Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SamTrans obituaries: 342, DX, FX, MX, NX, PX, RX

There are plenty of obituaries for Muni routes that were discontinued on December 5, when service changes took effect in San Francisco. SamTrans routes that are scheduled to be eliminated this Sunday should be recognized as well. Because all of the routes slated to be cut only run on weekdays, this Friday will be the last day.

342 - Before 1999, 342 used to be lines 33B and 33C. Since then. service used to be every 30 minutes with service in two directions. Later cuts reduced service to one direction every hour. Ridership was never high and SamTrans wasn't able to boost ridership significantly after the opening of the BART station in Millbrae.

DX - Used to be 1F before 1999. It brought commuters from Pacifica to San Francisco. Bus riders in the area prefer a one-seat ride rather than a slower and more expensive transfer to BART. Express bus from Pacifica to Colma will still be available as line 118 (formerly CX). If you refuse to ride BART because of financial or other reasons, it is possible to ride 118 to Colma and transfer to line 391 to San Francisco. The fares will be lower but the ride will take longer.

FX - Used to be 47F, 48F, and 49F, which have different alignments in Foster City before 1999. It brought commuters from Foster City to San Francisco, which unlike other routes, actually stops north of Market Street. SamTrans decided to cut the route anyway despite the fact that it is the most productive among the express bus routes and that Foster City is not served by BART or Caltrain. In an attempt to reduce the impact, SamTrans instead will institute line 359, which follows the same alignment in Foster City but will go to Millbrae station. Passengers from there on will have to transfer to either BART or Caltrain.

SamTrans thinks it will save the agency money, but riders that switch from FX to 359 probably will contribute almost no revenue to SamTrans. Currently, FX riders pay $144 for a monthly pass. If they switch to BART, they can ride SamTrans free with BART Plus tickets ($21-23 more per half month). If they switch to Caltrain, they can ride SamTrans free with Caltrain monthly pass two zones or more ($112.75).

MX - Used to be 19F. SamTrans consultants recommended to cut the route 10 years ago citing competition with Caltrain and now BART.

NX - Used to be 41F. SamTrans consultants recommended to cut the route 10 years ago. Redwood Shore, like Foster City, is not served by either BART or Caltrain. If SamTrans had the planning foresight, it could've provided reverse commute service (similar to what Bauers is doing now in other areas) for San Francisco employees who work at Oracle and other Redwood Shores businesses.

PX - Used to be 18F. SamTrans consultants recommended to cut the route 10 years ago citing Caltrain competition. Caltrain does provide faster and cheaper service... except that you have to pay more to transfer to Muni to get to downtown. Direct bus service will still be available on the KX, but the bus has to loop by SFO terminals and will run hourly on December 20.

RX - Used to be 17F. SamTrans consultants recommended to cut the route 10 years ago. The bus had three round trips in 1999. Now it only has one round trip. Direct bus service will still be available on the KX, but will be slower and less frequent.

The express buses were essential at a time when BART was terminating in Daly City and Caltrain (which at the time was funded by the state) was providing less frequent service. Express service begin to decline in the 90s after SamTrans committed to extend BART to SFO and to financially support Caltrain. Despite the completion of BART to SFO, SamTrans maintained express bus service over the years because of advocacy from long time bus riders, which contrary to popular beliefs, know that rail is not necessarily superior.

Unfortunately, unlike VTA, SamTrans does not have full information about its productivity and ridership on its buses. Financial pressures at SamTrans and Caltrain, as well as political pressures from folks at the pro-rail MTC, forced SamTrans to make mostly a political decision to give up the commuter market. While service could be restored on other routes currently slated for service reduction once economic condition improves, it is really the end of the line for these express bus routes. Why would SamTrans restore commuter buses again after it had kicked all of its remaining bus riders onto slower buses, BART, Caltrain, and even their cars? MTC would see this as taking riders and revenue away from BART and Caltrain, which is a political no-no.

FYI: VTA lately is allowing commercial ads on its light rail exterior.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Epitome of VTA's real structural problem

In what otherwise a somber meeting about VTA's huge deficit, general manager Michael Burns sprinkled some "good news" that FTA has allowed the BART project to compete for "new starts" fund. VTA had tried to apply for new starts fund for years but FTA repeatedly gave the project "not recommended" status. VTA gave into FTA's demand by splitting the entire project into two phases and submit the first phase to Berryessa for federal funding.

It is not good news when VTA had multiple chances to pursue superior and more cost-effective options, and when VTA riders will have to suffer as bus and light rail service reductions go into effect next month. Some VTA boardmembers apparently show no concerns for their own constitutents who ride VTA:

"With the BART project, we are planning for the next 30 years," said (Sam Liccardo) the San Jose councilman. "It would be foolish for us to forget a very promising project over the long run over what may be a very dire situation in the short run."

VTA is not a construction agency for a single rail project, but an agency that provides transit operation to about 100,000 riders daily. To blindly pursue this wasteful project, VTA concealed key information from voters about its ability to finance this project and the rest of VTA's services. Only until when voters no longer matter, they said oops and cut service anyway. Despite some of the boardmembers' claim about being green and supporting open government, they are still beholden to crooks like Carl Guardino, who then is beholden to corporations and the highway lobby.

Even though this BART project will turn out nothing but a massive failure, we riders should not allow VTA to further reduce service, but rather bring back the service that we were promised. Perhaps FTA cares if VTA doesn't.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Holiday gifts and more


SamTrans has two holiday gifts. The first is the new buses. The new buses are low floor and have a new paint scheme to match the BRT look. The buses are somewhat similar to what it bought in 2004 except it has more seats due to the new seat designs.

The other holiday gift is the service reduction effective on December 20. SamTrans will eliminate all express service to downtown SF except KX, and that KX will run hourly. Bus on El Camino will also have reduced frequency on the weekends.

Currently, SamTrans buses that serve El Camino leave Palo Alto every 15 minutes on weekdays and weekends. After December 20, some buses will leave 30 minutes apart on weekdays (because KX trips got cut), and on weekends, there will be 40 minute service gaps throughout the weekend (hourly KX will not fill the service gaps left by 40-minute 390). Because VTA will continue to run the 22 and 522 service every 15-minutes, expect a crowd in Palo Alto waiting to transfer from VTA to SamTrans.


Tomorrow VTA will hold a board workshop to address the agency's "structural deficit," which was caused partly by further declines in sales tax revenue and elimination of state funds (also suffered by most transit agencies in California), as well as VTA's mismangement and dishonesty in regards to its financial projections.

Among the recommendations, the VTA board is asked to direct $25 million in 2000 Measure A funds from future bus purchases to operations and to establish an ad-hoc committee (similar to what VTA did in 2003) to develop future recommendations. Those recommendations could involve changes in healthcare and pension benefits, new funding sources, and alternative service delivery models (contract operation?).


After years of planning and development, the Translink smart card payment system is coming to VTA and SamTrans sometime next year. Earlier this year, Translink has been implemented on BART and Caltrain. The eventual goal for Translink is to replace most of the current fare media, which means when it is fully implemented, monthly passes for VTA and Caltrain would be available on Translink only, and that paper passes would be discontinued. AC Transit already took the lead by converting transbay bus passes to Translink only.

However, when it is implemented at SamTrans and VTA, Translink might no longer be called Translink. MTC is recommending changing its name to "Clipper," to evoke a historic connection between Clipper ships and the development of San Francisco.

VTA light rail COA

If you missed the meeting in Mountain View, a VTA staff recorded the meeting and it is available for your information.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

California High Speed Rail Authority drops nutty idea of deep underground trains through downtown

Last Thursday, CHSRA voted to drop the idea of putting high speed rail deep underground next to the current station in Downtown San Jose.

Revealed a few months ago during the scoping process, CHSRA considered Downtown diagonal options to straighten the corridor and to avoid the area south of 280 and west of 87. That diagonal alignment included an elevated and an underground option.

Like all other NIMBYs further up on the peninsula, neighborhoods' reaction is to prefer the underground option. What the HSR planners found is that the underground option is nearly unbuildable with high groundwater table and would cost 6 times the base cost. The proposed underground option would be more than 100 feet deep to go below a river, light rail, and a possible BART subway alignment and would have a concourse and at least 4 tracks.

HSR planners recommend to put the high speed rail station on top of the existing Caltrain station, and further review two alignments that would connect the Diridon station with Tamien station. One of which would stay on the current Caltrain alignment.

Many delusionals still believe that putting train underground is the best.

"The community will ask why this is so difficult when BART is already underground "... the community will think the board only wants the cheapest, and not the best, alternatives," Dresden told the board.

