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.