Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The two-dollar club

Tomorrow, Muni and AC Transit will officially join the $2 club with the scheduled fare increase. On the same date, BART and Golden Gate Transit will also raise their fares.

Percentage wise, Muni's fare increase is the highest at 33% from $1.50 to $2.00. AC Transit is about 14% (same as VTA which will be in effect next January if not earlier) . Others go up by a less than 10%.

10 years ago, Muni fare was at $1.00. With this fare increase, Muni would have doubled its fare within a decade. According to the National Transit Database, Muni's operating cost increased by about 45% between 1999 and 2007, while providing slightly less transit service in 2007 than it was in 1999.

In comparison, VTA's total operating cost went up by over 50% in the same time frame, while revenue from fares only went up by just over 34.6%. Although VTA's total revenue miles and hours increased by 20% during that 8 year time frame, the ridership in 2007 was just less than 80% of what VTA carried in 1999.

Meanwhile at Caltrain, although operating cost went up by 68% from 1999 to 2007, revenue hours and revenue went up by 78% (with the Baby Bullet service). Weekday ridership has gone up by 50% during that time frame, but ridership on weekends was less in 2007. Overall, unlike VTA and Muni, Caltrain actually improved productivity.

The cost to deliver transit has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, however consumer prices went up by about 28.4%.

With increasing fares, it is harder to promote healthy and environmental sustainable behaviors these days. In 2009, you could still buy a burger at a fast food restaurant for 99 cents like it was 10 years ago. Fewer people rely on transit these days considering the higher cost.

Also, while funding shortfalls creating by the economy and budget cuts deserve attention, transit agencies also needs to do more to control costs. Controlling cost not only involves maintaining a reasonable wage and benefits including health care, but also by choosing the right mode of transportation cost-effective for riders. Over the years, VTA and Muni have expanded its light rail lines that are much more expensive to operate and maintain, while in most cases ridership did not go up as originally projected.

In the early part of the 20th century, transit used to be a profitable business, over the decades, to save cost, streetcars were replaced by buses, and private operations were converted into public subidized operation. However, our society today needs more mass transit as a way to make our communities environmentally sustainable and accessible with a growing senior population. The question is whether the transit systems the way it is now will be able to handle future demand?

Friday, June 26, 2009

How long will that last

Although next month's service changes are nothing compared to what occurred in January 2008, VTA nonetheless is announcing it onboard buses. While the July service changes mostly involve reallocation of resource, some service was removed (by not reallocating it) because of the budget constraints.

However, with rising unemployment and drop in sales taxes, VTA internally is planning for a 10% service cut possibly for October and move the approved fare increase date from January to October. These changes would require public meetings and board approvals, which need to happen soon.

Other agencies have done more planning earlier in preparation for service reductions. AC Transit has proposed a plan to reduce service by almost 15% after a series of public meetings. SamTrans is also preparing for a cut of up to 15% and scheduled public meetings in July to receive comments. While details are pending, SamTrans cuts most likely involve trimming express service and elimination of overnight routes. AC Transit's cuts involve drawing a new bus network in Hayward and Fremont, as well as elimination of some routes in other cities.

On the other hand, VTA hosted public meetings last year and is spending money now to promote cost-neutral service adjustments. Is VTA leaving us unprepared for significant service reductions soon after?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Light rail disruption on the Campbell line

Hundreds of light rail riders got delayed this afternoon after a fatality occured on the light rail track at the Leigh Avenue crossing between Fruitdale and Bascom stations. A male on a scooter ignored crossing gate warnings and got struck by an oncoming light rail heading south at about 3:45pm.

At the collision scene:

At Fruitdale Station as people get off light rail and transfer to a bus bridge.

The bus bridge continues to Bascom Station where riders transfer again to light rail.

