Thursday, July 31, 2008

State audit report on VTA is now available

Just made available on the State Auditor's web site at 9:00am. Enjoy!

Click here for the summary from the web site.

Click here for the full report in PDF.

A quick thanks

Hugh Jardonn deserves a thank you for mentioning this blog and quoting some of the posts here on his letter to the editor regarding last week's San Jose Metro article on the new sales tax.

According to the online edition, it appears that the editors at the Metro have mistakenly changed BRT (a recognized abbreviation for bus rapid transit worldwide) to BART, which made the fourth paragraph awkward to read. Even though BRT and BART are just one letter apart, but BRT and BART are totally different animals.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

VTA should conduct its own polls for new taxes

Unlike most government entities, VTA does not conduct its own polls when the board makes major decisions like tax increases. Instead, VTA has relied on private polls conducted by SVLG, or more accurately, SVLG's interpretation of it own polls, given that SVLG has consistently refused to release polling results to the public and even to some of the key VTA Board members.

SVLG may think taxpayer sponsored polls a waste of money, but it is the only kind of poll that can engage the public in the decision making process. In reality, SVLG's polls are a part of the tax campaign, especially when the polls were funded by entities like the Santa Clara Building-Trades Council that have vested interests in the BART extension. If VTA actually conducts the poll, VTA could provide likely voters more details about alternatives and trade-offs, rather than testing campaign messages that provide the most positive responses.

The full VTA Board, as well as the rest of the public (riders in particular), should have complete access to polling information when the board considers tax increases. VTA Boardmembers also should not feel threatened by private lobbying groups like SVLG because of their interpretation of their own polls. The only way to accomplish these is for VTA to conduct its own polling.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Guardino should spend his own money to put his tax measure on the ballot

Carl Guardino, through his chief surrogate, continues to insist that his private polls are indeed private polls. According to the Mercury News, Guardino did not reveal the polling results even to some of the key VTA Board members, who will decide whether to place the tax on the ballot next week.

The VTA Board should not reward SVLG for its commitment to secrecy by placing the tax measure on the ballot for free. SVLG, like other groups, can always place their own initiative on the ballot through the signature gathering process. If SVLG and its cohorts are willing to spend $2 millions on a campaign, SVLG can certainly pay a buck or more per signature to get it on the ballot.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What weaknesses do VTA and SVLG have to hide?

An article appeared on this week's Metro exposes the lack of certainty on VTA's part to complete the BART project.

We know that an 1/8 cent tax will not be enough to cover the minimum cost to operate BART, so where would the rest of the money come from? If you think VTA's General Manager Michael Burns knows the answer, he doesn't.

"Even the general manager for VTA says the cost to run BART through the South Bay is a moving target, " according to that article.

If VTA even contemplates cutting service or deferring other projects to fund BART, these conversations need to take place before VTA places the tax on the ballot, rather than after the election. Voters need to have a clear picture of what the risks are. So far, not only VTA has not provided any evidence that VTA can keep its words, VTA also relied on SVLG's private polls so that voters won't know what are VTA's weaknesses. Instead of correcting its weaknesses as a way to build public confidence, VTA chose to hide those from the voters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SamTrans to discontinue 49ers service

Due to the new and misguided federal charter bus regulation, SamTrans has announced that it will not operate the 49ers special service this season.

Silverado Stages, a private charter bus company, will provide the service on the same routes SamTrans has operated. Bus fares will be higher, however. Last season, SamTrans charged $15 round trip and $90 for a season pass. Silverado Stages will charge $20 round trip and $175 for a season pass.

SamTrans and 49ers has coordinated with Silverado Stages to ensure a smooth transition for SamTrans riders. Even so, some riders may opt for Caltrain, which stops a mile away from the stadium at Bayshore Station under regular train schedules.

GM Burns' response to Scott Herhold's column

Last Sunday, the 2001 agreement between BART and VTA was brought up on Scott Herhold's column. One of the issues discussed is the lien BART will have on the TDA funds (a 1/4 sales tax collected by the state) that VTA currently spends on bus and light rail operation, if VTA cannot identify another funding source (a new tax) to operate the BART extension by 2009.

According to his column, some suggested that the tax is a way to fund VTA through the back door. They argued that VTA could still fund BART with its existing taxes by making VTA operate more efficiently.

Today, in an email message, VTA's GM Michael Burns shot back. Burns wrote that VTA is facing raising cost and that the federal government will never fund BART if VTA had to cut existing services.

There are some truths in what they said, but they are also wrong in some respects.

Rising fuel cost is impacting VTA's budget. Even with the growing ridership, it is hard to imagine that additional fare revenue will keep up with the increasing fuel expenses. At the same time, the state is cutting back funding to public transportation as it tries to resolve its budget deficit. VTA does not have the kind of reserve to fund BART.

At the same time, the 1/8 cent tax will not be able to fund BART without putting a substantial risk on existing bus and light rail operation. VTA has admitted that the 1/8 tax will not completely cover the upfront payment to BART. Also, if the extension fails to meet ridership projection (which it won't), VTA would have to pay more to BART on top of that upfront payment. Under such scenario, VTA not only would have an incentive to cut transit service to fund BART by reducing its expenses, but also by forcing its bus riders to pay more on BART.

