Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Shocked?" "astonished?" ...more like "we told you so!"

At yesterday's VTA board workshop, the boardmembers who naively believed in Michael Burns' words last fall now found themselves "shocked" and "astonished" over the bleak financial projections presented by staff and consultants.

They were also "surprised" to hear that the BART project could only be built in phases. VTA released its updated costs for the BART project, which VTA insisted that it must be withheld from the public before last year's election. Overall, the total cost for the line to Santa Clara has grown to $6.1 billion, which is not escalated to the year of completion, and does not include financing cost.

For us, there's nothing shocking:

Given the results, it is unlikely for voters to approve a third tax for the same project in the next 8 years, if not longer. VTA will have no choice but to build a shorter line (which was never put on the table before by VTA until right after the election) with the funding it already has. At the end, it may not be a win for the downtown delusionals who want nothing but a subway.

And that Guardino and Burns cheated the county taxpayers:

Although it may seem like an outcome of the Measure B vote, the Berryessa segment is actually a project that VTA could undertake without Measure B. VTA intentionally delayed in committing a feasible funding plan so that VTA could pretend that they really need the tax. Perhaps Measure B opponents like Rick DiNapoli and Bill Baron were right that the tax was actually to backfill VTA's inefficient operation.

Michael Burns knows as much as we do, but what he did was that he controlled the flow of information. Before the election, he said that VTA had the money to build the entire BART project but not to run it. Today, he said that VTA could only afford to build the line to Berryessa. Last month, VTA presented a revised operating plan for July that is supposed to keep the same level of transit service with no budget cuts. Now, transit service is on the chopping block. Also in January, Burns asked the VTA board to approve an updated Short Range Transit Plan that has an operating reserve of $50 million, which would continue to grow for years to come. Today, Burns presented a new projection that would eat up all the reserves.

The economy was already in poor shape months before the election. It should be a no-brainer to know that VTA would be in a deep crisis soon. Burns withheld information at the time when voters were deciding whether to trust VTA, and only release bad news when voters no longer matter to VTA.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

NIMBYs popping up

You will hear it everywhere. The NIMBYs are now coming out of the woods since the High Speed Rail Authority began the environmental process for the San Francisco-San Jose segment a month ago.

Of course, there are legitimate issues and concerns, such as noise, construction impacts, and whether private properties are needed for the train right of way. Unfortunately there's no answer to many of these questions. Remember, this is just the beginning of the design and engineering process. Also adding to the uncertainty, the High Speed Rail Authority has yet to hammer out an agreement with Caltrain to share the corridor.

However, some of the comments raised by NIMBYs are simply outlandish:

"We just had a stupid meeting in San Jose discussing this BS train which they intend to run through every quaint peninsula town- that would be starting with WILLOW GLEN in San Jose, through Santa Clara quaint downtown, Sunnyvale, Mountain View (nice downtown there), Palo Alto, Atherton where this POS train goes through Larry Ellison's BACKYARD, Menlo Park, Burlingame downtown where this POS will ruin every 4 star restaurant there and up to SF.

"If they don't build this crap project UNDERGROUND this project will be sued repeatedly until all hell breaks loose by the richest people in the country. What a bunch of losers."
And more...

"I hope that with this news, some avid HSR enthusiasts begin to grow a conscience and see that air travel between SF and LA has very very little to do with the Peninsula, and HSR trains may be a reduction in air emissions, but will be a huge net increase to carbon emissions in the Peninsula - because of the auto traffic that will be drawn directly and deeply into Peninsula towns which do not host major airports."

After filtering these comments, the only consistency you'll find is that they don't know much about HSR, that HSR is not good only in where they live, and that HSR ought to be invisible. Also, many of those who commented tend to come from wealthy neighborhoods, and therefore have a stronger sense of entitlement.

Is their fear substantiated? You don't have to travel across the ocean to see that isn't. For instance, there's a 4 track electrified railroad passing through the suburbs of Philadelphia. As you can see, many of these stations have a stronger small-town, suburban-feel than those on the Peninsula.

In addition, there's a false perception that putting the trains underground will solve all problems. The reality is that not only putting trains underground increases construction costs multiple times, it tend to cause more construction impacts onto the community (imagine lines of concrete trucks coming in). With underground construction, the crews would sometimes accidentally cut off electrical or water lines, or cause adjacent buildings to subside.