The fact is that BART is not underground. BART is in fact not anywhere near there at all. VTA does have a plan to build a BART subway there but has no funding for it, and the neighborhoods have yet to experience any impact resulting from the subway construction. Their demand for an underground high speed rail would require it to go under the BART white elephant, which without a doubt adds cost and more importantly, reduces construction feasibility. If the neighborhood folks aren't so naive, perhaps they could have demanded better alternatives for both high speed rail and BART (like Altamont HSR) before things got to where they are now.

Monday, November 23, 2009

SF study finds employee shuttles good for the city

San Francisco County Transportation Authority has released a study last week which identified key benefits with employee shuttles from San Francisco to work sites in Silicon Valley.

For the past few years, companies like Google and Yahoo have provided dedicated shuttles for their employees. The shuttles, like other fringe benefits (including free lunches), help recruit workers and keep them more productive as they can work during their commutes.

Besides the benefits for the employers and employees, SFCTA's study confirms that employee shuttles provide benefits to the rest of the city as well:

  • - 20 million VMT reduced as employees forego driving
  • - Reduction in CO2 emissions by approximately 8,000 to 9,500 tons per year
  • - reduction in non-CO2 emissions ranging from 1 to17 tons per year
  • - $1.8 million per year in local spending as employees patronize local businesses in the city and by the bus stops.
  • - 62% of the shuttle riders surveyed said the shuttle influenced their decision to live in the city. Landlords and realtors agree that proximity to shuttles make their location more attractive.
  • - 28% of those surveyed do not own a car. Many of them join car-sharing services so they can drive once in a while to go to Costco or Ikea. Fewer people owning cars help free up parking spots for everyone else in the neighborhood.
The largest benefit of all, which is not mentioned in the report, is that the shuttles do not require public funding. Given the current financial crisis faced by transit agencies, commuter routes are generally considered first to be eliminated so agencies can preserve core services used more by the transit dependent. As reported earlier, SamTrans is already planning to eliminate nearly all commuter express bus service to San Francisco, and VTA is also planning to cut some express bus service. Both agencies however are keeping their overnight service on El Camino.

The shuttles fill the gap current exist on the transit network. Although Caltrain itself competes well with driving, a trip from the Marina in SF to Moffett Park in Sunnyvale would require a trip on Muni and VTA light rail. The connections on VTA and especially Muni add significantly to the travel time and would erase the speed advantage with Caltrain. Many of the shuttles are coming from the Mission, the Castro, the Marina, and Van Ness Avenue, none of which Caltrain directly serves.

However, the shuttles also attracted complaints from others in the community, which prompted the SFCTA to conduct this study. Most of the complaints are about large buses driving on narrow streets, shuttle buses occupying Muni bus stops to pick up passengers, safety issues with large vehicles, and noise/emissions generated with buses idling.

Current laws do not leave much for the city to regulate the shuttles except for issuing citations when large buses are driving on weight-restricted streets or stopping at Muni bus stops (which SF says no one else can use unless one have express permission from Muni). SFCTA instead proposes a volunteer program where shuttle bus operators would pay Muni to hire a full time planner. That planner would coordinate shuttle activities to address community concerns and be the main contact by the public.

While more coordination is essential, it would be a mistake for the San Francisco to try to squeeze money from the employers. The shuttles have proven themselves to be beneficial to the employers and employees, and cannot be easily substituted by transit agencies. Sharing bus stops with Muni is a small price to pay for not having to provide more service on the public's dime, or encourage more automobile use in a community that's short on parking. What San Francisco should do is to pursue grant funding to support the coordinator position. In San Mateo County, Congestion Relief Alliance manages shuttles to Caltrain and BART stations with funding from employers, transit agencies, and grants. The DASH in Downtown San Jose is also funded the same way and totally operated by VTA.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

VTA plans for the first bike sharing program in the Bay Area

Recently, VTA has earned a lot of attention not because of its transit program, but its planning effort to implement the first bicycle sharing program in the Bay Area.

The concept of bike sharing is a result of Caltrain's bicycle planning process. When Caltrain released its bicycle plan last year, which outlined various options to provide bicycle parking to provide alternatives to bring bicycles onboard, the bicycle community got outraged that Caltrain didn't plan to increase onboard capacity. After months of pressure, Caltrain relented by increasing capacity from 32 to 40 per bike car. While an increase of capacity help cut the number of "bumps" (denied boarding) faced by bicyclists, there's not that much space that Caltrain could dedicate to store bicycles without taking seats from paying passengers, and the fact that more passengers taking their bikes slow trains down for everyone by having longer dwell times.

VTA's proposed bike sharing program is being planned for Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose Diridon stations. These stations are well used and have a large number of employers located within bicycle distance. Bike sharing has an advantage of allowing train commuters to bike from the train station to their workplace without having to bring their bikes onboard, to leave their bikes at the station overnight, or owning two bicycles if they also bike from their home to the train station.

VTA is currently reviewing different bicycle sharing programs already implemented in other cities. Paris currently operates the most extensive bicycle sharing network. In North America, Montreal developed its own version of bicycle sharing system. In those systems, anyone can sign up for membership and pay a fixed monthly membership fee. After that, the user would have a electronic key and could pick up a bike at a bike sharing station, which would be located at various locations throughout the city. For free or a small fee, the user could ride the bike from one station to another station, or for a larger fee, the user could keep the bike longer and make errands.

Bicycle sharing program is not without risks. Would there be enough bike sharing stations to allow bikes to be shared conveniently? Would users feel safe to ride their bikes given the current bike paths and lanes as well as street traffic? What about theft and vandalism? Who will pay for the ongoing operating and maintenance cost?

VTA is currently trying to secure a $500,000 MTC grant to start a pilot program. If it goes well, it would improve access between transit and nearby employers. It could encourage further transit use by cutting the access time to and from transit and without placing more burden on the limited bike capacity on trains and buses. It could also make the transit trip easier by not having to transfer to a bus or shuttle (which they often don't sync, and worse if one of the modes gets delayed). It could also be more cost effective than providing feeder shuttle service.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Light rail, Altamont Pass, etc

Light Rail COA

BayRail Alliance will be hosting a meeting next week on the COA for the VTA light rail system. VTA's Kevin Connolly will be presenting. As reported here earlier, VTA is conducting a COA for the light rail to outline future system improvements and proposed operation scenarios to boost light rail ridership. Ridership on the VTA's light rail is lagging behind other similar systems in Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego.

November 19, 2009
City of Mountain View, Council Chambers
500 Castro Street, Mountain View (by Mercy Street)

Meal option will not be provided for this meeting.

Altamont Pass

ACE, FRA, and CHSRA are hosting a series of meeting today and next week to start the environmental planning process for the Altamont Corridor. Although Altamont did not make the cut to be the high speed corridor between Central Valley and the Bay Area, Sacramento nonetheless included Altamont as a complementary corridor in Proposition 1A.

The good part is that the corridor could be transformed into a near-HSR route with high quality passenger service. The bad part is that there's no funding available to build it, since it is secondary to the main HSR route, which is more likely to receive whatever HSR money that will be made available.

Even if there's no money associated with it for now, a parallel planning effort would make the Altamont a strong back up option if the Pacheco Pass option proves to be infeasible. As we already know, CHSRA does not have an agreement with UP, and not until the passage of Prop 1A, that the Pacheco Pass has generated local opposition in San Jose because of its alignment south of the Diridon station (and some of the proposed solutions proved to be sillier and more expensive). A well designed Altamont corridor could avoid impacts local neighborhoods and provide service in area with high TOD potential (North 1st Street).

All meeting will be held from 3:00–8:00pm in drop-in open house format:

* Tuesday: Robert Livermore Community Center, 4444 East Ave., Livermore.

* Thursday: San Joaquin Council of Governments, 555 E. Weber Ave., Stockton.

* Nov. 17: Fremont Teen Center, 39770 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont.

* Nov. 18: Le Petit Trianon Theatre, 72 N. Fifth St., San Jose.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Throwing more good money after bad

VTA has recently announced that it is spending $61 million to build an additional track and other improvements between San Jose and Morgan Hill for Caltrain.

While spending VTA money to improve Caltrain is wise in general, is it worth it to spend that money south of San Jose?

Today, Caltrain ridership on the Gilroy segment has been significantly reduced from its high back in 2000. The economy, widening on 101, fare increase, and VTA operated express buses have cut much of Caltrain's ridership base. While VTA had projected an increase in train service back in 2000, Caltrain actually cut one of the four round trips so that the equipment can be better utilized for the popular Baby Bullet service.