While the light rail is smaller and lighter than trains like Caltrain, the light rail can be deceptively fast. Riders and pedestrians should never ignore gate crossing warnings. In the Campbell section, the light rail trains do not blow horns (which isn't loud anyway compared to Caltrain) and can travel up to 50 mph. The disruption continued into the evening at around 8pm when VTA announced that service has been restored.

Monday, June 15, 2009

That Almaden Shuttle

A column by Scott Herhold tonight again raised the prospect that the little Almaden light rail shuttle could be discontinued.

Since the opening of the light rail in South San Jose in 1992, the Almaden branch has been operated as shuttle between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Almaden. Other than the crowd heading to the Oakridge Mall, the shuttle is largely useless. Riders coming from further south in the Almaden Valley could take a bus or drive to Ohlone/Chynoweth and take the light rail there directly to downtown San Jose.

In 2003, the shuttle faced possible discontinuation when VTA was planning for service reduction during the last budget crunch. Last year, the shuttle was temporarily discontinued for about two months for platform retrofit. While this shuttle survived the 2003 cut (which many bus lines didn't) and the platform retrofit, it may not survive this budget crisis.

However shutting down a light rail service, even on a temporary basis, isn't as easy as cutting a bus route. Unlike bus routes, light rail has a lot of fixed infrastructure that needs to be maintained regardless of its operating status. For instance, if light rail were to be discontinued, security must still be provided at stations and tracks must still be kept in a state of good repair. As we all know, vacant homes due to wave of foreclosures attract blight, vandalism, and crimes into the neighborhood because of the lack of care for these homes. VTA could save some money on power and labor, but VTA would still have to pay to keep the line maintained, especially when VTA won't have operators to keep an eye on a regular basis. VTA might as well keep the line running and keep the riders happy.

Meanwhile, VTA is studying options for the Almaden line for the light rail COA. In several scenarios, trains from Almaden would continue north on the mainline to Downtown San Jose and beyond, and that trains from Santa Teresa would operate non-stop between Ohlone and Downtown San Jose. Also in some scenarios, the Almaden line would be discontinued permanently. That said, any outcomes from the COA might require additional capital and operating expenses that VTA doesn't have, and which could require years to implement.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Around the Valley and beyond

VTA Board passes budget

Last Thursday, the VTA Board passed the budget ,which included fare increases effective next January as well as cuts to paratransit services. As a part of the revised budget, VTA would also apply about $3 million from the federal stimulus package for preventive maintenance. By utilizing funds from the federal government, VTA would be less reliant on its reserve.

At the same meeting, the VTA staff told the board that future sales tax revenue could go even lower than what they projected in January. Because of that, they are preparing for further cuts to transit, especially if the management were not able to reach agreement with the unions on wage freeze and work furloughs.

Bus cuts at SamTrans?

While the SamTrans board is expected to pass a budget this Wednesday, the staff warns that transit cuts may be necessary to address the agency's structural deficit. The SamTrans' Chief Operating Officer told the agency's citizens advisory committee last week that the agency is planning for a service cut of up to 15%.

Transform pushes more Stimulus funds for operating cost

Transform (formerly TALC) is urging transit riders to contact Senator Diane Feinstein asking her to support bill SEC. 1202, which would allow transit agencies to use 10% of the federal stimulus funds for operation. At this difficult moment, preserving transit service and keeping the jobs we have is a form of stimulus by not making the local economic conditions worse.

A bus in China engulfed in flames, passengers trapped

Last Friday, a transit bus in Chengdu, China, bursed in flames while in service (disturbing videos and pictures) and was fully captured on video. The bus, which was packed when the fire started, resulted in the deaths of 27 passengers as they were unable to get out in time. The bus involved had mostly sealed windows and lacked emergency exits. Those who got out were able to do so after passersby broke the bus windows. In the video, burn victims walked out of the bus in need of medical attention. Authorities suspect arson to be the cause for the fire.

Wrong headsign?