The dialogue between the community and the High Speed Rail Authority is important, so is the education about high speed rail. Realistically, system requirements would be better defined and somewhat scaled down (value engineering) to reduce cost over time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reality hits VTA

At this Friday's VTA workshop, the board will discuss the agency's budget outlook. Given the economic condition, VTA is predicting budget deficits for the next two fiscal years. (VTA has a two-year budget cycle).

VTA is expecting declines in sales tax: a 6.75% reduction from this fiscal year (FY 09) to last fiscal year (FY 08), an additional 5% reduction in FY10 from FY 09, and a 3% reduction in FY 11 from FY10.

On top of that, VTA will lose transit funding from the state because of the state budget situation.

Currently, VTA has an operating reserve of more than $50 million. According to VTA's projection, that reserve will disappear by next year. In the next two years, VTA is projecting a combined operating deficit of $78 million.

Stimulus funds

Contrary to a report by Gary Richards published earlier today, MTC has recommended not to use any of the regional funds for the Transbay Terminal train box project, largely because of the extra $8 billion funding for High Speed Rail pushed by President Obama. MTC's recommendation, however, would provide stimulus funds for a BART connector to Oakland Airport.

While funding to transit agencies have increased, some transit advocates want all the money to go to transit agencies and expressed opposition to the airport connector project.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Guardino's tax hypocrisy

It is not the first time Guardino has done this before, it is just that too many liberals have deluded themselves thinking that SVLG are still good guys when SVLG advocated for new taxes.

The latest state budget proposal contains a $700 million corporate tax cuts advocated by Carl Guardino. Guardino told the Mercury News, "All good things come to those who wait."

Combined with other corporate tax incentives approved earlier by the legislature, the state will lose $1 billion in taxes. The California Budget Bites blog put what that $1 billion could have funded:

- $170 for every student in California’s public schools;

- Enough funding to restore proposed 2009-10 cuts to higher education, In-Home Supportive Services, and services for people with developmental disabilities and to provide a cost-of-living adjustment for families in the CalWORKs Program; or

- Almost as much as the General Fund’s portion of the proposed increase in Vehicle License Fees ($1.2 billion).

Essentially we are asked to pay more while corporations Guardino represents pay less.

Like other public services, public transit has fared poorly under the budget proposal. According to California Transit Association, the budget proposal calls for the elimination of the State Transit Assistance funds, which reduce transit funding by half a billion, on top of the cuts implemented by the legislature in previous years. CTA calls this as the "Armageddon Scenario."

Because of the steep funding cuts, various transit agencies are requesting federal stimulus funds to backfill loss state funding under the "preventive maintenance" category.

The only consistent position on taxes from SVLG is that the little guys should pay more of it through various sales taxes and fees and the big corporations pay less through various corporate tax cuts. SVLG is no way progressive. It only pretends progressive when it campaigns for more sales taxes.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Surprise stimulus gift to High Speed Rail

Earlier today, the House and Senate settled on a stimulus package that's worth just less than $800 million. On the transit side, the final stimulus package will mirror the version approved by the Senate: $8.4 billion will be distributed to transit agencies based on established formulas and with an additional $5.5 billion to be spent on transit and highway projects selected by the Department of Transportation.

Some expressed disappointments that funding for New Starts projects is not included in the final bill (which was actually included at $750 million, a reduced amount from the house version). Some also thought the stimulus package should include direct operating funds to backfill loss state and local funding.

The biggest surprise is funding for High Speed Rail programs. HSR program was not specifically included in the House version of the bill. Later the Senate added $2 billion. During the conference negotiations, the committee agreed to increase HSR funding to $8 billion. According to reports, the increase was urged personally by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The sudden increase in HSR funding can certainly help to accelerate projects. Earlier this week, MTC released a plan on how to spend the stimulus funds. Under MTC's plan, projects that are almost ready to go but lack funding received priority, which included the people mover connection to Oakland Airport and the underground train box at the Downtown San Francisco Transbay Terminal. VTA would also receive stimulus funds on a formula basis to replace aging buses with hybrids.