Based on earlier double tracking south of San Jose completed in 2002/2003, Caltrain has the ability to run 5 round trips. However it is running 3 round trips today. That $61 million might allow Caltrain to run one or two more round trips. However unless VTA has the operating funds and equipment to provide additional service, riders won't see much of the benefits from that expenditure.

One of the reasons Caltrain provides limited service south of San Jose is that the corridor is owned by Union Pacific. The company historically is hostile to passenger rail. UP sees passenger rail, may it be Caltrain, ACE, or Amtrak, as pirates somehow trying to freeload from the company. On the other hand, BNSF, a competing rail company that owns tracks elsewhere in California, sees public agencies as partners.

The other issue that make this expenditure unwise is high speed rail. Although HSRA has chosen Pacheco Pass as its preferred alignment, it still hasn't secured any specific corridor between San Jose and Gilroy. Its earlier assumption of using the UP corridor in the program-level EIR is opposed by UP (as expected) and has been rejected by a judge in a lawsuit brought on by Altamont Pass supporters.

If high speed rail is constructed on any corridor, Caltrain or other high speed rail trains would likely provide commuter service between Gilroy and San Jose on electrified high speed tracks (since Caltrain north of San Jose would've been electrified anyway). If somehow HSRA could secure any rights to use the UP right of way, the operating scenarios (separate HSR/freight tracks) proposed by HSRA would not take advantage of the new track funded by VTA.

As if we don't already know, VTA spends capital money based on the desires from its politically driven staff and consultants. VTA could've spend the money elsewhere along Caltrain and have a greater impact. For example, the Santa Clara Caltrain station is currently a safety hazard (by making people board SF bound trains between the tracks). If the station is rebuilt, ACE could once again serve the station after Caltrain kicked ACE out of that station in 2005.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sales tax crash

Is VTA going down the same path as the transit agency in Orange County, in which it is planning one massive bus cuts after another?

At the beginning of the year, VTA said that no cuts were planned. A few months later, VTA finally told the board that it needs to raise fares and cut service. Over the summer months, worsening sales tax revenue prompted the board to move up the fare increases from July 2010 to October 2009.

Unfortunately, that may not be the end of it. The Mercury News is reporting that VTA is facing an operating deficit of $98 million over the next year. A combination of fare increases, service cuts, layoffs, reduction in employee benefits, and more are on the table.

The prospect of another bus cuts is a terrible news to those who fought against those proposals last summer. Cuts that were withdrawn by staff due to community oppositions could come back again. Furthermore, many of the routes that received improved service in January 2008 and July 2009 could very much have their frequency reduced to the original level.

It is possible to preserve the bus service by diverting additional operating funds from the 2000 Measure A. Back when that tax was approved in 2000, Measure A funds could be used for operations. In 2003, when VTA was planning a 21% service cuts, transit advocates lobbied VTA to borrow Measure A funds (the tax was supposed to begin in 2006) to preserve service. Presently, about $30 million from Measure A supports bus and light rail operation every year. The irony is that funding from Measure A was supposed to pay for bus expansion. However, since sales taxes have been hit so hard over the years, Measure A funding now supports current bus operation (way below year 2000 level) that otherwise would've been discontinued.

According to the Mercury News, Michael Burns insists that the BART project is not impacted. Guess what? Sales tax reduction for transit operation (1976 sales tax) also applies to the 2000 Measure A to the same degree. If additional Measure A funds were to be diverted for operation, there'll be even less for capital projects.

However, we probably won't be able to get a full financial picture on capital projects since Burns has informally and unilaterally adopted a policy to not talking about it. As long as he doesn't talk about it, he could keep Carl Guardino's myth alive. Even so, VTA is jealous that high speed rail is getting most of the public's attention and a strong funding momentum from the federal government. If these delusionals listened to transit advocates instead, VTA would've joined the high speed rail club with Caltrain Metro East.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Transit consolidation or a waste of time?

Consolidating the number of transit operators is a concept that has always been politically attractive. Having many transit agencies in the area adds confusion for riders, forcing transfers at mostly politically drawn boundaries with little regards to actual transportation needs, and increase transit expense for those who have shorter trips that require transfer to another operator (e.g. Mountain View to Menlo Park vs. Mountain View to San Jose).

MTC has approved a $2.5 million study to evaluate transit consolidations, with focus on where MTC believes that there's transit overlap. The primary motivation is to reduce the growth of transit operating cost in the long run, which MTC has projected a $8.5 billion deficit over the next 25 years.

MTC and the politicians may have big expectations, but what really could be done?

- Some transit agencies in the North Bay are ripe for consolidation. In Sonoma County, Sonoma County provides regional intra-county bus service, Golden Gate Transit provides inter county service, and some cities operate their own buses within the city border. It is likely that some of these would be consolidated. Most of the bus agencies there contract their operation to private companies. A merged agency could consolidate their contracts or keep multiple contracts.

The cities of Vallejo and Benicia have approved a plan to merge their city-run bus operations. Because both systems are relatively small, a merger would provide more convenience for transit riders.

- Do not count on older agencies like AC Transit, Muni, VTA, BART, or SamTrans to be merged. The labor costs with the older agencies are quite high, and will meet great resistance from labor unions. In addition, older transit operators have different tax base that subsidize their operations. Voters in the East Bay have approved multiple parcel taxes over the years for AC Transit operations. How could you ensure funding equity, where taxes approved for one region will stay in one region?

- Muni's operations is so poor that it would actually be advantageous to allow other bus operators (public or private) to provide service. Other agencies that run buses to Downtown San Francisco cannot pick up SF only passengers because of "competition." Muni's real competitions are bicycle and automobile, and Muni is losing to both.

- What really needs to be done, but probably won't be done because of MTC's pro-rail (especially BART) position, is to facilitate the establishment of more regional bus service. Today's political make up prevent the creation of direct express bus routes from San Francisco neighborhoods to work sites in the Silicon Valley. Muni's broke and can't pay for it. VTA won't run it because it is not efficient for them (long deadheading) and workers in San Francisco are not VTA's political constitutents. SamTrans won't run it because these commuters just travel through the county.

Moreover, all three of them are subsidizing Caltrain, except that many SF residents won't take it because it would take them another 30-45 minutes just to get to the Caltrain station on Muni.

At the end, these political gaps help companies like Bauer's, which is handling many of the Valley's shuttle contracts and is starting a shuttle service that's open to the public (recently got state approval).

- Labor issues and strike threats are major problems for mega agencies. In Los Angeles, a number of past MTA (major bus and rail operator) strikes help politicians understand that there's value of having multiple agencies (LA area has a few large bus agencies besides MTA, plus many small city run operation). One of the agencies (Foothill Transit) was created out of the MTA because MTA was providing poor service. Foothill Transit was able to run service at a lower cost through private contracts.

Labor issues at BART have already created nightmares for commuters every few years with strike threats, except that a BART strike wouldn't harm local bus service, whereas a merged agency could.

- Could there be a way to better spend that $2.5 million that MTC will spend on consultants, especially when so many agencies are cutting back service already? One of the reason why transit operating cost is raising so fast is that much of the increases is spent on health care. As we all know, our broken health care system is putting pressures on governments and private businesses. Unfortunately, there's not a lot local governments can do to curb increases in health care costs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Muni (and VTA) could learn from Sacramento on how to handle troublemakers

Recently, Sacramento Regional Transit implemented a new policy to address nuisance behavior and security:

Senate Bill 1561, authored by Senator Steinberg, was enacted to allow RT to exclude passengers who repeatedly violate transit laws from using the system. The purpose of the exclusion policy is to reduce the number of passenger disruptions and improve overall RT service.

Effective October 1, 2009, anyone arrested for a crime or cited on three separate occasions within a period of 60 consecutive days for infractions committed in or on an RT vehicle, bus stop or light rail station will now face a ban of 30 days. Offenders can be banned for up to a year if convicted of more serious offenses.

Interfering with an operator of a transit vehicle, willfully disturbing others on or in a system facility or vehicle, and defacing District property could all result in exclusion.

“The exclusion policy puts Sacramento at the forefront of a continued effort to improve passenger safety on California’s transit systems,” Senator Steinberg said. “Over the next few years, we will prove the exclusion policy can be a valuable asset not only in our region but to transit operators across the state.”

The exclusion policy provides an appeals process for individuals who opt to contest a prohibition order. Transit personnel have also been trained to recognize and facilitate passengers’ special needs.