In addition, VTA has yet to release an expenditure plan, which would provide clues as to how VTA could borrow enough funds to support a massive construction in downtown San Jose (especially given the construction timetable), along with other commitments like Caltrain, light rail and bus rapid transit throughout the county. Just talking about the operating cost is an attempt to whitewash the risks VTA would face. Will this be the last time VTA ask for a tax increase if it passes? Or will this be one of many times VTA ask taxpayers for a bailout?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The cat is out of the bag

Finally the cat is out of the bag. VTA intends to place a 1/8 cent tax on the November ballot just for the BART extension. The proponents say the tax won't kick in until VTA receives other matching funds from the state and the federal government.

Regardless of when VTA would actually receive matching funds, a new tax (short of what VTA says it needs) would certainly put local bus and paratransit service in jeopardy.

Remember when VTA proposed a 21% transit reduction in 2003? It will happen again if this tax were to go forward.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

July VTA Board round up

Scheduled for tomorrow at noon is the July VTA Board meeting. During the closed session at the start of the meeting, the board will receive and discuss the results of the state audit. The state audit was conducted as a part of a deal in the state legislature that allowed VTA to place 1/8 cent tax increase on the ballot. While the board will receive an advanced briefing, the report will not be released to the public until July 31. Before that time, the staff nor the board will not be permitted to discuss the audit findings with anyone else.

At the same meeting, the VTA board will also consider:

- Changing its value and mission statements.
- Adopting a new countywide bicycle plan.
- Approving a consulting contract for the light rail system analysis.
- Designating AC Transit as the lead agency for the second phase of the fuel cell bus program.

For the last few years, VTA, with partial funding from SamTrans, procured and operated a small fleet of fuel cell buses to meet CARB mandates. For the second phase of the program, VTA proposes a partnership with AC Transit. Under the proposal, AC Transit will procure 12 fuel cell buses from Van Hool and VTA will operate four of them. A new fueling facility will also be added at a VTA yard. This proposal saves time and effort needed to procure experimental vehicles and still meets CARB requirements.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

VTA to host meeting on Downtown East Valley

VTA has released a draft environmental impact report on the Santa Clara-Alum Rock corridor project. Eight years ago, light rail on the that corridor was one of the key projects listed on the 2000 Measure A in order to woo voters. Now it has been watered down to a bus rapid transit project with a possibility of a light rail upgrade.

For the BRT, VTA proposes to operate the existing 522 and the new 523 from downtown to Eastridge along Santa Clara/Alum Rock and then Capitol Expressway. On Santa Clara/Alum Rock west of King, buses will run on the curbside lane with upgraded bus stops that extend to the traffic lane. East of King, buses will run on the median bus lanes to Capitol Avenue. On Capitol Avenue, buses will operate pretty much as it is. VTA estimates a 25 minute travel time between Eastridge and San Jose Diridon Station.

Even if the light rail extension from Alum Rock to Eastridge (approved as a separate project, but unfunded) goes forward, buses will continue to serve Eastridge according to the study. However, the EIR has suggested that VTA could defer that project.

As for the light rail alternative, it is similar to the BRT proposal in various ways. It will share lanes with street traffic west of King and have reserved right of way east of King. The light rail alternative has an estimated travel time of a 27 minutes between San Jose Diridon Station and Eastridge, 90 seconds longer than the BRT. VTA says light rail could not be built at least until 2018, when BART is supposed to be completed. Also in the EIR, VTA threw out the idea of putting light rail underground (just like BART) because of the obvious high cost.

Essentially, as long as BART is on the table, light rail is dead on the Santa Clara/Alum Rock corridor. Even though light rail construction could technically move forward once BART construction completes, the reality is that VTA will run out of money by then and it will instead cut local bus service on that corridor to force riders onto BART. Whatever assumptions about the operating plan in the EIR should be taken with a grain of salt.

Although BRT is a good, cost-effective plan worthy of consideration, a switch from light rail to BRT nonetheless represents a pattern of double standards. If VTA actually put as much effort to develop a cost-effective alternative to BART as it did for light rail on the Santa Clara/Alum Rock Corridor, VTA wouldn't have to ask voters for another tax increase this November.

VTA has scheduled a meeting on Thursday to receive feedback on the proposal:

Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 6 p.m.
(presentation begins at 6:30 p.m.)
Mexican Heritage Plaza, Green Room
1700 Alum Rock Avenue
San Jose, CA 95116

Monday, July 14, 2008

Can Carl Guardino be trusted?

Recently, there are rumors suggesting that a 1/8 cent tax increase will appear on the November ballot. Carl Guardino reportedly has been showing SVLG sponsored polls to various politically connected individuals asking for their support.

Pushing for a 1/8 cent tax shouldn't be a surprise after VTA was given authorization from the state last year. VTA wouldn't be pushing hard for that in Sacramento if the agency doesn't intend to place it on the ballot.

