Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Texting while driving

This is a news report of an incident in Texas involving a transit bus colliding with other cars on the freeway while the bus driver was texting. This was particularly shameful considering that the bus driver was on duty and supposedly had enough training to know the dangers of getting distracted on the road.

Before the cell phone ban took effect in California, it was not all that unusual to see VTA drivers yapping on cell phones while driving the bus.

Advances in technologies go both ways. While devices like cell phones can distract drivers and put riders at risk, devices like onboard security cameras can be used to hold bad drivers accountable. Below is a security camera recording of a Muni train collision in San Francisco. An investigation has determined that the operator was speeding and was likely distracted by cell phone calls prior to the crash. Muni later fired the operator.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Attack on paratransit

VTA, on a despite search for more money, has proposed a number of measures that would impact paratransit riders. Paratransit is an ADA mandated program that provides curb to curb service to disabled individuals that are unable to access or use regular transit. Because paratransit cost much more per passenger for VTA to operate, paratransit has become a cost cutting target.

It is not the first time VTA has targeted paratransit. In 2002, a Business Review Team chaired by Carl Guardino has suggested that VTA should make paratransit much more expensive for disabled riders. In 2003, the VTA Board adopted most of the Guardino's recommendations, which included fare hikes on services that were beyond ADA-minimum requirements. VTA also adjusted paratransit qualification process and made it unfriendly for the users. VTA later revised the qualification process after numerous complaints.

This time, VTA plans to eliminate most of the "premium" services:

Open returns - VTA proposes to discontinue a service that allowed riders to make initial reservation without a return trip, in which the rider would make a same day request for the return trip when he or she is ready.

Second vehicle - VTA plans to eliminate the option for riders to request a second vehicle if they change their travel plan. However VTA insists that it would left riders stranded.

Out of service area - The minimum requirement for VTA to provide paratransit service is 3/4 mile from a bus or light rail line. Because of various service reductions implemented years ago, VTA continues to operate paratransit service beyond the 3/4 mile from existing transit by charging $7 per such trip. Riders in the south county do not have to pay the surcharge. If VTA were to eliminate this service, many paratransit riders would effectively lose their transportation with no fault of their own. In its letter to paratransit riders, VTA says that these riders will still be eligible for paratransit, but could only ride it if the riders can come within 3/4 mile of whatever VTA provides. This is insulting because if these riders could independently travel to within 3/4 mile of VTA lines, they perhaps won't need paratransit at all.

Extended service hours - Current paratransit hours are from 5am to 2am, everyday, with 24 hour availability along line 22 (which runs 24 hours) and light rail. VTA is proposing to reduce paratransit availability to 3/4 miles of a transit line ONLY on the days and hours when that line is in operation.

Reservation changes - For now riders can book trips as short as one day in advance and as long as 14 days. VTA plans to shorten the period from 14 days to 7 days, and then from 7 days to 3 days. With shortening of the reservation period, VTA would also introduce an automated phone reservation system. Such changes would create barriers to those who have difficulty in using phones, as well as those relying on others to help them place reservations.

Altogether, the proposed cuts for paratransit are much steeper than what is proposed for bus and light rail. It is unconscionable for VTA to pursue new funding (like HOT funding through AB744) for other things while cutting services needed by the disabled community. Seniors and disabled riders should not have to pay for VTA's incompetence and lack of leadership.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Change in motion or more of the same

It is typical for MTC to raise big expectations but then only end up to be more of the same. The so call "Change in Motion" of T2035 is simply another plan to protect funding for highway expansions, commit uncertain funding for the otherwise financial unsustainable BART project, and not address the funding shortfall for everyday transit operations.

MTC is actually quite honest about their move to allocate uncertain and yet-to-be-legislated high occupancy toll lane revenue for the BART project as a way to defraud transit riders and taxpayers in the future:

MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger acknowledged the commission was moving ahead before they had legislation, but saw no problem with it. "I would consider the issue that is before you today in the plan and the placement of the $2B as a placeholder, which is subject to change and probably will change. I will acknowledge that we are jumping the gun to some extent. But I think that's a reasonable planning assumption to make and I don't think it has to prejudice this process. We need to make some kind of commitments now, at least on a provisional basis."

By making this move, MTC is signaling VTA that it is okay for VTA to continue spending money on consultants. When the project becomes "shrovel ready," MTC would then cut other transit projects to make up the actual funding shortfall. For instance, the Warm Springs extension has been on the past RTPs for years because MTC assumed the project would be funded by surplus passenger revenue from the SFO extension. When ridership fell below MTC's expectation and that funding got evaporated, MTC made San Mateo County pay for construction anyway by defunding the Dumbarton Rail project.

MTC and VTA want everyone to believe that they're "surprised" by this economic crisis and that somehow through this plan they don't need to ask for more tax dollars or transit cuts. However their history shows otherwise. Since 2001, they have been trying to make the BART project appear affordable. When they got some money, they would spend more than what they have so they can extort us for more money later by raising taxes and cutting transit projects.