In effect, it would make riding transit somewhat of a privilege similar to driving, which is not necessarily a bad thing considering that certain people just couldn't keep to themselves. Make them walk so that the rest of us can have a safe trip.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fight onboard Muni

Muni in San Francisco always has a sense of lawlessness. This fight captured onboard a Muni bus two days ago demonstrates a clear failure to provide law and order onboard Muni, which threatens the safety of passengers and a discourage transit use in what is supposed to be a "Transit first" city.

Although fights do not occur regularly, people boarding buses through the rear door happens quite frequently on many of the trunk routes:

Saturday, October 03, 2009

State raid of transit funds ruled illegal

From California Transit Association, which sued the state for its raid on transit funding:

In a resounding victory for those who provide and those who depend on public transit in California, the State Supreme Court late yesterday rejected the Schwarzenegger Administration’s appeal of a lower court ruling that annual raids on transit funding are illegal.

By declining to accept the Petition for Review filed by state officials, the high court upheld the ruling of the Third District Court of Appeal that recent funding diversions violated a series of statutory and constitutional amendments enacted by voters via four statewide initiatives dating back to 1990.

“By denying the state’s appeal, the Supreme Court has affirmed once and for all what we always maintained was true: that it’s illegal to shift dedicated state transit funds away from transit agencies and their riders,” said Joshua Shaw, Executive Director of the California Transit Association and lead plaintiff in the case. “This decision validates our position that this practice has been illegal since even before 2007, and that the definition of mass transportation adopted by lawmakers since then to mask these diversions is illegal.”

Public transit officials now hope to work with the Administration and Legislature to restore those funds taken since the Association filed the initial lawsuit in October, 2007, on the heels of the 2007-08 state budget package that raided $1.19 billion from the Public Transportation Account (PTA). Since that agreement, more than $3 billion in transit funding has been re-routed to fill holes in the General Fund.

Although the courts agreed that transit funding raid is illegal, it is not clear whether that will translate into any actual funding restoration by the state. However, any state funding restoration will help transit riders.

The loss the State Transit Assistance fund not only puts pressure on Bay Area agencies, but also throughout the state. In Calaveras County (Sierra foothills east of Stockton), the transit agency there cut service by 40% and eliminated its regional connection to the Central Valley in Lodi. Over there, the service cut impact is not just forcing riders to spend extra minutes waiting for a bus, but actually make it virtually impossible to access essential shopping and medical services. The only regional connection in Calaveras County now is through the adjacent Amador County, which still operates a bus line into Sacramento. Amtrak and Greyhound are not available in those counties.

In Orange County, the transit agency there made drastic cuts earlier this year and an additional 30% cut is proposed for March next year. Although Orange County is urbanized and has huge transit needs, it is also very politically conservative. The politicians there have no problem with more freeway widening (which are quite wide already), but have a false perception that residents there do not need mass transit. Fortunately, Steven Chan, a Silicon Valley transplant, has started a transit blog there to advocate for better transit in Orange County.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Change for the worst... and more

If you are not a high priced VTA or BART contractor/consultant, today is a change for the worst as the $2 one way fare comes into effect.

The price for the regular monthly pass has gone up to $70. The new price for the express monthly pass is now $140.

However, that's not the end here, the VTA board will consider tonight on cutting bus and light rail service by 8%, which would go in effect in January.

Highway 17 Express

Interestingly, even though the fares for various operators have gone up over the years, the fares for the Highway 17 Express have remained the same. When the Highway 17 Express began weekend service in 2004 (as it merged with Amtrak Thruway bus to Santa Cruz), the fare was adjusted to $4 one way, which is still in effect today. In 1994, the Amtrak Thruway fare was $5 one way and the Highway 17 Express was $2.25. Overall, bus riders have been getting more value for the fare dollar especially considering the increasing cost of gas.

How can Highway 17 Express keeps its fares the same for so long? Highway 17 Express is operated by Santa Cruz Metro with funding from the Metro, VTA, and Amtrak. It has an independent operating budget. After the implementation of weekend service, ridership has increased steadily over the years. It enjoys a high farebox recovery of 58% in July 2009, despite a 9% drop in ridership from the same month last year. Stable weekend ridership (which many riders pay one way fares) helps bring in revenue for the line.

HSR open house for San Jose-Gilroy segment

Despite losing the lawsuit (specifically on the lack of agreement with UP for using the rail corridor between San Jose and Gilroy), HSRA nonetheless will hold meetings on that segment next week. Two of them will be held in Santa Clara County.

San Jose
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Gardner Community Center
520 W. Virginia Street

Monday, October 12, 2009
6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Hilton Garden Inn
6070 Monterey Road

While the HSRA planning process so far has captured the attention of Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents, who fear that high speed rail would either take their property or somehow cause a decline in their property value, San Jose residents who might be impacted by high speed rail does not have the same political clout as those in Palo Alto or Menlo Park. However that might change...

The HSRA is studying various alternatives for getting trains through Downtown San Jose. Although the current Caltrain alignment is the base line, the existing line south of the San Jose Diridon Station is slow and narrow. Immediately south of the station, the Caltrain line has to cross under the San Carlos Street overpass and above Los Gatos Creek.

One alternative under consideration is a diagonal station for high speed rail (last page in this PDF) right in front of the existing Caltrain station. HSRA engineers said that this alternative (under the SF-SJ segment) is driven by the planning process for the segment between San Jose and Gilroy. Alternative alignments like those could get the high speed rail trains through San Jose faster, but might not be something that San Jose Delusionals have expected.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Speeding up the light rail?

Today's Mercury article outlined some strategies under consideration by VTA that would speed up the light rail, which involve running express trains south of downtown San Jose, grade separation at Montague Expressway on 1st Street, double tracking of 1st Street through downtown San Jose (which would somehow increase speed from 10 to 20 mph), and extension from to San Jose State.

While Gary Richards correctly notes that the VTA light rail system is less productive compared to cities such as Portland and Sacramento, it is not certain that whether these improvements would yield significant reduction in travel time.

Some online Mercury readers blamed VTA for not putting the light rail underground, similar to Muni in San Francisco. However, that's not the problem here. Although light rail could operate faster underground, the current light rail alignment serve Downtown San Jose relatively well. If you look at cities like Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego, you will find that light rail in those cities also operate at grade. Part of the reason light rail was chosen is that it blends well with the pedestrian environment and without forcing passengers to walk up and down or use escalators. If downtown is supposed to be a major destination, convenient access by light rail at grade would be an asset.

However, Downtown San Jose does not have the employment concentration as in Downtown Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego. Unlike other cities, VTA's light rail trains run up and down 1st Street and along Tasman Drive to serve low density office parks, where workers have an abundance of free parking.

Some blamed VTA for not building the light rail system to the San Jose Airport, which is obviously unfortunate. Portland already runs its light rail to the Portland airport and Sacramento is planning a light rail extension to its airport. VTA's light rail is not that far away from the San Jose Airport (a little over 1/2 mile as the crow flies). However, instead of a light rail spur from First Street, or a new parallel alignment along Highway 87, the best the City and VTA could come up with is a "Peoplemover" that would not connect with High Speed Rail and neither intends to actually fund.

Regardless of which option VTA prefers, a question remains how these upgrades be funded. Most of those proposals are not included in the 2000 Measure A, which VTA has decided to unquestionably follow despite the fact that it was poorly conceived. The present financial situation is also putting more pressure on VTA. VTA is now conducting EIS study (the federal environmental document) for the Eastridge light rail extension, which for many years, VTA has planned to fund the project entirely with state and local funds. The lack of federal clearance for that project made it ineligible for the Stimulus funds, which otherwise would be very competitive considering the project was nearly shovel-ready.

At the end, VTA's poor light rail performance is a result of poor urban planning, development greed, and the continual neglect of transit riders' needs. Unfortunately, these attitude still exists at the agency and most voters and environmentalists are not aware of that. If the light rail couldn't turn around Downtown San Jose and make the system more viable, building another rail system (like BART) in Downtown San Jose most likely won't help turn it around either (look at Downtown Oakland).

Of course, VTA does not have money for a subway in downtown. However, a BART line that it could fund (to Berryessa) won't bring commuters directly to where the jobs are. Rather, VTA expects commuters to transfer to light rail in Milpitas. Don't be surprise if the BART project turns out to be a massive failure too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

HSRA to conduct alternative analysis open houses

Three open houses will be held to receive comments of project alternatives proposed by HSR:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
SamTrans Auditorium
1250 San Carlos Avenue – San Carlos
6:00 – 8:00 pm

October 9, 6:00‐8:00 pm
Sunnyvale Recreation Center (Ballroom)
550 E. Remington Drive
Sunnyvale, CA

October 13, 6:00‐8:00 pm
Milton Marks Conference Center
455 Golden Gate Avenue – Lower Level
San Diego A/B/C Rooms
San Francisco, CA

Monday, September 14, 2009

BART frequency changes... so will the buses

BART today adjusted the frequency of its evening and Sunday trains from 15 minutes to 20 minutes. The service reduction was prompted by all the budgetary constraints that caused all other transit agencies to reduce service.