No. The headsign is correct. That bus is the 81 going to Cupertino Square on San Fernando Street heading eastbound. The bus actually made a U-turn after the driver forgot to turn left from San Fernando Street to Almaden. Instead of turning at the next block, the driver made a huge U-turn (not a 3 point turn) in the middle of San Fernando Street.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Caltrain and VTA budget update

On the last night's Angie Coiro Show (6pm on KKGN 960am), Caltrain information officer Christine Dunn told the audience that Caltrain was able to narrow the budget gap to about $2 million. Because of that, Caltrain has withdrawn the plan to shutdown weekend and Gilroy service, which both proved to be very unpopular. However, Caltrain still plans to reduce midday service to hourly, increase parking fees, and increase fees for companies that buy Go passes.

Caltrain was able to narrow the budget gap by reducing administrative cost, redirect some federal funds for preventive maintenance, and stabilize fuel cost through fuel hedging.

Even though core Caltrain service may survive this year's budget cycle, the future is uncertain because of the lack of dedicated funding.

For VTA, the board is expected to approve the biannual budget at its meeting tomorrow night. The budget includes fare increases and reduction on paratransit services.

Due to the outcry from the disabled community, VTA has made some adjustments to the proposal that would cut paratransit service:

  • * Open returns - fare will be 4 times the regular paratransit fare (now twice). Only one open return can be requested per day, can only be done if space is available, among other restrictions.
  • * Second vehicle - service will be retained and will be standardized to 4 times the regular fare (now 5 times).
  • * Out of area service - service will be retained for an area within a mile beyond the 3/4 mile of a regular transit route. The premium fare for that area will be 4 times the regular fare. The current surcharge exemption in the South County will be eliminated.
  • * Extended service hours - no changes proposed, which means there will be no paratransit service at the times when regular routes are not running.

Although the revised plan has addressed some impacts on disabled riders (like those who need to travel for dialysis treatments), it will nonetheless a step backwards for an agency that has promised voters (through the 2000 Measure A) to improve paratransit service. Apparently, the VTA board was and still attached to Carl Guardino, who only considers paratransit to be a service just to attract voter support.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Grand Jury finds VTA deceived voters...again

Earlier today, the Santa Clara County Grand Jury released its findings on VTA. What the Grand Jury discovered are pretty much what we've experienced over the years: that the VTA board was out of touch, VTA staff deceived voters, and VTA committees were ignored.

VTA board was out of touch

Overwhelming Information. The voluminous board packets provided by VTA staff are frequently several hundred pages and contain information that require many hours of review by the board members before the meeting. Most board members work full time, which leaves them very little time to review the material in the packet. Some members stay up late at night to review the packet the night before the meeting. An exception is the City of San Jose, and Board of Supervisors, who have full-time, paid staff to review and distill the information. The other cities have part-time city council members with no support staff to help with VTA activities.

Staff Driven. All of the above issues contribute to the fact that VTA remains an organization that is frequently referred to as “staff driven.” Meeting agendas are prepared by VTA staff with input from the Board chairperson. In some cases, the chairperson follows a “script” prepared by VTA staff. Interviews with VTA board and committee members revealed that independent thinking was discouraged. Board members appear unwilling or unable to bring up items for discussion that are not prescreened by the staff. Hence, the VTA Board has frequently been referred to as a “rubber stamp” for policy proposals formulated by the VTA staff.

Both the Hay Report and the State Auditor Report recommended that the VTA Board make every effort to insure that new board members have transportation experience by appointing new members with previous transportation experience and reappointing members for multiple terms. Nevertheless the Mayor of San Jose recently appointed two new board members to represent San Jose who have no previous transportation experience.

VTA staff deceived voters

In June, 2006 the Board approved a comprehensive 30-year Revenue and Expenditure Plan for all projects identified in 2000 Measure A. During 2008, an update to this plan was scheduled. Sometime between June 19, 2008 and August 7, 2008, this update was cancelled and a decision was made to place an additional tax on the November, 2008 ballot.

