Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Nonsense on BART from Reed and Liccardo

BART is the ingredient that will destroy transit in the Silicon Valley.

San Jose Mercury News printed an op-ed from Chuck Reed and Sam Liccardo, responding to Scott Herhold's column expressing opposition to the BART project.

The op-ed essentially represented SVLG/VTA's view of staying the course on the BART project, when, almost eight years after passing the 2000 Measure A, VTA has constructed nothing and the agency is looking forward to another tax increase.

This op-ed deserves a response.

"Several experts have studied less-costly transit alternatives to BART for this corridor, and, without exception, those studies prove the axiom that "you get what you pay for." If we want more than 100,000 weekday commuters to use transit along that corridor, BART remains the only means - by a wide margin - to that goal."

VTA never truly studied other transit alternatives in the corridor. VTA actually sabotaged MTC's studies that would've considered other transit alternatives in the corridor between Fremont and San Jose. Other agencies in the Central Valley are interested in upgrading ACE into a High Speed Rail like service to San Jose. VTA is actually against these proposals because they compete with BART. On the other hand, BART will not provide direct service from the growing Tri-Valley and Central Valley.

"In fact, the BART extension would carry more riders in this county by 2030 than all of our existing forms of transit today - bus, light rail and Caltrain combined."

In Los Angeles, the Red Line subway carries about 127,000 riders per day, and its bus system carries over a million riders per day. It is a no-brainer to figure out that the BART extension cannot have more riders than all the other services that VTA runs, and our urban environment is more similar to LA.

"Mr. Nakadegawa characterizes the 71 percent fare-box return projection as too ambitious, yet our experience tells us otherwise. Within months of completing the BART extension to San Francisco International Airport, the agency recovered 70 percent of its operating costs through fares."

71% farebox recovery is not realistic. When the BART-SFO extension was proposed, backers of that extension suggested the line would generate a fare surplus. Because of that miscalculation on the farebox recovery, SamTrans almost went bankrupt.

Backers today say 71%, which means more like 40% if it is built. As a transit rider, would you accept fare increases and service reductions to pay for the shortfall? As a taxpayer, would you accept more sales tax increases?

"With several residential high-rises under way now in San Jose's downtown core, and with high-density zoning approved near transit stops in Milpitas, San Jose and Santa Clara, the stations will have a clearly urban character. With or without BART, the future will bring even greater population density."

Although San Jose and Milpitas are building higher density, the density proposed will not generate enough riders, and the density needed to generate enough riders will not receive community support.

Downtown San Jose can only build so high (and therefore so dense) because of the airport conflict. Perhaps SVLG, Reed and Liccardo would have preferred that Ernie Renzel built the airport further away from downtown so that downtown could actually have a real skyline and not having to decide between economic benefits generated by real estate and the airport.

As much as Renzel shortchanged downtown San Jose, SVLG and others are shortchanging transit with BART. If San Jose were visionary, it wouldn't have picked BART to catch up with Oakland. Proposals like Caltrain Metro East are much more visionary, cost less to taxpayers, suitable to the suburban environment, and actually connect to new developments in Central Valley.

Roy Nakadegawa spent decades to improve transportation and he is not beholden to downtown and construction lobby. People like him oppose BART not because they oppose mass transit (which they don't), but because they want a type of mass transit that won't shortchange others.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Common sense from Scott Herhold

San Jose Mercury columnist Scott Herhold highlighted why the BART extension is a bad idea.

Herhold featured an "exchange" between former BART director Roy Nakadegawa, who has always opposed to the BART extension, and VTA General Manager Michael Burns.

There are some assertions from Burns that require a response from VTA Watch:

"As you know, the BART extension is a significant part of the Measure A project package that was approved by 70 percent of voters in 2000."

Although VTA has always suggested that BART is popular due to fact that the 2000 Measurea A was passed by over 70%, Burns should know that winning sales taxes doesn't need BART extensions. When he was the head of Muni in 2003, the transportation sales tax in San Francisco (Prop K) was passed by nearly 75% without promise of any new BART extension.

"Specifically, Mr. Nakadegawa's statement that the BART project is 'tremendously expensive, better suited to dense urban areas than suburban transit,' ignores the fact that BART currently serves Livermore, Pleasanton and San Mateo County well."

BART provided a service that was not, and cannot be, well utilized in those areas. It takes real money when operating nearly empty trains late at night in the suburbs. The BART SFO extension has drained so much resources out of SamTrans and its bus service never recovered to like it had before in the mid 90's before the agency committed to build BART. The Caltrain connection to the San Francisco Airport was even worse today than before.

Big city subways have standing loads during much of the day in most parts of the line. VTA will not get this level of ridership on the BART extension.

"Increasing the capacity for local streets and highways to absorb the projected growth in traffic would also be extremely costly, and the feasibility of this would have to be factored into any alternative public transit proposal."