The side benefit of this service reduction is that direct service between SFO and Millbrae is restored, even though it will run on nights and weekends only. A transfer is still required during weekday daytime.

Because of BART's service reduction, VTA will reduce its Fremont service in the evening and weekends on October 5. VTA currently runs its buses every 30 minutes on weekends and will reduce service in October to every 40 minutes to match BART's frequency.

SamTrans will also change its El Camino weekend service in December just before Christmas from every 15/30 minutes to every 20/40 minutes.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

VTA releases revised service cut plans

VTA earlier today released a revised service cut plan after a series of public meetings. See complete listing here.

Changes from earlier proposal:

  • Line 10: One more early morning weekend trip reduction
  • Line 13: Hourly service all day instead of hourly service during peak hours.
  • Line 22: 24-hour service will continue. VTA originally proposed to cut the overnight service as SamTrans also planned to eliminate its overnight route. SamTrans later decided to keep the overnight service while eliminating its peak hour express service to SF.
  • Line 34: VTA will not eliminate this route, instead some trips will be cut.
  • Line 39: Peak hour service will remain at every 30 minutes instead of hourly.
  • Line 45: Saturday service will not be cut.
  • Line 54: One Saturday night trip will be kept.
  • Lines 61 and 62: Weekend service will be reduced from every 30 minutes to hourly on each route, which means service to every 30 minutes along Bascom. Extra service will be provided on the 62 between Civic Center and Capitol/Berryessa to maintain service at every 30 minutes.
  • Line 76: VTA will operate this route until June 2010, which will be discontinued.
  • Line 101: VTA will reduce service to one round trip rather than full elimination.
  • Line 103: No changes proposed.
  • Line 180: Keep evening service.
  • Line 181: Combine two trips rather than eliminate one of the trips
  • Line 304: Reduce one round trip rather than shortening the route.
  • Line 522: Changes in trip reductions.
  • River Oaks Shuttle: Operate the service until July 2010, then eliminate route. This route receives grant funds and has to be operated until the grant agreement expires.

VTA staff will present this plan to the VTA Transit Planning & Operations Committee for approval next week, and for the full board's consideration next month.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ugly SamTrans cuts ahead

After a series of public meetings, SamTrans will present a revised bus cut plan for board approval next week.

The revised proposal would maintain late night and overnight service, as well as some of local service like line 295. However, the proposal would eliminate all express bus service to San Francisco except line KX, which would be reduced to hourly service. SamTrans also plans to eliminate a lightly used local route in Millbrae. The total service to be reduced is 7.5%, which is comparable to VTA's proposed bus cut, and half of what AC Transit is planning to cut.

Because SamTrans no longer proposes to reduce service span, paratransit service would largely be maintained.

SamTrans believes its primary role is to serve the transit dependent, “We have a responsibility to those for whom we are their only means of mobility – people who depend on us to get them to their jobs, to school, to the doctor’s office and to the grocery store,” said Deputy CEO Chuck Harvey in the SamTrans' press release.

However, the proposed elimination of express service is a bad news for long time commuters. Although SamTrans argues that these riders generally have higher income and could afford to ride BART or Caltrain to San Francisco, many of these riders stuck to SamTrans because of its one-seat service. While riders in Burlingame, Millbrae and San Bruno have a relatively easy access to BART or Caltrain, riders in Foster City do not have such easy access. In its proposal, SamTrans plans to provide express service from Foster City to Millbrae, where riders can connect either BART or Caltrain. However, having to transfer to either line would mean longer travel time and expense (especially with BART).

- Reduce headways from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.
- Eliminate the segment south of Palo Alto Caltrain. KX passengers can ride VTA anywhere in Palo Alto with SamTrans monthly pass.

- Reduce headways from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.

- Operate service in one direction before 7 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

- Reduce headways from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, except during school hours.

390 and 391:
- On weekends only, reduce headways from 30 minutes to 40 minutes. (Make the combined service from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes.) Service between Redwood City and Palo Alto would be even lower because of reduction on KX to hourly. The further cut in service between Redwood City and Palo Alto would make connection with VTA more difficult.

Route eliminations:
342, DX, FX, MX, NX, PX, RX

Included in the plan is another fare increase in February 2010, which SamTrans would join Muni, AC Transit, County Connection and VTA in the two dollar club.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

HSRA unprofessionalism for all to see

Yesterday was a significant day for the HSRA. First, a judge ruled in favor of the petitioners who sued HSRA for the inadequate evaluation in the program EIR for the SF-SJ segment. Second, top HSRA staffer got grilled by Congresswoman Anno Eshoo at a Town Hall meeting held in Menlo Park.


It is hard to win environmental lawsuits. Generally, judges generally give deference to government agencies that produced these documents as if they were police officers in a traffic or criminal trial. Ordinary citizens generally do not have the financial resources to hire consultants to counter the government's claim on technical basis, and generally do not have the kind of credibility, even though history shows that government agencies and consultants can literally lie to achieve their politically-predetermined results.

Essentially, HSRA lost the suit on the fact that it does not have the access to the Union Pacific owned right of way (UP clearly told the agency NO prior to the adoption of the program level EIR), which HSRA says it is necessary to travel from San Jose to Gilroy under the Pacheco option. Also, the judge found that the agency's evaluation of vibration impacts to be inadequate.

Last month, the petitioners offered a reasonable settlement that would have prevented possible delays. However, the inept boardmembers at HSRA rejected it and decided to stick with their political-predetermined position. Now the judge has agreed with the petitioners and HSRA will have to pay a higher price for their arrogence.

HSR Town Hall

Last night, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo hosted a Town Hall meeting on High Speed Rail. On the Peninsula, the high speed rail project is a contentious issue. Also like any recent town halls throughout the country, it has attracted anti-health care reform protesters. However, the Town Hall went smoothly as anti-health care reform protesters stayed outside and Eshoo refused to answer any questions on health care.

During the Town Hall meeting, Eshoo took a commanding role and read questions verbatim from her constituents. Executive directors and chief project managers from Caltrain and HSRA were on a panel answering the questions. Her constituents raised concerns about the community impact of the line, possible loss in property value, and potential need to eminent domain. Eshoo agreed with her constituents that HSRA needs to do much more in communicating with the public.

The meeting clearly showed incompetence from Mehdi Morshed, HSRA's executive director. At the meeting, Morshed was not able to anwser some of the questions directly and clearly. On a question about how HSRA came to the conclusion to support the Pacheco corridor, Morshed told Eshoo and the audience that the reasons are in the program EIR. The anwser was clearly not satisfactory. Eshoo later told the panel that she expects anwsers that are to be real anwsers.

On the other hand, Staff from Caltrain were able to provide direct answers on many of questions. Bob Doty explained the complexity of tunneling. Caltrain executive director reminded the audience about the need for an improved Caltrain system and how this project would benefit Caltrain.

The Town Hall showed the lack of confidence from Eshoo's constitutents on HSRA's ability to build this project and listen to the community's concerns, which has fueled a lot of opposition and fear mongering for the last several months.

A change in the HSRA leadership will go a long way to restore the confidence needed to take this project forward. The main question is whether there's political will to change the agency's leadership.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More around the Bay

BART labor action

Any transit strike is going to be frustrating for transit riders. The last known strike affecting South Bay transit riders is the Santa Cruz Metro strike in 2005, which interrupted the Highway 17 Express bus service operating between Santa Cruz and San Jose. That strike was supposedly averted but then began when negotiation suddenly broke down. That strike lasted about a month. During that strike, getting over the hill was difficult and the only service is the overcrowded Greyhound buses that ran a few trips a day.

While it is possible that the strike could be averted in the last minute, it is nonetheless a good idea to be prepared in case it happens.

If BART workers go in strike next Monday, VTA express buses in Fremont would stop temporarily outside the BART property, so that its drivers would not cross the picket line (since VTA drivers are represented by another chapter of the ATU). In Fremont, AC Transit bus line 99 continues north to Bay Fair and stopping at every BART station in between. At Bay Fair, AC Transit bus 1R continues to Oakland and Berkeley.

