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.