Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sales tax crash

Is VTA going down the same path as the transit agency in Orange County, in which it is planning one massive bus cuts after another?

At the beginning of the year, VTA said that no cuts were planned. A few months later, VTA finally told the board that it needs to raise fares and cut service. Over the summer months, worsening sales tax revenue prompted the board to move up the fare increases from July 2010 to October 2009.

Unfortunately, that may not be the end of it. The Mercury News is reporting that VTA is facing an operating deficit of $98 million over the next year. A combination of fare increases, service cuts, layoffs, reduction in employee benefits, and more are on the table.

The prospect of another bus cuts is a terrible news to those who fought against those proposals last summer. Cuts that were withdrawn by staff due to community oppositions could come back again. Furthermore, many of the routes that received improved service in January 2008 and July 2009 could very much have their frequency reduced to the original level.

It is possible to preserve the bus service by diverting additional operating funds from the 2000 Measure A. Back when that tax was approved in 2000, Measure A funds could be used for operations. In 2003, when VTA was planning a 21% service cuts, transit advocates lobbied VTA to borrow Measure A funds (the tax was supposed to begin in 2006) to preserve service. Presently, about $30 million from Measure A supports bus and light rail operation every year. The irony is that funding from Measure A was supposed to pay for bus expansion. However, since sales taxes have been hit so hard over the years, Measure A funding now supports current bus operation (way below year 2000 level) that otherwise would've been discontinued.

According to the Mercury News, Michael Burns insists that the BART project is not impacted. Guess what? Sales tax reduction for transit operation (1976 sales tax) also applies to the 2000 Measure A to the same degree. If additional Measure A funds were to be diverted for operation, there'll be even less for capital projects.

However, we probably won't be able to get a full financial picture on capital projects since Burns has informally and unilaterally adopted a policy to not talking about it. As long as he doesn't talk about it, he could keep Carl Guardino's myth alive. Even so, VTA is jealous that high speed rail is getting most of the public's attention and a strong funding momentum from the federal government. If these delusionals listened to transit advocates instead, VTA would've joined the high speed rail club with Caltrain Metro East.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Transit consolidation or a waste of time?

Consolidating the number of transit operators is a concept that has always been politically attractive. Having many transit agencies in the area adds confusion for riders, forcing transfers at mostly politically drawn boundaries with little regards to actual transportation needs, and increase transit expense for those who have shorter trips that require transfer to another operator (e.g. Mountain View to Menlo Park vs. Mountain View to San Jose).

MTC has approved a $2.5 million study to evaluate transit consolidations, with focus on where MTC believes that there's transit overlap. The primary motivation is to reduce the growth of transit operating cost in the long run, which MTC has projected a $8.5 billion deficit over the next 25 years.

MTC and the politicians may have big expectations, but what really could be done?

- Some transit agencies in the North Bay are ripe for consolidation. In Sonoma County, Sonoma County provides regional intra-county bus service, Golden Gate Transit provides inter county service, and some cities operate their own buses within the city border. It is likely that some of these would be consolidated. Most of the bus agencies there contract their operation to private companies. A merged agency could consolidate their contracts or keep multiple contracts.

The cities of Vallejo and Benicia have approved a plan to merge their city-run bus operations. Because both systems are relatively small, a merger would provide more convenience for transit riders.

- Do not count on older agencies like AC Transit, Muni, VTA, BART, or SamTrans to be merged. The labor costs with the older agencies are quite high, and will meet great resistance from labor unions. In addition, older transit operators have different tax base that subsidize their operations. Voters in the East Bay have approved multiple parcel taxes over the years for AC Transit operations. How could you ensure funding equity, where taxes approved for one region will stay in one region?

- Muni's operations is so poor that it would actually be advantageous to allow other bus operators (public or private) to provide service. Other agencies that run buses to Downtown San Francisco cannot pick up SF only passengers because of "competition." Muni's real competitions are bicycle and automobile, and Muni is losing to both.