The "congestion management" (highway planning) side of VTA has proposed a number of new carpool lanes and rebuilt interchanges along I-880 and I-680, as well as a new connector between I-880 and I-680. VTA already has funding sources dedicated to these projects.

"Nakadegawa's point that it could easily end up costing $9 billion to $10 billion has no basis in fact and ignores VTA's history of delivering 25 Measure B projects, three light rail lines, and numerous highway projects within budget and on schedule."

The BART project can cost $7-9 billion because VTA has always refused to account for the bonding cost like other non-VTA transit projects. When asked about it, the EIR states that it is a part of the "Measure A program". What a nice way to make BART look cheaper by relabeling the bonding cost into another category.

Of course, the "Measure A program" is broke. It needs at least a new quarter cent sales tax to work. The "Measure A program" includes other projects like light rail extension and Caltrain improvements. VTA could very much kill these projects to fund BART, and without making BART appearing to cost $7-9 billion.

"In 2004, the adopted project EIR projected the fare box recovery ratio was 71.2 percent and a new rider cost of $32.83, based on projected ridership of 80,000 to 100,000 trips per day, significantly less than the $100 per rider cost that Nakadegawa cites."

71% farebox recovery is too optimistic and appears fraudulent. About half of the BART's ridership is transbay, where people have to pay a toll to drive across the bay. People can drive and will continue to drive free between Fremont and San Jose. Is Mr. Burns suggesting that we should place toll booths on I-680 and I-880 to increase BART ridership?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

San Jose State back in session

Today, San Jose State is back in session. It is a major test of the new operating plan VTA implemented last week. As students came to campus early to add classes they need to graduate, many buses got more crowded and, to handle the additional riders, three car trains ran on the Santa Teresa line.

Unlike most of industrial parks and community colleges in the South Bay, San Jose State is centrally located and well served by transit. Students can ride free with their student ID card and the sticker they get every semester. With rising cost of driving and education, along with limited parking, more students are turning to transit to save time and money.

The new bus operating plan benefit some students and hurt others. For instance, the new line 181 provides faster travel time and smoother rides for San Jose State students coming from Fremont. (A VTA staffer in yellow vest was at the Fremont BART station directing passengers this morning) However, some students that once depended on line 180 between Milpitas and downtown San Jose complained because they now have to take light rail (which was supposed to be preferable to buses) for a slower ride.

While students from Gilroy can look forward to the new line 168, other students heading from San Jose State to City College have to walk further to get to line 65 that has less service. Line 85, which was another route from downtown to City College, has been eliminated.

Friday, January 18, 2008

VTA resumes light rail service

During the 5pm hour, the light rail track on 1st Street was reopened and the first train went through. However the roadway on 1st Street remains closed to all traffic. The demolition of the fire damaged building is still ongoing and the construction equipment supporting the damaged structure is occupying the roadway.

Buses are expected to be rerouted off 1st Street at least for Saturday.

Earlier in the day, VTA operated a free "bus bridge" to connect the light rail service at Civic Center and Children's Discovery Museum. VTA also brought its mobile command post to 1st Street to supervise the bus bridge operation and other bus reroutes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Downtown fire interrupts light rail

An early morning fire in an empty building on 1st Street near San Fernando Street caused VTA to shutdown light rail service in downtown San Jose. Because of the damage to the building, VTA will not reopen light rail in Downtown until Friday evening when the building is demolished.

1st Street is closed.

Buses that normally run on San Fernando instead run on Santa Clara Street. The fire caused the closure of westbound lane on San Fernando Street between 3rd Street and Market Street.

VTA operates a "bus bridge" shuttling passengers between Civic Center and Children's Discovery Museum stations, stopping by most of the light rail stations in between.

Light Rail operates between Winchester and Santa Teresa stations as one line, similar to the operation during the Grand Prix race. However in the afternoon VTA operates some trains through downtown on 2nd Street.

In downtown, VTA staffers in yellow vests directed passengers to the bus bridge and rerouted bus routes. Many of the staffers were originally scheduled to assist passengers to the new bus service implemented Monday.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

January VTA Committees update: VTP 2035 draft project list and more

The three VTA standing committees will meet tomorrow.

Congestion Management Program and Planning

VTP 2035 Draft project list - In coordination with MTC's Regional Transportation Plan process, VTA is conducting its own county transportation plan, VTP 2035. To be presented tomorrow is a draft project list. VTA will evaluate these projects and forward the final list to MTC in March. MTC will then further evaluate and prioritize these, as well as projects from other counties, for the final "financially constrainted" plan.

