Monday, September 28, 2009

Speeding up the light rail?

Today's Mercury article outlined some strategies under consideration by VTA that would speed up the light rail, which involve running express trains south of downtown San Jose, grade separation at Montague Expressway on 1st Street, double tracking of 1st Street through downtown San Jose (which would somehow increase speed from 10 to 20 mph), and extension from to San Jose State.

While Gary Richards correctly notes that the VTA light rail system is less productive compared to cities such as Portland and Sacramento, it is not certain that whether these improvements would yield significant reduction in travel time.

Some online Mercury readers blamed VTA for not putting the light rail underground, similar to Muni in San Francisco. However, that's not the problem here. Although light rail could operate faster underground, the current light rail alignment serve Downtown San Jose relatively well. If you look at cities like Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego, you will find that light rail in those cities also operate at grade. Part of the reason light rail was chosen is that it blends well with the pedestrian environment and without forcing passengers to walk up and down or use escalators. If downtown is supposed to be a major destination, convenient access by light rail at grade would be an asset.

However, Downtown San Jose does not have the employment concentration as in Downtown Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego. Unlike other cities, VTA's light rail trains run up and down 1st Street and along Tasman Drive to serve low density office parks, where workers have an abundance of free parking.

Some blamed VTA for not building the light rail system to the San Jose Airport, which is obviously unfortunate. Portland already runs its light rail to the Portland airport and Sacramento is planning a light rail extension to its airport. VTA's light rail is not that far away from the San Jose Airport (a little over 1/2 mile as the crow flies). However, instead of a light rail spur from First Street, or a new parallel alignment along Highway 87, the best the City and VTA could come up with is a "Peoplemover" that would not connect with High Speed Rail and neither intends to actually fund.

Regardless of which option VTA prefers, a question remains how these upgrades be funded. Most of those proposals are not included in the 2000 Measure A, which VTA has decided to unquestionably follow despite the fact that it was poorly conceived. The present financial situation is also putting more pressure on VTA. VTA is now conducting EIS study (the federal environmental document) for the Eastridge light rail extension, which for many years, VTA has planned to fund the project entirely with state and local funds. The lack of federal clearance for that project made it ineligible for the Stimulus funds, which otherwise would be very competitive considering the project was nearly shovel-ready.

At the end, VTA's poor light rail performance is a result of poor urban planning, development greed, and the continual neglect of transit riders' needs. Unfortunately, these attitude still exists at the agency and most voters and environmentalists are not aware of that. If the light rail couldn't turn around Downtown San Jose and make the system more viable, building another rail system (like BART) in Downtown San Jose most likely won't help turn it around either (look at Downtown Oakland).

Of course, VTA does not have money for a subway in downtown. However, a BART line that it could fund (to Berryessa) won't bring commuters directly to where the jobs are. Rather, VTA expects commuters to transfer to light rail in Milpitas. Don't be surprise if the BART project turns out to be a massive failure too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

HSRA to conduct alternative analysis open houses

Three open houses will be held to receive comments of project alternatives proposed by HSR:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
SamTrans Auditorium
1250 San Carlos Avenue – San Carlos
6:00 – 8:00 pm

October 9, 6:00‐8:00 pm
Sunnyvale Recreation Center (Ballroom)
550 E. Remington Drive
Sunnyvale, CA

October 13, 6:00‐8:00 pm
Milton Marks Conference Center
455 Golden Gate Avenue – Lower Level
San Diego A/B/C Rooms
San Francisco, CA

Monday, September 14, 2009

BART frequency changes... so will the buses

BART today adjusted the frequency of its evening and Sunday trains from 15 minutes to 20 minutes. The service reduction was prompted by all the budgetary constraints that caused all other transit agencies to reduce service.

The side benefit of this service reduction is that direct service between SFO and Millbrae is restored, even though it will run on nights and weekends only. A transfer is still required during weekday daytime.

Because of BART's service reduction, VTA will reduce its Fremont service in the evening and weekends on October 5. VTA currently runs its buses every 30 minutes on weekends and will reduce service in October to every 40 minutes to match BART's frequency.