- What really needs to be done, but probably won't be done because of MTC's pro-rail (especially BART) position, is to facilitate the establishment of more regional bus service. Today's political make up prevent the creation of direct express bus routes from San Francisco neighborhoods to work sites in the Silicon Valley. Muni's broke and can't pay for it. VTA won't run it because it is not efficient for them (long deadheading) and workers in San Francisco are not VTA's political constitutents. SamTrans won't run it because these commuters just travel through the county.

Moreover, all three of them are subsidizing Caltrain, except that many SF residents won't take it because it would take them another 30-45 minutes just to get to the Caltrain station on Muni.

At the end, these political gaps help companies like Bauer's, which is handling many of the Valley's shuttle contracts and is starting a shuttle service that's open to the public (recently got state approval).

- Labor issues and strike threats are major problems for mega agencies. In Los Angeles, a number of past MTA (major bus and rail operator) strikes help politicians understand that there's value of having multiple agencies (LA area has a few large bus agencies besides MTA, plus many small city run operation). One of the agencies (Foothill Transit) was created out of the MTA because MTA was providing poor service. Foothill Transit was able to run service at a lower cost through private contracts.

Labor issues at BART have already created nightmares for commuters every few years with strike threats, except that a BART strike wouldn't harm local bus service, whereas a merged agency could.

- Could there be a way to better spend that $2.5 million that MTC will spend on consultants, especially when so many agencies are cutting back service already? One of the reason why transit operating cost is raising so fast is that much of the increases is spent on health care. As we all know, our broken health care system is putting pressures on governments and private businesses. Unfortunately, there's not a lot local governments can do to curb increases in health care costs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Muni (and VTA) could learn from Sacramento on how to handle troublemakers

Recently, Sacramento Regional Transit implemented a new policy to address nuisance behavior and security:

Senate Bill 1561, authored by Senator Steinberg, was enacted to allow RT to exclude passengers who repeatedly violate transit laws from using the system. The purpose of the exclusion policy is to reduce the number of passenger disruptions and improve overall RT service.

Effective October 1, 2009, anyone arrested for a crime or cited on three separate occasions within a period of 60 consecutive days for infractions committed in or on an RT vehicle, bus stop or light rail station will now face a ban of 30 days. Offenders can be banned for up to a year if convicted of more serious offenses.

Interfering with an operator of a transit vehicle, willfully disturbing others on or in a system facility or vehicle, and defacing District property could all result in exclusion.

“The exclusion policy puts Sacramento at the forefront of a continued effort to improve passenger safety on California’s transit systems,” Senator Steinberg said. “Over the next few years, we will prove the exclusion policy can be a valuable asset not only in our region but to transit operators across the state.”

The exclusion policy provides an appeals process for individuals who opt to contest a prohibition order. Transit personnel have also been trained to recognize and facilitate passengers’ special needs.

In effect, it would make riding transit somewhat of a privilege similar to driving, which is not necessarily a bad thing considering that certain people just couldn't keep to themselves. Make them walk so that the rest of us can have a safe trip.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fight onboard Muni

Muni in San Francisco always has a sense of lawlessness. This fight captured onboard a Muni bus two days ago demonstrates a clear failure to provide law and order onboard Muni, which threatens the safety of passengers and a discourage transit use in what is supposed to be a "Transit first" city.

Although fights do not occur regularly, people boarding buses through the rear door happens quite frequently on many of the trunk routes:

Saturday, October 03, 2009

State raid of transit funds ruled illegal

From California Transit Association, which sued the state for its raid on transit funding:

In a resounding victory for those who provide and those who depend on public transit in California, the State Supreme Court late yesterday rejected the Schwarzenegger Administration’s appeal of a lower court ruling that annual raids on transit funding are illegal.

By declining to accept the Petition for Review filed by state officials, the high court upheld the ruling of the Third District Court of Appeal that recent funding diversions violated a series of statutory and constitutional amendments enacted by voters via four statewide initiatives dating back to 1990.

“By denying the state’s appeal, the Supreme Court has affirmed once and for all what we always maintained was true: that it’s illegal to shift dedicated state transit funds away from transit agencies and their riders,” said Joshua Shaw, Executive Director of the California Transit Association and lead plaintiff in the case. “This decision validates our position that this practice has been illegal since even before 2007, and that the definition of mass transportation adopted by lawmakers since then to mask these diversions is illegal.”

