Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MTC and VTA's misguided priorities

MTC recently delayed the adoption of the Transportation 2035 because of significant changes in revenue assumptions and cost changes. Regardless of what the initial expectation of big changes in direction to combat global warming, etc, it is still the MTC ususal political hack job meant to protect highway projects and wasteful rail expansions at the expense of transit service to those who need the most.

Ealier today, MTC met and staff presented recommend changes to the T2035 program. One of the major recommendations is to divert $2 billion of future High Occupancy Toll lane revenue to cover the shortfall in VTA's 2000 Measure A program.

That recommendation is more or less a temporary political/programmatic cover for VTA and the BART project considering that future toll lane revenue is largely uncertain. Basically MTC is predicting that it would collect as much from the HOT lanes as it does on all the 7 Bay Area toll bridges. Unlike toll bridges, HOT lanes are largely optional, and drivers have many more legal options for not using the toll lanes. However, it is not the unusual that promoters would overestimate the revenue to justify their pet projects.

The scary part, however is the $3.2 billion operating shortfall that VTA is expected to have for the next 25 years. According to the initial estimate last year, VTA would have no operating shortfall. The new estimate puts VTA as the transit agency with the largest operating shortfall in the Bay Area. Other agencies like Muni would have a $1.9 billion shortall, and AC Transit would have a shortfall of just $283 million.

Rather than to use new toll revenue to cover operating shortfalls like it has recommended for unfunded expansion projects, MTC instead complained about transit "overlapping" and encourages transit agencies to cut service and raise fares.

MTC pointed out that AC Transit, BART, and ferries all serve the transbay corridor, and that Caltrain, BART, and SamTrans serve the San Mateo-San Francisco corridor. Transit routes may appear to duplicate at first, but they all serve a purpose by taking commuters to where they want to go with the least inconvenience. Wasteful projects like BART-SFO extension assumed that most Caltrain passengers would simply transfer to BART at Millbrae, which did not happen. It is not the Caltrain riders fault that the slower and more expensive BART extension has failed to attract them, and that Caltrain and bus passengers do not deserve to have their service sacrificed because of poor transit planning.

MTC also complained about the inconsistency of senior and youth fare discounts across agencies. Currently some agencies provide more discounts than VTA and some provide very little. While it is desirable to have a common standard, MTC appears to recommend that these discounts be tightened to generate more fare revenue from youth and seniors. It is unconscionable to raise fares on those who can least afford when MTC has done little to protect transit operations and done to most to preserve wasteful projects.

MTC believes that VTA can cut $1.5 billion in operating cost for the next 25 years (and still leaves a shortfall of $1.7 billion). What service do you think VTA can cut now? For the past 9 years, VTA mostly reduced bus service. Last year, VTA was able to increase bus service on some routes by shortchanging riders on other parts of the system.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

VTA says it can afford BART to Milpitas without federal funds

In response to the lawsuit filed by TRANSDEF over funding for the Warm Springs extension, VTA submitted documents stating that VTA can afford to build BART from Warm Springs to Milpitas without the use of federal funds. 

TRANSDEF sued Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority for illegally allocating local sales tax funds for the Warm Springs project because the local sales tax funding for Warm Springs requires a rail connection to Santa Clara County to be "fully funded." In January, VTA board approved a "full funding" plan for an extension to the Flea Market. However that "full funding" plan assumes $750 million from the federal government, which VTA has yet to apply for, and which the funding is not certain.

VTA staff submitted documents in an attempt to justify the project's "fully funded" status. However that document is not a VTA's board approved policy.

According to the document, the extension to Milpitas costs $1.7 billion. After that project along with a few others, VTA would be left with $720 million (in 2007 dollars) in the 2000 Measure A program.

Also according to the recently released EIS for the project, the total cost from Fremont to Berryessa costs $2.49 billion, which translate to a difference of $738 million for portion between Milpitas and Berryessa. In other words, VTA could afford to build to Berryessa if it wants to without federal funds, and that federal funds would actually be meant to go one more stop beyond Milpitas.

Although VTA could proceed without federal funds, VTA would want those funds anyway so they can start collecting the 1/8 cent Measure B sales tax. Last year's Measure B required matching funds from the federal government to start. Even with the federal funds, VTA cannot afford to build the line through downtown, which would cost an additional $4 billion.

The $1.7 billion project, although affordable, is still way overpriced. The line basically costs more than $300 million per mile, which is five times more expensive than Vasona light rail, the last VTA-built project completed in 2005. Despite the much higher cost, the proposed project would be built largely at grade adjacent to an existing freight track like the Vasona line. In addition, the project is also more expensive per mile than the last BART extension to SFO, which is mostly underground.