Meanwhile MTC has gotten the justification to expand highways (HOT lanes) and that somehow widening more highways would mean less pollution and less dependence on automobiles.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

VTA budget highlights

Despite clear indications of a weak economy since last year, VTA continued to deny huge revenue drop until recently. This Friday, the VTA board will discuss its biannual budget.

Tax drop

VTA basically is expecting revenue from sales taxes will continue to decline for the next 2 years (5% in FY10 and an addition 3% in FY11). Given the escalation in cost, VTA's purchasing power (inflation adjusted revenue) would be even less than what VTA had in 2003.

Bus cuts

From the draft budget:

"The original plan was cost neutral with service hours reallocated from substandard performing routes to other routes which have proven ridership demand. Unfortunately, with the current economic climate, the reduction of state funding for transit and the decline in sales tax revenues, VTA must be cautious with service plan improvements given the need to address our operating deficit in the next few years. Our priority is to protect our existing, well performing services, especially the core network that carries over three-quarters of the daily bus passengers. As such, the Board approved plan calls for the proposed service reductions on underperforming routes to begin implementation on July 13, 2009."

Light rail

VTA has reduced the length of trains to reduce operating cost.

Fare hikes

VTA is proposing general fare hikes effective July 2010, and fare hikes for Eco Pass contracts in January of 2010:

ADULT Current fare Proposed fare Change % Change
Cash $1.75 $2.00 $0.25 14%
Community Bus $1.00 $1.25 $0.25 25%
Light Rail Excursion Pass $3.50 $4.00 $0.50 14%
Day Pass $5.00 $6.00 $1.00 20%
Day Pass Token $22.50 $27.00 $4.50 20%
Express Day Pass $10.00 $12.00 $2.00 20%
Monthly Pass $61.25 $70.00 $8.75 14%
Express Monthly Pass $122.50 $140.00 $17.50 14%
YOUTH Current fare Proposed fare Change % Change
Cash $1.50 $1.75 $0.25 17%
Community Bus $0.50 $0.75 $0.25 50%
Light Rail Excursion Pass $3.00 $3.50 $0.50 17%
Day Pass $4.00 $5.00 $1.00 25%
Day Pass Token $18.00 $22.50 $4.50 25%
Monthly Pass $40.00 $45.00 $5.00 13%
SENIOR/DISABLED Current fare Proposed fare Change % Change
Cash $0.75 $1.00 $0.25 33%
Community Bus $0.50 $0.50 $0.00 0%
Light Rail Excursion Pass $1.50 $2.00 $0.50 33%
Day Pass $2.00 $3.00 $1.00 50%
Monthly Pass $20.00 $25.00 $5.00 25%

As you can see, most fares would be adjusted to the nearest dollar. For the Eco Pass contracts, the fares would go up by 20%.


According to the budget, VTA has stopped filling vacant positions other than those critical to the agency. In addition, VTA proposed a number of measures to reduce labor cost:
  • - Wage freeze/cuts
  • - Furloughs
  • - Employee contribution to Pension
  • - Employee contribution to Retiree Medical
  • - Increase employee contribution to healthcare
Michael Burns also approached the unions to reopen the contracts. However, the contract with ATU (VTA's biggest union) was just ratified last fall, when the economy was already weak. One has to wonder whether Burns was at all intended to stick with the contract, or that he was willing to do anything to prevent a strike last fall so that he could deceive voters.

VTA will host budget meetings in May:

Monday, May 4, 2009
3:00-5:00 pm and 6:00-8:00 pm
Santa Clara County Government Center-Isaac Newton Room

Tuesday, May 5, 2009
6:00-8:00 pm
Morgan Hill-Community & Cultural Center

Wednesday May 6, 2009
6:00-8:00 pm
Milpitas-Milpitas Public Library

Monday, May 11, 2009
6:00-8:00 pm
Mountain View-Council Chambers

Tuesday, May 12, 2009
6:00-8:00 pm
Cupertino-Quinlan Community Center

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tasman West - a decade later (part 2)

Here's more from almost 10 years ago...

VTA's Take One on Tasman West opening.

Tasman West commemorative ticket

VTA system map just before the opening of the Tasman West line (large file). Shown on the map is line 20 from Milpitas to San Antonio Shopping Center. Also on the map are other lines that were discontinued during the next few years after the Tasman West opening.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

VTA's on its way to increase fares

On VTA's Workshop scheduled on April 24, General Manager Michael Burns is recommending the board to increase fares to help address VTA's budget problem. The increase would cover all fare categories.

Recent economic crisis and state budget cuts have impact other transit operators. AC Transit and Muni have approved fare increases. County Connection in the East Bay made significant bus cuts last month.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tasman West - a decade later

It was almost 10 years when the Tasman West line opened for service. In April 1999, VTA announced that the light rail line would open in December, and applauded itself as an agency that could deliver project on-time and under budget.