Public transit officials now hope to work with the Administration and Legislature to restore those funds taken since the Association filed the initial lawsuit in October, 2007, on the heels of the 2007-08 state budget package that raided $1.19 billion from the Public Transportation Account (PTA). Since that agreement, more than $3 billion in transit funding has been re-routed to fill holes in the General Fund.

Although the courts agreed that transit funding raid is illegal, it is not clear whether that will translate into any actual funding restoration by the state. However, any state funding restoration will help transit riders.

The loss the State Transit Assistance fund not only puts pressure on Bay Area agencies, but also throughout the state. In Calaveras County (Sierra foothills east of Stockton), the transit agency there cut service by 40% and eliminated its regional connection to the Central Valley in Lodi. Over there, the service cut impact is not just forcing riders to spend extra minutes waiting for a bus, but actually make it virtually impossible to access essential shopping and medical services. The only regional connection in Calaveras County now is through the adjacent Amador County, which still operates a bus line into Sacramento. Amtrak and Greyhound are not available in those counties.

In Orange County, the transit agency there made drastic cuts earlier this year and an additional 30% cut is proposed for March next year. Although Orange County is urbanized and has huge transit needs, it is also very politically conservative. The politicians there have no problem with more freeway widening (which are quite wide already), but have a false perception that residents there do not need mass transit. Fortunately, Steven Chan, a Silicon Valley transplant, has started a transit blog there to advocate for better transit in Orange County.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Change for the worst... and more

If you are not a high priced VTA or BART contractor/consultant, today is a change for the worst as the $2 one way fare comes into effect.

The price for the regular monthly pass has gone up to $70. The new price for the express monthly pass is now $140.

However, that's not the end here, the VTA board will consider tonight on cutting bus and light rail service by 8%, which would go in effect in January.

Highway 17 Express

Interestingly, even though the fares for various operators have gone up over the years, the fares for the Highway 17 Express have remained the same. When the Highway 17 Express began weekend service in 2004 (as it merged with Amtrak Thruway bus to Santa Cruz), the fare was adjusted to $4 one way, which is still in effect today. In 1994, the Amtrak Thruway fare was $5 one way and the Highway 17 Express was $2.25. Overall, bus riders have been getting more value for the fare dollar especially considering the increasing cost of gas.

How can Highway 17 Express keeps its fares the same for so long? Highway 17 Express is operated by Santa Cruz Metro with funding from the Metro, VTA, and Amtrak. It has an independent operating budget. After the implementation of weekend service, ridership has increased steadily over the years. It enjoys a high farebox recovery of 58% in July 2009, despite a 9% drop in ridership from the same month last year. Stable weekend ridership (which many riders pay one way fares) helps bring in revenue for the line.

HSR open house for San Jose-Gilroy segment

Despite losing the lawsuit (specifically on the lack of agreement with UP for using the rail corridor between San Jose and Gilroy), HSRA nonetheless will hold meetings on that segment next week. Two of them will be held in Santa Clara County.

San Jose
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Gardner Community Center
520 W. Virginia Street

Monday, October 12, 2009
6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Hilton Garden Inn
6070 Monterey Road

While the HSRA planning process so far has captured the attention of Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents, who fear that high speed rail would either take their property or somehow cause a decline in their property value, San Jose residents who might be impacted by high speed rail does not have the same political clout as those in Palo Alto or Menlo Park. However that might change...

The HSRA is studying various alternatives for getting trains through Downtown San Jose. Although the current Caltrain alignment is the base line, the existing line south of the San Jose Diridon Station is slow and narrow. Immediately south of the station, the Caltrain line has to cross under the San Carlos Street overpass and above Los Gatos Creek.

One alternative under consideration is a diagonal station for high speed rail (last page in this PDF) right in front of the existing Caltrain station. HSRA engineers said that this alternative (under the SF-SJ segment) is driven by the planning process for the segment between San Jose and Gilroy. Alternative alignments like those could get the high speed rail trains through San Jose faster, but might not be something that San Jose Delusionals have expected.