(At the August 2008 meeting) Mr. Burns advised that the Light-Rail Extension to Eastridge “has not been stopped but that there is not enough money to complete all of the Measure A projects. . .” The Board “reaffirmed” its support for the project and recommended continuation of planning and design activities. However, property acquisition, utility relocation construction and completion of bid documents for construction contracts were not authorized.

(At the same meeting) The staff presented a report to the Board supporting the sufficiency of the 1/8 cent tax proposal to cover the projected deficit in BART operating costs. The conclusion was based on a new 30-year sales tax revenue estimate. This report also provided sufficient information to update the revenue estimate in the new Revenue and Expenditure Plan.

The September, 2008, scheduled presentation of the update to the Revenue and Expenditure Plan was not delivered and never rescheduled... As a consequence, the public was not informed of the 2000 Measure A 30-year financial situation before the November 2008 election.

(In the draft June 2009 capital budget) A notable exception in the preliminary documentation is the absence of any funding for the light rail to Eastridge program which appears to have become totally dependent on unidentified federal funding.

Essentially VTA forwent short term job creation by shelving the light rail project, which was shovel-ready and has received community support.

If the 30-year Revenue and Expenditure Plan had been updated as planned, it likely would have shown that if the BART extension were built as planned, the remaining 2000 Measure A projects would require massive additional investment... 

...If the updated Revenue and Expenditure Plan had been readily available to the public, Measure B might not have passed. The VTA had sufficient time and information to complete this update and made a deliberate decision not to publish it prior to the election.

Of particular concern is that VTA intends to start collection of the Measure B tax while only completing a shortened version of the BART extension to Berryessa...

The ballot wording specifically refers to funding for the entire 16.1 mile BART extension.

VTA committees were ignored

Token committees. Both the Hay Report and the State Auditor Report took the VTA to task for poor use of its Advisory Committees... One of the key criticisms is that the Advisory Committees are presented with items to review only after the Board and/or staff has already made a decision... VTA’s attitude toward these committees has ranged from ignoring their existence entirely to retaliation for independent thinking.

Watchdog committee or lapdog committee?

The members of the CAC/CWC (2000 Measure A Watchdog committee) interviewed all stated they work for the VTA Board. This is a reasonable position for a CAC member, but not when acting in the capacity of a CWC member. The very nature of an “independent watchdog committee” is to “oversee” actions of the board for the citizens of Santa Clara County.

CAC/CWC members are approved by the VTA Board, compromising independence of thought and action.

Some CAC/CWC members are former VTA Board members, former Policy Advisory Committee members and/or former elected officials in the county. One interviewee referred to the committee as the “Board Retirement Plan Committee.”

(In 2007) The VTA Board has approved the exchange (swap) of approximately $107M of Measure A funds for use on non-Measure A programs in exchange for a payback from anticipated State Transportation Improvement (STIP) funds at a future time (basically swap funding programmed for the airport peoplemover project with highways)...

..As of June, 2008, approximately $9M of Measure A sales tax revenue had been spent on non-Measure A programs. At the same time, the 2000 Measure A program was over $361M in debt... There was no prior discussion or notification to the Citizen Watchdog Committee. The CWC was informed after the fact in a report from VTA staff.

At its February 11, 2009 meeting, a discussion regarding the CWC’s responsibilities in this area was initiated by a CWC member and stifled by VTA staff in attendance by reminding the CWC members of the limitations in their responsibilities... following this meeting two members of the CWC resigned, leaving a total of five vacancies.

In many ways, VTA is like a communist state, where there cannot be an honest dialogue about major policies. Like a communist state, the legislative bodies are basically a rubber stamp for the supposedly all powerful, all knowing (and all self-serving) bureaucracy. Like a communist state, open discussions and dissents are not tolerated (like you can't still talk about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in China today). Since Michael Burns believes in deceiving the riders, taxpayers, as well as those he who should formally seek advice from, one has to wonder who is his real boss.