Administration & Finance Committee

Caltrain right of way payment schedule - For many years, VTA and San Francisco owed SamTrans for the purchase of the Caltrain right of way from Southern Pacific in 1992. Since the passage of Prop 1B in 2006, SamTrans pressed VTA and MTC to resolve the issue. Last June, MTC and VTA agreed to pay SamTrans using the gasoline "spillover" revenues. Tomorrow the committee will decide whether to forward the payment schedule to the VTA board. Despite their commitment, spillover revenue is not guaranteed. The amount of spillover revenue geenerated is dependent on changes in gasoline prices. Furthermore, the state could also take away the revenue.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The second day of line 168

Line 168 is the only new express bus line that does not have an existing ridership base (unlike 181, which replaced 180 in Downtown SJ). It is a commuter route from the south county to Downtown San Jose.

People are boarding a short turn 68 bus that ends at Santa Teresa Light Rail Station. As a part of the bus changes, the frequency of line 68 has been reduced from 15 minutes to 30 minutes during peak hours south of Santa Teresa.

People are boarding the line 168 bus leaving at 4:36pm on 2nd Street. Two passenger have a regular day pass and is asked to pay a $1.75 upgrade per person to ride this bus. There is five passengers onboard.

The bus enters CA-87 from the Delmas onramp. From there the bus enters the HOV lane and is bypassing the usual slowdown at the I-280 interchange.

The bus stays on the HOV lane on CA-87, CA-85, and then on 101. There's a direct HOV lane to HOV lane connection at the 85-101 interchange.

The HOV lane the bus is running on was opened in 2003 along with a regular lane to the right, which doubled the width of the freeway.

The HOV lane ends at Cochrane and the traffic backup begins. That's where the bus exits the freeway. The bus arrives at Morgan Hill Caltrain station 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

Unconstrained by timepoints after leaving downtown San Jose, the bus arrives in Gilroy 15 minutes ahead of schedule. This bus now has almost half an hour layover before departing northbound as a regular 68. Other 168 buses that arrive later appear to be right on schedule.

Gilroy Transit Center is a transfer point to San Benito buses to Hollister.

The first afternoon Caltrain arrives in Gilroy six minutes after the arrival of the 168 bus. This train is scheduled to depart from San Jose nine minutes after the departure of the same 168 bus.

The Caltrain ridership in Gilroy has gone down significantly since the 2003 widening of 101, along with a 60% fare increase also implemented in 2003. The next Gilroy train won't come for another 90 minutes, while the next 168 bus will arrive in about half an hour.

Historically, the south county does not have the kind of express bus service to downtown San Jose similar to line 168. Before the opening of the Caltrain extension in 1992, VTA ran line 160 from Gilroy to North 1st Street and Tasman. The line ran every 30 minutes but did not run on freeways during any part of its trip. Another line, the 502 operated from Gilroy to San Jose Civic Center area via freeways, but only has one roundtrip each day.

Caltrain was later considered the primary connection besides line 68. Despite VTA's effort to add an extra track, VTA's effort to add freeway lanes undermined Caltrain. In 2006, with partial funding from VTA, Monterey Salinas Transit added a new bus route between San Jose and Monterey via Gilroy, adding another (abeit limited) alternative to Caltrain and line 68.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The first day of line 181

In 1998, VTA promised a commuter rail connection between East Bay and San Jose. In 2000, VTA decided to kill the commuter rail (to make room for BART) but made another promise to improve express bus service. Today, VTA finally delivered what it promised, eight years late.

Line 181 operates every 15 minutes during weekday peak hours non-stop between Civic Center Light Rail and Mission Blvd at I-680. Meanwhile, Line 180 runs every 15 minutes between Fremont and the Great Mall during peak hours and continues to San Jose at other times.

On an afternoon trip to Fremont, the 181 bus continues on I-880 north of Tasman Drive. The freeway is not congested because of the metering light at the 237 ramp onto I-880. The bus has about 12 passengers onboard.

There is construction at the Mission Blvd off-ramp from I-880. The bus continues on Mission Blvd and then back on I-680 after two stop lights.

Partly due to the bus driver's driving skills, the bus arrives at the BART station nearly 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

On the return trip from Fremont BART with another driver, the 181 bus has an uncongested path on I-680, Mission Blvd, and I-880. The bus runs full speed through Milpitas on the HOV lane. The bus has about 8 passengers onboard.

The bus hits traffic on I-880 south of Montague Expressway. The back up extends all the way beyond 1st Street. The bus driver continues on the left lane and does not change lane until near the 1st Street offramp. Because of the traffic, the bus arrives downtown San Jose 5 minutes past the scheduled times. The next 181 bus, driven by the same driver on the trip to Fremont, arrives San Jose 3 minutes ahead of schedule.

The first day of "New" VTA

Worker replacing stickers on a bus stop sign

Rerouted line 65 continues to use 40-foot buses despite its designation as a Community Bus route.