SamTrans will also change its El Camino weekend service in December just before Christmas from every 15/30 minutes to every 20/40 minutes.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

VTA releases revised service cut plans

VTA earlier today released a revised service cut plan after a series of public meetings. See complete listing here.

Changes from earlier proposal:

  • Line 10: One more early morning weekend trip reduction
  • Line 13: Hourly service all day instead of hourly service during peak hours.
  • Line 22: 24-hour service will continue. VTA originally proposed to cut the overnight service as SamTrans also planned to eliminate its overnight route. SamTrans later decided to keep the overnight service while eliminating its peak hour express service to SF.
  • Line 34: VTA will not eliminate this route, instead some trips will be cut.
  • Line 39: Peak hour service will remain at every 30 minutes instead of hourly.
  • Line 45: Saturday service will not be cut.
  • Line 54: One Saturday night trip will be kept.
  • Lines 61 and 62: Weekend service will be reduced from every 30 minutes to hourly on each route, which means service to every 30 minutes along Bascom. Extra service will be provided on the 62 between Civic Center and Capitol/Berryessa to maintain service at every 30 minutes.
  • Line 76: VTA will operate this route until June 2010, which will be discontinued.
  • Line 101: VTA will reduce service to one round trip rather than full elimination.
  • Line 103: No changes proposed.
  • Line 180: Keep evening service.
  • Line 181: Combine two trips rather than eliminate one of the trips
  • Line 304: Reduce one round trip rather than shortening the route.
  • Line 522: Changes in trip reductions.
  • River Oaks Shuttle: Operate the service until July 2010, then eliminate route. This route receives grant funds and has to be operated until the grant agreement expires.

VTA staff will present this plan to the VTA Transit Planning & Operations Committee for approval next week, and for the full board's consideration next month.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ugly SamTrans cuts ahead

After a series of public meetings, SamTrans will present a revised bus cut plan for board approval next week.

The revised proposal would maintain late night and overnight service, as well as some of local service like line 295. However, the proposal would eliminate all express bus service to San Francisco except line KX, which would be reduced to hourly service. SamTrans also plans to eliminate a lightly used local route in Millbrae. The total service to be reduced is 7.5%, which is comparable to VTA's proposed bus cut, and half of what AC Transit is planning to cut.

Because SamTrans no longer proposes to reduce service span, paratransit service would largely be maintained.

SamTrans believes its primary role is to serve the transit dependent, “We have a responsibility to those for whom we are their only means of mobility – people who depend on us to get them to their jobs, to school, to the doctor’s office and to the grocery store,” said Deputy CEO Chuck Harvey in the SamTrans' press release.

However, the proposed elimination of express service is a bad news for long time commuters. Although SamTrans argues that these riders generally have higher income and could afford to ride BART or Caltrain to San Francisco, many of these riders stuck to SamTrans because of its one-seat service. While riders in Burlingame, Millbrae and San Bruno have a relatively easy access to BART or Caltrain, riders in Foster City do not have such easy access. In its proposal, SamTrans plans to provide express service from Foster City to Millbrae, where riders can connect either BART or Caltrain. However, having to transfer to either line would mean longer travel time and expense (especially with BART).

- Reduce headways from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.
- Eliminate the segment south of Palo Alto Caltrain. KX passengers can ride VTA anywhere in Palo Alto with SamTrans monthly pass.

- Reduce headways from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.

- Operate service in one direction before 7 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

- Reduce headways from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, except during school hours.

390 and 391:
- On weekends only, reduce headways from 30 minutes to 40 minutes. (Make the combined service from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes.) Service between Redwood City and Palo Alto would be even lower because of reduction on KX to hourly. The further cut in service between Redwood City and Palo Alto would make connection with VTA more difficult.

Route eliminations:
342, DX, FX, MX, NX, PX, RX

Included in the plan is another fare increase in February 2010, which SamTrans would join Muni, AC Transit, County Connection and VTA in the two dollar club.