In addition, Amtrak Capitol Corridor service operates between San Jose and Sacramento via Fremont.

On the Peninsula, Caltrain would continue to provide regular service, but SamTrans service would stop outside BART property and route KX would serve Millbrae station to connect Caltrain riders with SFO.

Monterey bus fare cut

Because of an infusion from the Stimulus fund, MST plans to reduce the fares it raised in January. In January, the agency raised it fares by 25% from $2 per zone to $2.50 per zone. From September 5, the fares will go down from $2.50 to $2.25 per zone. Fares for seniors, disabled, and children will go down by 15 cents. That fare cut will last until the next Memorial Day in 2010.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

VTA to hold meetings on bus cut environmental documents

Rather than declaring a fiscal emergency as what Caltrain done two months ago, VTA is proposing to adopt a "negative declaration" for the proposed 8% reduction in service. By state law, transit agency needs to produce a document that would identify environmental impacts. One of the exemptions available to transit agencies is by declaring a fiscal emergency (eminent bankruptcy). On the other hand, a "negative declaration" is a finding of no significant impacts upon an initial evaluation. If there were to be potential significant impacts, the agency would have to produce a larger environmental impact report, which is normally done for larger transit projects.

In the draft negative declaration, VTA says the service reduction would produce a ridership drop of 3.1% on buses and 0.4% on the light rail. The ridership reduction would not have a significant on traffic nor air quality.

VTA will hold a meeting on the draft negative declaration:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Isaac Newton Senter Auditorium,
County Government Center
70 West Hedding Street, San Jose

Deadline for formal comment is August 31, 2009:

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

VTA August Board Update and VTA's rude response to the Grand Jury report

Gillig Hybrid

VTA staff proposes to order 70 hybrid buses from Gillig using the Stimulus money. As reported last month, three companies submitted bids. Although the bid from Orion came out to be the lowest, VTA rejected the bid from Orion because VTA says Orion buses did not meet its specification for being over 40-feet long. VTA also rejected the bid from New Flyer because the bid came out to be the highest.

October fare change

VTA plans to move the scheduled fare change from January 2010 to October. This move would generate an addition $1 million in fare revenue, which VTA says would offset the service reduction needed.

Rude and unprofessional response to the Grand Jury Report

Michael Burns may have came in to VTA as a fresh face who has empathy for everyday transit riders. However over the years his relationship with Carl Guardino have tarnished his image.

These are the wordings that Burns chose in response to the Grand Jury Report. Not only these words are inaccurate, insulting, but down right rude:

"The report lacks balance, and appears to rely on the type of anti-BART, anti-public transit rhetoric that was circulated by a group that opposed three VTA measures that were on the ballot in the 2008 General Election."

"It appears that the grand jury was biased in its work, and did not seek and/or accept factual information in response to opinions and statements made by anti-VTA zealots."

These words may fit if Michael Burns were a partisan political thug like Karl Rove. However Burns is supposed to be apolitical. Calling someone anti-VTA zealots is like calling someone unpatriotic just for having a different political view. If people like Michael Burns cannot show tolerance and not willing to engage in substantive debates, is there any hope for this agency to change?

In its response, VTA basically defended its policies on advisory committees and claimed that it did not hide financial information prior to last year's election.

However, VTA's record is inconsistent. VTA says in its response to the Grand Jury that it told the VTA Board that it needs a new 1/4 cent sales tax to fulfill the 2000 Measure A promises, and that it is not inappropiate for VTA not to provide a Measure A expenditure plan before last November because of the bad economy. Despite quite appearent evidence that VTA cannot afford what it says it wants to build, Michael Burns asked the VTA board to "reaffirm" support for the light rail extension to Eastridge (which was nearly shovel-ready but got funding removed) and told reporters last year that Measure B was the only thing needed to build BART to Santa Clara.

Only until earlier this year the sales tax projection showed that VTA cannot afford to build BART beyond Berryessa, and which that projection was made before the recent steep sales tax drop that has triggered a proposed service reduction for January.

Although VTA disagrees with the Grand Jury's finding that VTA intends to collect the sales tax for the extension to Berryessa, VTA's response was evasive and said that it would begin collect the tax once the Measure B conditions are met. The fact is that Measure B tax could only start after VTA receives a funding agreement from the federal government for the project, and that VTA is applying for federal funds only for the portion to Berryessa. Given that VTA does not have the funding to build the line beyond Berryessa, and that VTA certainly would not be able to build it at the same time it is building the Berryessa portion, VTA in effect would begin collecting the tax only for a portion of what they campaigned for, whether it is for the initial years during construction for the remaining portion, or even if the other portion is never built at all.

If VTA were not able to receive federal funds, VTA could still build BART to Milpitas. While the Milpitas portion would provide a useful connection between BART and the light rail (in which the portion from Milpitas to Berryessa would add nothing to make the connection better), VTA would not be able to start the Measure B tax since there would not be any federal funds involved. To collect that money, VTA would have to go back to the voters to change the requirement, and that voters are unlikely to buy into another VTA lie again.

The past General Manager Pete Cipolla may have been rough around the edges and insensitive to the needs of riders, but the rudeness and thuggery from the VTA management has gone into a while new level with Michael Burns. Instead of a dialogue, he engages in intimidations against those whose primary interest is to improve transit service. His choice of word "anti-VTA zealots" clearly demonstrates his unprofessionalism and bias toward the construction/consulting lobby.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Cash for clunkers

The Cash for Clunker has become one of the most popular program in the Stimulus package. The program first ran out of money and the Congress scrambled to provide additional funds to extend the program.

The expansion of the program has received criticisms from the transit advocacy community since the program does not directly help transit agencies struggling for funds. There are also questions about the effectiveness on improving fuel efficiency.

The Cash for Clunker however, does provide some benefits. Since the program trades in car one for one, the old ones aren't going to be at a used-dealer lot or on the street. Also because the program stimulates car sales, the increased car sales will provide additional sales tax revenue. Since Sacramento has effectively eliminated direct state support for transit operations, sales taxes (1/4% Transit Development Act and an additional 1/2% at many counties) are the primary funding source for transit operators throughout the state. The economic crisis beginning last year has resulted in double digit percent reduction in sales tax revenue for most agencies, and car dealers are major contributors for sale taxes.

While it is unfortunate that transit funding is somewhat dependent on auto sales, and which it is not sustainable in the long run, nonetheless it is the process we have today until other fundamental changes take place in Sacramento.

Even with billions in federal subsidy, the increased tax revenue through this program may be small from a local perspective and many agencies will still have to make massive cuts. Obviously, more economic stimulus is needed by providing short term operating assistance to transit agencies, which will help keep many of the lifeline transit services needed the most by the low-income workers.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Around the Bay

No end in sight

The poor economy is hitting transit agencies in two different ways:
1. Declining tax revenue forces agencies to cut back service
2. Less service, higher fares and high unemployment kept riders away

Just a year ago most transit agencies saw record ridership as the gasoline prices continued to soar. This year, financial and economic pressures resulted in ridership decline. In June 2008, Caltrain had a ridership increase of more than 16% compared to 2007. This year, Caltrain lost 11.7% riders compared to 2008. Overall, Caltrain still gained ridership from 2007.

SFO shuttle

Earlier this month, BART imposed a $4 surcharge on all riders entering and and exiting the SFO station, including airport employees. While the surcharge still make BART competitive to driving and parking at the airport or taking a taxi or airport shuttle, that $4 surcharge is a significant financial hit to employees at the airport, especially those who do not work for the airlines.

The SFO did one right thing in response: operate a free shuttle between the airport and Millbrae station. Although the shuttle may look silly and adds travel time for those transferring to and from BART, it helps to cut down fares as much as in half. For those who transfer to and from Caltrain, the shuttle avoids an even sillier transfer at the San Bruno station between two BART trains, which isn't worth the $4 fare, or even the old $1.50 fare.

Although the shuttle is intended for employees, there's no restriction for other riders from using this service. As long as BART refuses to waive the surcharge for SFO's employees, you can try this shuttle.

No cell phones for transit operators

Recently, yellow stickers are appearing inside VTA buses over the driver's area. These yellow stickers remind drivers not to talk on cell phones (including hands free) or text while driving. Some agencies apparently have gone much further by prohibiting drivers from possessing a phone while on duty. In Boston, a driver got a suspension by carrying a cell phone (was reported to the management by a journalist who thought the driver was talking on the cell phone but was actually talking on the bus radio). Another driver in Boston got fired by making a stop enroute, leaving his driver seat and talk on a borrowed cell phone.