A line 168 bus passes the 1st and Santa Clara bus stop without dropping off any passenger.

VTA staffers in yellow vests continue to station at various transit centers throughout the county. These staffers normally hold office/administrative jobs at the River Oaks headquarters. By getting them out on the street and talk to riders, hopefully they will learn the realities transit riders face daily.

Last day of VTA service in San Mateo County

Sunday was the last day of VTA service in San Mateo County.

This picture was taken on the last day of line 22 in Menlo Park.

This line 22 bus stop sign was removed by the last day of service. Other line 22 signs in Menlo Park were still intact. With the discontinuation of Menlo Park service, this port-a-potty should disappear soon too.

This stop is located on northbound El Camino Real just north of University Ave. On Monday, this will be a bus stop with VTA shelter but without VTA bus service.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Two more days to go

VTA employees in yellow vests were stationed at major transit centers throughout the county providing new maps and schedules to passengers.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Ridership gain or loss and sales tax

Although some have suggested that the "New VTA" campaign is also intended to boost its image in preparation of a likely 1/8 cent sales tax increase on the ballot in November, VTA is also taking a significant risk with the new bus service plan that may have a greater impact on the election.

Primarily to inform riders with a series of bus changes, the "New VTA" campaign is likely to be forgotten soon after January 14. However, it will not help VTA's effort to boost its image in time for election if the ridership does not turn around with the new service plan. A part of its financial problem is the low farebox recovery, which is tied to ridership and route productivity besides labor cost.

As VTA staff continues its outreach to inform riders, complaints are pouring on regarding some key service changes. One of them is the elimination of line 85, which connects Downtown San Jose with the Valley Medical Center. After January 14, riders will have to take line 23 to San Carlos and Bascom, crossing San Carlos then Bascom (6 lanes), and transfer to line 61 or 62. Other changes generated complaints include the elimination of bus service on certain streets in Cupertino and in the Evergreen area.

Transit riders that have their services eliminated are likely to leave VTA permanently soon after the January 14 change, as they switch to other forms of transportation.

However, VTA is also increasing service on some routes and adding new express lines. Despite these service improvements have the potential to generate riders, it can take a year or more to fulfill, especially considering new bus lines don't generate the same publicity and excitement as opening of a new rail extension. VTA is not going to run full buses on lines 181 and 168 on January 15. Riders are not going to immediately flock to line 23 just because an additional bus has been added each hour.

There's a strong chance that VTA will see reduced ridership resulted from the bus service plan before the election, and that's not good news for VTA.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Getting ready for the January 14 major bus changes

Recent activities related to the upcoming bus changes that will take effect next week:

- Temporary signages have been placed at bus stops throughout the county showing changes.

- A VTA staffer was spotted on 1st Street and Santa Clara Street to notify passengers about the line 180 changes.

- On board VTA buses, automated announcements were made to make passengers aware of the changes.

- Google Transit now lists new routes and stops. However, brand new bus stops (such as on line 11 on 3rd Street, or line 39 on Fowler) are not yet appearing on Google Transit.

A poster on VTA Riders' Union message list questioned whether the "New VTA" campaign is actually a campaign tactic for a 1/8 cent sales tax that may appear on the ballot this November. He wrote that the new plan would allow VTA to easily reduce service in the future:

Easy service to eliminate:

Line 23 (12 to 15 minutes)
Line 26 (short trips between Eastridge and CurtnerLRT)
Line 60 (midday, short trips between SC andWinchester)
Line 66 (short trips between Milpitas and Downtown SJ)
Line 72/73 (midday)
Line 77 (15 minute service)
Line 180 to every 30 minutes

Please use the comment section to share your observations and experience with the preparation of this major route changes.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

VTA board to approve Palo Alto bus changes

This Thursday, the VTA Board will vote whether to approve bus changes in Palo Alto that will take effect in July.

The recommended changes, which line 89 will be eliminated and line 88 will be expanded, is a result of a special transit study requested by Palo Alto. Palo Alto believes the original COA has neglected the transit needs of the city, particularly the students at Gunn High School.

The study finds that while downtown Palo Alto is a transit competitive market, the poor connection between the Palo Alto transit center and train station present as a barrier for choice riders. Also, even with a large employment base at the Stanford Research Park, it is not a transit competitive destination because of the low density and abundance of free parking, similar to the Golden Triangle and much of the Silicon Valley.

The study recommends that the new line 88 would be adjusted to serve the school market and the city operated shuttle would continued to serve the downtown market. The study has considered integrating the city operated shuttle and VTA but finds that challenging due to grant source's restriction on imposing fares.

If the VTA board approves the proposed bus changes, the COA changes will be in effect from January 14 until July. In July, Stanford Marguerite shuttle would be expanded to replace line 89, and resources that will be dedicated to line 89 will cover expanded line 88.