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Half-way done on Tamien Station platform retrofit

At Tamien, trains are operating on a single track to accomodate construction. The southbound side of the platform looks almost complete.

This is the contruction progress at the Children's Discovery Museum station. This station, as well as Virginia station, are closed to passengers during construction.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why a directly elected VTA Board won't fix VTA?

As the VTA Board is considering possible changes to its board composition, some have suggested that members of the VTA Board should be directly elected, rather than appointed from various city councils and the Board of Supervisors as it is currently done. Advocates for an elected VTA Board pointed out that boardmembers of both BART and AC Transit are chosen by voters.

Nominally, direct election gives voters an ultimate degree of accountability over a governing board. Today, there's no direct way to vote someone off the VTA Board for making poor decisions on VTA issues. Members can either be voted out or termed out of their original elected office on the city council or the Board of Supervisors, or, for non-San Jose cities, just being rotated out of the VTA Board after a two year cycle. By the same token, there's no direct way to get on the VTA Board short of becoming the Mayor of San Jose. No one can get on the VTA Board simply with their transportation expertise.

Meanwhile, do voters care about VTA issues? Given the fact that very few commuters in the South Bay ride transit, most voters simply aren't going to study the candidates and their positions. Do most voters study the candidates for Santa Clara Valley Water District, El Camino Hospital District, or San Jose-Evergreen Community College District?

Lack of voter interest sometimes defeat the purpose of having direct elections. In 1998, Nancy Jewell Cross was voted to serve on the AC Transit Board representing Newark and Fremont. She defeated her incumbent opponent primarily because of her deceptive yet persuasive ballot arguments. Prior to her run, she had a reputation on the other side of the Bay for suing everyone she was angry at and was therefore declared a vexatious litigant.

Once Cross was elected, her true character showed. She was disruptive and uncooperative with her fellow boardmembers. She was finally voted off the AC Transit Board four years later.

Although Nancy Jewell Cross is an extreme example, at many smaller special districts, many boardmembers simply won uncontested for the same reason.

For VTA, which has an annual operating budget of about $350 million, every seat will likely be contested. Running for contested positions on the county-wide board often require the candidates to be beholden to special interests as they seek endorsements as well as campaign contributions. Will the candidates truly serve transit riders, or will they just serve the labor unions and downtown delusionals like it is now?

Imagine a scenario where Carl Guardino and Ron Gonzales got elected to the VTA Board. They can't get onboard VTA now, but they could if VTA were directly elected. We know that their priorities are not aligned with transit riders, but will the voters care?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Understanding Downtown Delusionals

The City of San Jose finally acknowledges that it can't afford to turn the historic BofA Building at 1st and Santa Clara Street into a new bum magnet, a sad news for the downtown delusionals.

For them, the downtown delusionals don't support BART to San Jose simply as a way to connect the East Bay with the South Bay. Their delusion is that having a BART-branded "grand" subway station in Downtown San Jose will turn it into the center of a great metropolis like New York and London.

If it weren't for them, there's no point to build BART. BART by far is the most expensive urban rail technology and is also the least flexible. BART tracks cost more to build yet no other trains (like ACE) can run on. The proposed alignment also bypasses the "Golden Triangle" area where most commuters work. Instead, the alignment requires a long subway alignment through a old residential neighborhood and helped the eventual removal of a popular flea market.

These delusionals also don't want it built any other way. They are opposed to building the BART extension in multiple phases like most other rail projects around the country. They know that if the South Bay residents get to experience what a big hype BART is with a shortened extension, funding will not be made available to build the subway downtown.

As much as these people want to believe a BART-branded subway would bring tremendous growth to downtown, we should instead take cue from Oakland, which has BART subways in downtown for more than 35 years. Even though every BART train has to get through downtown Oakland, most passengers stay onboard traveling underground. In many other ways, downtown Oakland is no better than downtown San Jose.