The tough rules were recently implemented in Boston as an reaction to the light rail crash on the Green Line two months ago, which the operator was texting and rear ended another light rail vehicle. The agency at that time permitted operators to carry those devices as long as they don't use them, and have fired operators for cell phone violations prior to the crash.

While drivers should never use any kind of personal communicating devices while on the driver seat, the agency in Boston was overreacting to score political points. On the other hand at VTA, because it is typical for bus drivers to relieve another enroute at a bus stop, having a cell phone in those situations keep them in contact with the supervisor. Also, it is a bad policy to encourage passengers or others to snitch on drivers who are obviously not putting anyone at risk.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Painful cuts on the way

Bus cuts meeting dates:

Monday, August 10, 2009 at 7:00 p.m.
Campbell Community Center, Roosevelt Community Room
1 West Campbell Avenue, Campbell

San Jose
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
County Government Center, Isaac Newton Senter Auditorium
70 West Hedding Street, San Jose

Mountain View
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
City of Mountain View, Council Chambers
500 Castro Street, Mountain View

San Jose
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 6:00 p.m.
San Jose Public Library, Almaden Branch
6445 Camden Avenue, San Jose

San Jose
Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Dr. Roberto Cruz - Alum Rock Branch Public Library
3090 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose

Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 7:00 p.m.
Milpitas Public Library, Room A
160 N. Main Street, Milpitas

The following is the quick summary of the proposed service reductions:

Route discontinuation: 34, 43, 76, 101, River Oaks shuttle

Weekend service cut: 11, 13, 42 (Sunday only), 45, 46 (Sunday only), 81 (weekend service operate only between Cupertino Square and Santa Clara Caltrain)

Drop in frequency from 15 to 20 mins:
- Midday: 66, 68, 72, 73, 77
- Weekend: 25 (30 to 40 minutes west of Valley Med), 70

Drop in frequency from 15 to 30 mins: 10 (early morning), 13, 26 (cut midday short trips), 31, 60 (midday)

Drop in frequency from 30 mins to 40-45 mins:
- Midday: 14, 17, 18, 19, 27, 63
- Saturday: 40, 54, 82 (hourly Sunday), 180
- Sunday: 60, 47, 54, 71, 72, 73, 180

Drop in frequency from 30 mins to hourly:
- Midday: 37 (between Capitol and Winchester), 46, 48, 49
- All day: 39
- Saturday: 27, 31, 35
- Sunday: 57

Route change: 47 - combined with line 33 via Calaveras.

Light Rail: Mountain View service would end at 10:30pm. Two night bus trips would replace light rail from Tasman to Fair Oaks serving all LRT stops and run non-stop to Mountain View.

Nearly all bus lines will have some trips deleted and service hours reduced during early mornings and evenings. Line 22 would also have overnight service eliminated. Along with the proposed cut of SamTrans' overnight service, there would no longer be any overnight transit option available along the Caltrain corridor.

These proposed cuts are a strong reminiscent of the bus cuts VTA made in 2002 and 2003. During that time, VTA reduced service on many routes from 15-30 minute headways into odd headways of 20-45 minutes. Only during the COA process when service was added back on some routes by diverting resources from elsewhere in the system. This time, the same service is getting threatened again.

Some of the frequency cuts may look minor, but the odd headways proposed for many routes make transfers difficult. For example, lines 68 and light rail operate on the same headway and passengers have timed transfers at the Santa Teresa Station 4 times an hour. Under this proposal, timed transfer would only be available once an hour midday.

The more important question is whether VTA would restore the service once the economy recovers. After the cuts in 2002 and 2003, VTA did not significantly increase service levels and failed to meet the 2000 Measure A promise to increase bus service over the year 2000 level. Last fall, Michael Burns claimed that Measure B was necessary because bus service could not be decimated to fund the BART project. Right now, bus service is being decimated. If Burns does not agree to restore service to at least January 2008 level as soon as funding becomes available, then he is breaking his promise and therefore should not deserve any federal funds for a rail line to the Flea Market.

Tomorrow, VTA Riders' Union will hold a protest and a press conference ast 6:00pm at the San Jose Diridon Station over the proposed fare hikes and service cuts by not only VTA, but also by Caltrain and other transit agencies. Earlier in the day, Transform will hold an event in Downtown Oakland urging federal lawmakers to provide more assistance to transit agencies for operations.

Finally, the so-call no tax-hike state budget is nothing but a Republican scam to protect the rich and deceive the middle class. Through some budget manuvers to shift money from one pot to another, many local governments would be ending up with a larger budget shortfall, forcing them to cut service and raise taxes and fees beyond what they have already done. Under this settlement, AC Transit would lose an additional $6 million with their local taxes being "borrowed" by the state. AC Transit is already losing $26 million through the cuts in State Transit Assistance alone, which was diverted to cover the general fund shortfall.

East Bay taxpayers have been generous to AC Transit by overwhelmingly approving tax increases to protect bus operations and hold fares stable. At the end, it appears that their generosity have been exploited by Sacramento politicians.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rounds of bus cuts meetings

VTA has scheduled 7 public meetings from August 10 to August 13 on bus cuts. The times and locations have yet to be finalized.

SamTrans has scheduled 4 bus cuts meetings starting next week:
  • * July 27 - Municipal Building
    33 Arroyo Drive, South San Francisco
  • * July 28 - SamTrans headquarters
    1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos
  • * July 29 - City Council Chambers
    701 Laurel St. , Menlo Park
  • * Aug. 6 - Cunha Intermediate School
    600 Church St., Half Moon Bay
Besides bus service reduction, SamTrans also puts another fare increase on the table, which if implemented, SamTrans will join Muni and AC Transit on the $2 club. SamTrans also proposes to raise paratransit fares and reduce service.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

VTA July update

The VTA Board will meet today at noon. Here's some of the items on the agenda:

Hybrid bus procurement

The item would authorize the agency to purchase 107 low floor hybrid buses to replace the older buses on the current fleet. Three manufacturers have submitted proposals: Gillig, Orion, and New Flyer. Funding for this purchase is provided by the Stimulus funds and 2006's Prop 1B. The staff will come back to the board once a vendor has been selected.

October fare change

As reported earlier, the VTA board will likely approve the scheduled fare change from January to October. The staff report also says that they're planning a service reduction for October. VTA is experiencing a 21% drop in sales tax revenue, which VTA earlier anticipated for a 8% decrease. Even if the board gives approval for a service reduction, it is unlikely that the staff will be able to conduct proper public outreach required for an October service cut.

Labor agreements

VTA has settled with three of its unions (TAEA, SEIU, AFSCME). The new agreement would not provide wage increases and would impose mandatory furloughs, but would not result in any employee layoffs unless the economic condition goes dramatically worse. VTA has yet to reach an agreement with ATU. Without an amended agreement, it is likely that VTA will have to further reduce service and layoff ATU employees to cut costs.

Hamilton station settlement

The Hamilton light rail station was built on top of a berm connecting to an overpass. After service started in 2005, the station area has experienced earth settlement and require frequent maintenance on the track to make sure the track is properly aligned. The VTA Board is expected to approve a contract to fix the settlement issue. In the meantime, VTA has reduced powerwashing on the platform to cut the amount of water seeping into the berm, which is causing the settlement.

The repair will require two weekend light rail shutdown in that area.

UPDATE: VTA has confirmed an 8% service cut for January as reported here earlier in the comment section.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Timetable typos

With major system changes and fare changes, staff are pressured to produce new timetables on time. As a result, timetables are not free from typos.

Can you spot the typos from the most recent timetables that became effective yesterday? A hint: there's big one on the 180/181 timetable.

VTA could make corrections and reprint the timetables before the next possible schedule or fare changes. To find out whether it is a reprint, just look for the 7 digit code located on the cover just under the VTA logo. It should have a different date than what the schedule effective date on the top part of the cover.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Rod Diridon stirring false HSR funding fears

Unfortunately this is looking like a battle between the Palo Alto/San Jose NIMBYs versus Rod Diridon. Rod Diridon is trying to get the state legistlature to remove the language from the budget bill that would require the HSRA to study alternative alignments to the Caltrain corridor in the project-level EIR for the San Jose-San Francisco segment. The NIMBYs in Palo Alto and San Jose are in favor of the language believing that alternative alignments could be chosen that avoid their neighborhoods. Diridon is opposing this claiming the delay caused by further study would force the agency to miss the deadline set by the Stimulus bill and would have to forego funding.

This political tug-of-war ignores reality. First, some of the alternative alignments are very likely to be screened out because of major flaws. Just because a particular alignment bypasses a neighborhood does not mean that it won't cause harm to the environment and stir opposition from others in the community. A proper evaluation would likely show that a Caltrain alignment would produce the least harm.