Furthermore, the difference in cost for going 3 miles from Milpitas to Berryessa could help pay for light rail extension to Eastridge, Caltrain electrification, and possibly light rail along Santa Clara Street.

Transit advocates do not favor BART because of its unreasonably high cost, and this document clearly shows the trade off. Alternatives exist that would provide the same if not better level of service at a much lower cost, but these brand-obsessed delusionals just couldn't get it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The plan means bus cuts after all

After a series of public meetings on the 2009 service plan, VTA staff made a number of revisions which amounted to bus cuts.

Essentially, staff recommened selected trip reductions on various routes, including significant frequency reductions on lines 31, 45, 64 (on Saturday), and 88.

Under the revised plan, lines 66 and 68 would have improved frequency throughout the day as originally proposed.

The original plan was supposed to be cost neutral, where resources in poor-performing routes would be diverted to corridors that have a greater ridership demand. Because of the budget crisis that VTA is facing, VTA has "deferred" some of the improvements that would be made if all the resources were reallocated. In other words, bus cuts.

Those "deferred" improvements include additional trips on various lines, as well as Saturday service on line 37.

In regards to line 180 and 181 from Fremont, VTA continues to propose expanding 181 operation all-day, but with a 30-minute frequency midday. 180 would only operate between Fremont and the Great Mall every 30 minutes. VTA also proposes to use the Stevenson-I880 routing (as supposed to the current Mission-I680-Mission-I880) as VTA would use the parking lot at the former Fremont City Hall for bus riders. Today, lines 180 and 181 operate every 15 minutes.

Why are all of our predictions correct? Because most members on the VTA Board are delusional and VTA General Manager Michael Burns has failed to provide real leadership. Rather than to educate the public about the real choices ahead for the agency, Burns continued to appease the Downtown Delusionals by give them false hopes as of last Friday:

"The (VTA) board still plans to complete the entire (BART) line," said Burns of the 16.1-mile extension into downtown San Jose's Diridon Station and beyond into Santa Clara. "There's just no sense in building only as far as Berryessa and then putting off finishing the line for another 25 years."

Since 2006, VTA has not provided any financial projections that it has the funds to build the BART line to Santa Clara. Rather, outside consultants have concluded multiple times that the VTA financial projection made in 2006 was unrealistic. In addition, the whole premise to go to Santa Clara is no longer there because VTA and the San Jose Airport cannot afford an airport people mover.

It was especially unethical that Burns made this unfulfillable promise in light of this, and possibly more, bus cuts and fare increases.

If the Downtown Delusionals are disappointed that BART could only go as far as the Flea Market, they only have themselves to blame for believing in Guardino's and Burns' lies, rather than believing in the transit advocates that pushed for more realistic and affordable alternatives.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Shuttles and buses


Last week, Bauer's Limo introduced a new luxury commuter bus service between San Francisco and some of the employements sites in the South Bay. Bauer's is no stranger to the South Bay market: it runs long distance charters shuttling Google employees from San Francisco; it also run numerous employees shuttles for other companies to and from Caltrain. The company believes it can attract high-income customers with its luxury buses, which stands in strong contrast to the regular transit buses VTA use for its express routes.

Some people questioned whether it is elitist for a private company to cater its services to high income commuters, while regular transit services are being starved of funds. What the critics don't realize is that private shuttles, unlike regular transit, do not require subsidies from taxpayers for operation. If transit operators were to provide these services instead, there would be even less funding available to serve those that private sector won't serve.

Unlike corporate contracts, brand new public service does not bring in guaranteed revenue and requires more time to build ridership. However, because the next best transit alternative would require one or more transfers, the potential is certainly there  For the service to be financially sustainable, Bauer's would have to aggressively market its service to the corporations and their employees, and to encourage companies to pay fares for their own employees. 

CNG ACE shuttles

El Paseo Limo, which is the contract operator for the ACE shuttles in the South Bay, recently introduced new CNG shuttle buses. El Paseo won the shuttle contract last year with its low bid and commitment to purchase CNG shuttles. In fact, El Paseo took over the shuttle operation last September, four months before the contract was supposed to began, when VTA dumped New Century Transportation because of various performance and payroll issues. New Century was also charged with tax evasion and fraud two years ago. Before the CNG shuttles came on-line, El Paseo used recently retired VTA buses for the service.

Santa Cruz Metro defends low-floor buses on Highway 17 Express

In response to criticisms of the lower capacity low-floor buses, Santa Cruz Metro released a statement asserting that it had to purchase low-floor buses because high-floor suburban buses are no longer being manufactured.

Without a doubt high floor buses are a dying breed. New Flyer, which made the low floor buses for the Highway 17 route, no longer make high floor buses. Even so, at least one manufacturer still makes high floor transit buses.