Politically, a 1/8 cent tax has an advantage: the increase is relatively small. Supporters believe that voters are more likely to support a smaller tax increase than a bigger one.

On the other hand, 1/8 cent is clearly not enough for VTA. Two years ago, VTA approved an expenditure plan that required a new 1/4 cent tax, even though not all 2000 Measure A projects would be funded. Earlier this year, VTA has admitted that even a 1/4 cent will not be enough. Why should VTA be even considering raising less than half of the money the agency says it needs?

Unlike other counties in the Bay Area, Carl Guardino and VTA are strong believers in backroom politics and do not want public participation in drafting a new tax. To date, VTA still hasn't release a spending plan with a 1/8 cent tax increase. It is likely that VTA will not release the plan until just before the August board meeting when the board votes to place a tax on the November ballot.

Even though a smaller tax increase seems appealing, a "cheap" BART is a false promise that Carl Guardino and VTA will never deliver. Eight years ago, despite warning from VTA's General Manager, Guardino claimed in the 2000 Measure A ballot argument that it "pays operating costs ... for decades without additional taxes." Only less than three years later VTA found itself in a hole, putting vital bus and paratransit services at risk. Two years ago, VTA and Guardino tried a new tax but got defeated. This time, VTA and Guardino are desperate and want some kind of tax to pass, even though it is certain that another tax increase will be needed some point in the future.

Carl Guardino could not be trusted in 2000 and still cannot be trusted today. The 2000 Measure A was not enough back then and this new tax will not be enough today. What VTA needs is not a new tax but a change in priorities, and VTA cannot change its priorities when Carl Guardino continues to drive public policy backroom with his private polls.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

High speed rail bond and Pacheco Pass opposition

Yesterday the California High Speed Rail Authority certified the final environmental impact report for the selection of the Pacheco Pass alignment between the Bay Area and Central Valley. It was an important news considering that the high speed rail bond (Proposition 1) will appear on the ballot this November.

Many environmental groups are still opposed to the selection of the Pacheco alignment and consider the environmental impact report fatally flawed.

In the meantime, the high speed rail bond is still on the ballot. Would these groups treat the bond measure separately from the environmental impact report, or would they oppose the bond measure as well because of their opposition to the environmental impact report?

There's no easy answer. Simply, for the environmental community, high speed rail is an important element in reducing greenhouses gases and change our transportation and possibly landuse pattern for the long term. For the last few years, these groups have been a champion to maintain funding to the HSRA when Governor Schwarzenegger threatened to cut the authority's budget substantially.

On the other hand, the Pacheco Pass alignment is unacceptable to them. High Speed Rail Authority chose Pacheco over Altamont primarily for political reasons (driven by Rod Diridon). Also, the Pacheco Pass alignment could eventually drive development in the Los Banos area. Some members of the environmental community believe the alignment issue can only be resolved when the HSRA is disbanded, which means the high speed rail bond measure must be defeated at the ballot box and have the process start over.

Considering a possible opposition from the environmental community, as well as key issues related to getting matching funds from the federal government and the private sector, Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani introduced a bill (AB 3034) that would amend the bond measure. That bill is currently in the state senate. It is in the best interest for all parties that the bond measure be amended to satisfy the environmental group's concerns, which would allow them to support it and ensure successful passage at the ballot box.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What FTA should have thought about on Charter bus regulation

With greater demand for public transportation, the new FTA charter bus regulation has threatened public transit access to sporting events. The new FTA regulation basically categorized premium fare bus service to any special event as charter service, which transit agencies cannot operate unless certain regulatory criteria have been met.

While it is clear that public transit operators should not be in the business of providing charter service for company outings and weddings, stadium service has not been considered to be a charter service. Unlike typical charter jobs, there is no external sponsor and the passengers pay individual fares for buses to the stadium.

Given that it is in the FTA's interest that the public be served, FTA should have considered when designing the new regulation:

In California, according to state laws, stadium service is not considered charter. Charter bus companies that have TCP (charter) licenses cannot legally charge individual fares on passengers to and from the stadium, which would replicate a service provided by transit agencies. To comply with FTA regulation and state laws, the team or the transit agency will have to hire charter bus companies. This is an extra burden that does not benefit the teams nor the transit operators, and definitely not transit riders.

Historically, the teams were not in the business of arranging transportation for their fans. Even if the teams were able to arrange some type of service, how will the teams get reimbursed from passengers to ensure the teams do not lose money on the service?

For the transit agencies, labor contracts limit or prohibit transit agencies from contracting work to private operators. Even if that's not the case, how will the transit agencies collect fares from individual passengers?

For riders, are they left on their own to form a club and hire a charter bus operator?

Besides the charter bus regulation, the more troubling part is that FTA is considering new regulation on school trippers, which could rule out public transit agencies from providing special trips or route deviations to serve local schools in hopes to boost demand for yellow school bus service. To address community concerns, VTA operates school trippers on lines 76, 82 and 88.

However, with limited education budget in California, forbidding transit agencies from providing service will only hurt both students and parents and will do nothing to address local traffic problems at some high schools.