Second, Diridon's claim of missing the deadline for the Stimulus fund comes from the assumption that the HSRA would submit the entire corridor for Stimulus funding, which timing would either be too tight or impossible to fulfill regardless. This region would not miss most if any of the Stimulus funds if it prioritizes near term improvements that have been studied and received environmental clearance. The near term projects submitted by MTC for the funding costs about 20% of the total $8 billion of the stimulus funds. The projects submitted by MTC are necessary for high speed rail anyway unless HSRA gives up its current preference and repicks an alignment outside the Caltrain right of way, which this language won't do.

Similar to the current events in Iran, the HSRA can only lose trust in the communities by its rush to judgement and its ignorance to their concerns. While the motive of the legislator who placed the language is suspicious, removing this language from the bill will only foster further distrust by those who have the power to cause further delays for the project.

Restoring the trust will likely require some kind of "regime change" at the High Speed Rail Authority currently dominated by Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon, who both have a history of supporting wasteful transit projects and pick fights against transit advocates to score cheap political points. High speed rail could be way better off with other more competent and less politically divisive boardmembers.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Money for new service

At a time when most transit agencies are cutting service and/or raising fares, the Monterey-Salinas Transit is adding new service next Monday.

The new service is designed to serve the Presidio of Monterey, an active military installation located between Monterey and Pacific Grove. MST is able to provide these new bus lines with funding from the Army. The Army approached MST to provide additional transit service as a way to relieve traffic problems at the Presidio.

The new Presidio service consists of 9 new weekday routes, with one route from San Jose. Most of these routes will run during the morning and afternoon commute hours. The annual cost to provide the new service is over $1 million. Active duty service members and Presidio employees are eligible for free monthly passes for the new service.

All the buses are open to the rest of the public at regular fares, but only military personnel with IDs can ride into the Presidio. Buses however will make a stop in downtown Monterey for other non-military riders.

The new service means MST will run a second line to San Jose. The new line 79 will make a stop at the San Jose Diridon station, the Santa Teresa light rail station, and Gilroy Caltrain station. Because it is designed for commuters coming into Monterey, the bus will leave San Jose earlier and leave Monterey later than the current line 55, which is primarily designed to carry Monterey residents to San Jose. A side benefit to this new line is that it will provide an even earlier trip into San Jose and a late trip leaving San Jose, as buses have to make its way from Monterey to pick up riders.

Currently, the last 55 leaves Monterey at about 3:18pm, which is too early if you want to have an extended day trip in Monterey. For those in Gilroy, this new line will offer a late option from San Jose in case if you miss the last 168, 55, or Caltrain.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The two-dollar club

Tomorrow, Muni and AC Transit will officially join the $2 club with the scheduled fare increase. On the same date, BART and Golden Gate Transit will also raise their fares.

Percentage wise, Muni's fare increase is the highest at 33% from $1.50 to $2.00. AC Transit is about 14% (same as VTA which will be in effect next January if not earlier) . Others go up by a less than 10%.

10 years ago, Muni fare was at $1.00. With this fare increase, Muni would have doubled its fare within a decade. According to the National Transit Database, Muni's operating cost increased by about 45% between 1999 and 2007, while providing slightly less transit service in 2007 than it was in 1999.

In comparison, VTA's total operating cost went up by over 50% in the same time frame, while revenue from fares only went up by just over 34.6%. Although VTA's total revenue miles and hours increased by 20% during that 8 year time frame, the ridership in 2007 was just less than 80% of what VTA carried in 1999.

Meanwhile at Caltrain, although operating cost went up by 68% from 1999 to 2007, revenue hours and revenue went up by 78% (with the Baby Bullet service). Weekday ridership has gone up by 50% during that time frame, but ridership on weekends was less in 2007. Overall, unlike VTA and Muni, Caltrain actually improved productivity.

The cost to deliver transit has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, however consumer prices went up by about 28.4%.

With increasing fares, it is harder to promote healthy and environmental sustainable behaviors these days. In 2009, you could still buy a burger at a fast food restaurant for 99 cents like it was 10 years ago. Fewer people rely on transit these days considering the higher cost.

Also, while funding shortfalls creating by the economy and budget cuts deserve attention, transit agencies also needs to do more to control costs. Controlling cost not only involves maintaining a reasonable wage and benefits including health care, but also by choosing the right mode of transportation cost-effective for riders. Over the years, VTA and Muni have expanded its light rail lines that are much more expensive to operate and maintain, while in most cases ridership did not go up as originally projected.

In the early part of the 20th century, transit used to be a profitable business, over the decades, to save cost, streetcars were replaced by buses, and private operations were converted into public subidized operation. However, our society today needs more mass transit as a way to make our communities environmentally sustainable and accessible with a growing senior population. The question is whether the transit systems the way it is now will be able to handle future demand?

Friday, June 26, 2009

How long will that last

Although next month's service changes are nothing compared to what occurred in January 2008, VTA nonetheless is announcing it onboard buses. While the July service changes mostly involve reallocation of resource, some service was removed (by not reallocating it) because of the budget constraints.

However, with rising unemployment and drop in sales taxes, VTA internally is planning for a 10% service cut possibly for October and move the approved fare increase date from January to October. These changes would require public meetings and board approvals, which need to happen soon.

Other agencies have done more planning earlier in preparation for service reductions. AC Transit has proposed a plan to reduce service by almost 15% after a series of public meetings. SamTrans is also preparing for a cut of up to 15% and scheduled public meetings in July to receive comments. While details are pending, SamTrans cuts most likely involve trimming express service and elimination of overnight routes. AC Transit's cuts involve drawing a new bus network in Hayward and Fremont, as well as elimination of some routes in other cities.

On the other hand, VTA hosted public meetings last year and is spending money now to promote cost-neutral service adjustments. Is VTA leaving us unprepared for significant service reductions soon after?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Light rail disruption on the Campbell line

Hundreds of light rail riders got delayed this afternoon after a fatality occured on the light rail track at the Leigh Avenue crossing between Fruitdale and Bascom stations. A male on a scooter ignored crossing gate warnings and got struck by an oncoming light rail heading south at about 3:45pm.

At the collision scene:

At Fruitdale Station as people get off light rail and transfer to a bus bridge.

The bus bridge continues to Bascom Station where riders transfer again to light rail.

While the light rail is smaller and lighter than trains like Caltrain, the light rail can be deceptively fast. Riders and pedestrians should never ignore gate crossing warnings. In the Campbell section, the light rail trains do not blow horns (which isn't loud anyway compared to Caltrain) and can travel up to 50 mph. The disruption continued into the evening at around 8pm when VTA announced that service has been restored.

Monday, June 15, 2009

That Almaden Shuttle

A column by Scott Herhold tonight again raised the prospect that the little Almaden light rail shuttle could be discontinued.

Since the opening of the light rail in South San Jose in 1992, the Almaden branch has been operated as shuttle between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Almaden. Other than the crowd heading to the Oakridge Mall, the shuttle is largely useless. Riders coming from further south in the Almaden Valley could take a bus or drive to Ohlone/Chynoweth and take the light rail there directly to downtown San Jose.

In 2003, the shuttle faced possible discontinuation when VTA was planning for service reduction during the last budget crunch. Last year, the shuttle was temporarily discontinued for about two months for platform retrofit. While this shuttle survived the 2003 cut (which many bus lines didn't) and the platform retrofit, it may not survive this budget crisis.

However shutting down a light rail service, even on a temporary basis, isn't as easy as cutting a bus route. Unlike bus routes, light rail has a lot of fixed infrastructure that needs to be maintained regardless of its operating status. For instance, if light rail were to be discontinued, security must still be provided at stations and tracks must still be kept in a state of good repair. As we all know, vacant homes due to wave of foreclosures attract blight, vandalism, and crimes into the neighborhood because of the lack of care for these homes. VTA could save some money on power and labor, but VTA would still have to pay to keep the line maintained, especially when VTA won't have operators to keep an eye on a regular basis. VTA might as well keep the line running and keep the riders happy.

Meanwhile, VTA is studying options for the Almaden line for the light rail COA. In several scenarios, trains from Almaden would continue north on the mainline to Downtown San Jose and beyond, and that trains from Santa Teresa would operate non-stop between Ohlone and Downtown San Jose. Also in some scenarios, the Almaden line would be discontinued permanently. That said, any outcomes from the COA might require additional capital and operating expenses that VTA doesn't have, and which could require years to implement.