Despite availability, the agency might have ordered low floor buses due to the strong desire to operate and maintain buses common to the rest of the system. Obviously for this type of operation, over-the-road buses (used by AC Transit on transbay routes) are even more appropriate because of the comfort and higher capacity.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Lawsuit against bait and switch politics

Last week TRANSDEF filed a lawsuit against MTC and Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority for approving funding for the Warm Springs BART project.

The suit against MTC involves the redirection of bridge toll funds from the Dumbarton Rail project to the Warm Springs project. The Warm Springs project experienced funding shortfall for years as the project relied on the surplus fare revenue from the SFO extension, which never realized. TRANSDEF argues that it is illegal to switch funds because Regional Measure 2 (the bridge toll voters approved in 2004 to support these projects) allows funding switch between projects only within the same corridor, which Dumbarton Rail and Warm Springs BART are not.

The suit against ACTIA involves the allocation of local sales tax money for the Warm Springs project. Under the sales tax language approved by voters in 2000, ACTIA could not authorize funds for Warm Springs until funding is assured for a rail connection to Santa Clara County. ACTIA earlier approved local funding for the project after the VTA board passed a "full-funding plan" for the BART line to the Flea Market in January. However, that plan assumes federal new starts funds of $750 million, which VTA has yet to apply for, and which the funding is not guaranteed.

MTC and ACTIA might have approved funds out of convenience, considering that BART plans to put the tunnel construction under Lake Elizabeth out to bid soon. However, MTC and ACTIA also broke faith with voters by ignoring the voter-approved language that established the tax and the toll. V Smoothe at A Better Oakland says it best: 

If the government wants to spend money as they please, then they shouldn’t write specific restrictions on expenditures into their ballot measures in the first place. It doesn’t matter if most people have no idea what they’re voting for - if a measure up for voter approval includes specific language about how the revenue generated from it will be spent, then it doesn’t matter if everyone who casts a yes vote or one person casting a yes vote read the fine print - a promise is a promise. Fully funded means fully funded. Not, hopefully fully funded at some point in the future.

More often than not, transportation and other taxes are successful at the ballot box because of the political deals reached to ensure broad consensus. The 2000 Alameda County tax and RM2 bridge toll are results of such compromises. It is important that these deal be upheld to ensure rule of law and a fair and open political process in the future.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More high speed rail brouhaha

Rod Diridon got a taste of his own medicine when the Palo Alto City Council got scared about the prospect of full high speed rail in the city.

However, despite the poor alignment decision made by the High Speed Rail Authority, the NIMBYs in Palo Alto and elsewhere are not our friend. NIMBYs generally act out because of their lack of knowledge. NIMBYs' value only go as far as their acronym states: Not in my backyard. They cannot be counted on to fight for a better HSR system, and they cannot be trusted to counter the other NIMBYs that live along the other alignments.

Even so, Robert Cruickshank's comments about Palo Alto isn't level-headed either. Think about it, the council members in Palo Alto and elsewhere are accountable to their constituents. How could they react other than to amplify the NIMBYs concerns, whether these concerns legitimate or not? Remember, that agrument about "Little Saigon" has resulted in a recall election of a councilmember in San Jose.

Here's some reality check:

- High speed rail won't end in San Jose. High speed trains are technically compatible with Caltrain. They may not go as fast along the Peninsula without all the fancy upgrades and track additions, but the system doesn't have to force people to transfer, unlike BART and light rail.

- The upgrades should be more incremental. That has to be given the shortage of funds. It is more productive to built first in the Central Valley where it is the easiest to construct. The Peninsula section is the most difficult because of existing Caltrain service and the communities built around the corridor. It is better to give residents on the Peninsula a taste of the benefits of high speed rail (even if it is slower and less frequent), rather than to scare them with all these impacts upfront.

- Undergrounding the tracks is nonsense. What is more elitist than wealthy folks asking a higher share of public subsidy for their own benefit? These NIMBYs don't care if the train were to run above ground in Redwood City or in the Bayview. Also, putting trains in tunnels aren't necessarily out of sight and out of mind. The folks in Millbrae aren't complaining about high speed rail (and are actually appreciating the effort to reach out early in the process) after experiencing years of underground BART construction.

What's more problematic is the ongoing drama between the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, Caltrain, and the HSRA. HSRA and Caltrain are opposed to TJPA's effort to obtain stimulus funds for the train box project because they contend the proposed train box wouldn't be sufficient for both high speed rail and Caltrain. Inter-agency conflicts are typically addressed in the staff level, but for some reason it grown out of proportion. This would have far more serious impacts for Caltrain and high speed rail than whatever it is going on with the NIMBYs down in Palo Alto.