Some delusionals were quite disappointed that the BART project was not included in the stimulus package. However, that project was not in a position to benefit from the package anyhow. Under the best case scenario, construction would not be ready for another 3-4 years in the minimum, which runs counter to the intent of the stimulus bill: to create jobs soon as a way to recover from the economic slump. Also, the BART system is not compatible with High Speed Rail. Carl Guardino and other VTA boneheads insisted that regional trains and long distance trains cannot share infrastructure, and they actively advocated against sensible proposals like Caltrain Metro East, which would have certainly benefited from the Prop 1A as well as the stimulus package.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Another 880 widening

Appeared on February's VTA Take One newsletter is the announcement that VTA is starting planning work for the new carpool lanes in 880 between Milpitas and San Jose.

With the latest segment between Fremont Blvd and Dixon Landing Road opened last November, the carpool lanes now exist on I-880 between San Leandro to Milpitas. VTA has proposed to reroute the 181 to operate only on I-880 between Fremont and San Jose in July, which would allow buses on the new carpool lanes and not having to switch freeways. However, the major drawback is that VTA needs to identify a park and ride lot along the route for those who want to drive to the bus.

Before 2003, the I-880 between Milpitas and San Jose only had 2 lanes in each direction, which was unusually narrow. Because of the chronic congestion in both directions, 180 buses often rerouted onto Old Oakland Road. Even with the new lanes opened in 2003, the congestion came back eventually. Today, while the northbound 181 buses can run at full speed on the freeway in the afternoon, the congestion in the other direction can still require southbound buses to use Old Oakland Road.

Does it make sense for VTA to spend funds to widen the same freeway again even though it claims to have enough funds (by shortchanging transit projects elsewhere) to build BART to Berryessa? Because of the way VTA segregates transit and highway funds, it is virtually impossible for a transit project to replace a highway project, even through it has occurred elsewhere. Even with light rail in the freeway median, VTA still managed to build new carpool lanes that parallel light rail. VTA's segregation of funds and continuing support for more freeway expansions has and will undercut transit.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Transit being thrown under the bus?

The latest development in the Senate does not appear promising for transit:

But since then, certain senators — including, shamefully, California’s very own Barbara Boxer — have proposed to gut the already-paltry transit stimulus and to redirect new money toward highways.

An example of a sad reality in the U.S. Senate where bipartisanship means capitulations that impact local constituents. An even sad fact is that the Democratic Party still isn't able to "screw the other party" like the Republicans did during the Bush years.

Whatever stimulus funds towards transportation should be given with flexibility and strict accountability. Big cities these days don't need new highways, either they got too much of them or don't have room for them. However these cities, including smaller ones, have urgent needs for transit and maintenance, which keep jobs that already exist and create new ones.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Around the valley

Palo Alto Caltrain station

The station reconstruction at Palo Alto has been completed. Part of reconstruction was to create an ADA-compliant pedestrian underpass. Prior to the reconstruction, the station had an at-grade crossing to allow crossing by the disabled because the ramps for the existing tunnels were too steep.

Caltrain essentially upgraded one of the existing pedestrian tunnels. That tunnel pictured was dark and smelly before the reconstruction. The renovated tunnel now has skylights and fluorescent lighting. The urine-odor also disappeared as well.

Highway 17 Express

Santa Cruz Metro, the agency that operates the Highway 17 Express, placed new low floor buses in service on the Highway 17 route. It is interesting because low floor buses generally have lower capacity than high floor buses. Besides the loss of seats, these buses do not have underfloor luggage area like the older buses.

Ridership on the Highway 17 Express has grown continuously when the service was merged with the Amtrak connector in 2004. The farebox recovery for the route is now over 50%, compared to about 15% for the entire VTA system. At times the buses are packed with UC Santa Cruz students heading home for the weekends and long holidays. One has to wonder why Santa Cruz Metro did not opt to increase capacity by using larger buses and instead purchase buses with lower capacity.

State funding cuts

The loss of state funding for many transit operators has now translated into fare increase and/or service reductions. Monterey-Salinas Transit has recently instituted a large 25% fare increase! The one way trip on the 55 from San Jose to Monterey has gone up from $8 to $10. San Benito County Transit, which connects with VTA in Gilroy, has eliminated bus service from 10 am to 2 pm in Hollister. AC Transit is also considering a fare increase even though voters approved a parcel tax to provide more funding for AC Transit's operation in the East Bay.