At that time the Valley was in the height of the dot-com bubble. VTA ran more service back then, with light rail service every 10 minutes. With the high employment rate there was an urgency to deliver more transit service to this sprawling area. There were nothing but high expectations for the Tasman West line especially when it would connect with major employment sites north of the freeways.

When all planned extensions are built, by 2004, ridership could top 40,000 a day. "I think we'll surpass that real quick,'' said Pete Cipolla, general manager of the Valley Transportation Authority, which oversees bus and light-rail operations. "I think we're real conservative on the 7,500 new riders we expect on Tasman West (the Mountain View line). "And when we go to the east, ridership will skyrocket.''

VTA began constructing the line from Mountain View, and proceed onto connecting with the original line at Old Ironsides. In March of 99, VTA trucked in its first light rail car from San Jose to Mountain View to begin line testing. Two months later, VTA closed the segment between Tasman and Old Ironsides stations to retrofit the platforms (which eventually took 9 years to complete systemwide). The Tasman West line was designed for low-floor light rail cars.

When the line opened in December, a few weeks before entering year 2000, VTA ran trains every 10 minutes throughout the day. For the first month, VTA waived fares on that line because of a delay in the delivery of ticket vending machines. Over the years, due to low ridership and decline in sales tax revenue, VTA reduced service. Today the light rail line runs every 30 minutes between 9am and 2pm, 1/3 of what VTA provided in 2000.

Nearly a decade later, with light rail ridership peaked at around 38,000 six months ago, the Tasman line is the least productive segment in the whole light rail network. According to the recent Annual Transit Service Plan, stations along the Tasman West line are among the lowest in terms of ridership:

Bayshore/NASA - 64
Evelyn - 79
Moffett Park - 79
Whisman - 115
Borregas - 122

Compare that to...

Great Mall - 1265
Santa Clara - 1338
Paseo de San Antonio - 1599

Note: Mountain View station's ridership is quite high at 1318 (3rd highest in the system).

Unlike other parts of the light rail, the Tasman West line largely runs on street median and has many sharp turns, which contribute to its slow speed. From 1999 to 2005, direct service to downtown San Jose was not available and riders had to transfer at Baypointe. It takes nearly an hour to get from Downtown San Jose to Mountain View on light rail. For riders commuting from south of downtown San Jose, the travel time is even longer. Overall, the light rail line was no faster than the bus (line 20 from San Antonio Shopping Center to Milpitas) that it replaced.

If light rail were not built along that corridor, that corridor probably wouldn't have enough ridership to support Bus Rapid Transit. However, some BRT critics said that BRT is based on the mentality that "public transit riders don’t deserve the highest quality transit available," and that BRT "has no place in any transportation system." Given the obvious failure of this line, BRT critics ought to ask themselves whether rail is always a superior alternative, especially if the alignment and surrounding land use do not favor transit? Improved bus service would at least provide a more flexible service, as well as running non-stop from residential areas directly to employment sites. After repeat attempts to cancel the service, VTA still operates line 122 (although only one round trip) from Santa Teresa to Lockheed Martin. The line somewhat duplicates light rail, but the bus travels faster. For the time the bus takes from South San Jose to Lockheed, light rail would only take you to Tasman for a transfer.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Caltrain/HSRA agreement and Palo Alto

On the agenda for tomorrow's Caltrain board meeting (which would be held in the County Building in San Jose, where the VTA board meets) is an agreement between Caltrain and High Speed Rail Authority on sharing the right of way between San Francisco and San Jose.

That agreement outlines how these agencies will cooperate on building the high speed rail in phases. The agreement is clear that:
  • - Caltrain will maintain ownership
  • - Infrastructure for HSR will be built alongside while Caltrain continues operation
  • - Caltrain and HSR will share tracks on a 4 track mainline
  • - HSRA will support Caltrain's effort to electrify and improve the signal system so as to prepare the rail corridor for eventual HSR construction and operation.

Some of the issues like funding and liability are not addressed in this agreement, however it does recognized these issues. Under the agreement, a program director would be appointed jointly to oversee engineering and design consultants for the corridor. The program director would report to Caltrain's and CAHSRA's executive director.

What caused concerns for Palo Alto is the vision for a 4 track right of way. Fearing that HSR would "divide" their community, Palo Alto is pursuing options such as putting HSR on a different alignment, putting HSR underground, and ending HSR in San Jose.

Regardless of what their fears are, the agreement is essential for Caltrain and High Speed Rail, and would allow both agencies to take advantage of new funding opportunities through Prop 1A and the Stimulus package. Despite the vision of a 4 tracks right of way, the agreement would be beneficial to Palo Alto and other cities because these cities would have to work with a single program director, rather than a local and a state agency.

The 4 track statement in the MOU is a vision. It is not something that can or will be done in the next few years even if there are no funding constraints. Because Caltrain operation would also have to continue, that would have a greater constraints on alignment, profile choices, and construction timings. Even with the agreement, there will be many more questions on how will HSR be built on an active passenger railroad.