Tuesday, December 28, 2010

SamTrans quietly launches Clipper


No fanfare, no web site announcement, no whatever, SamTrans quietly accepts Clipper card for payment by uncovering the Clipper readers, which has been installed on buses for several months.

For now, only e-cash (without discount) and monthly passes are available on Clipper for SamTrans. Occasional SamTrans riders will still need to buy bus tokens from retailers like Safeway in order to receive a 20% discount. Ironically, Muni offers a 10-ride "ticket book" on Clipper, which costs $20 and provides no discounts from cash. AC Transit also had 10-ride paper tickets which provided no discounts. These tickets were eliminated when the agency fully transitioned all passes to Clipper.

For Clipper, SamTrans instituted a policy on line KX that require SF-bound riders who use Clipper to tag the card when boarding and again exiting in SF. Because line KX is a mixed local and express service, riders only pay the express fares if they ride north of SFO. The second tag in SF is basically to charge the card from local (when they board south of SFO) to express fare. It is possible for someone to evade the express fare northbound by exiting quickly (or through the back door) and not tagging the second time. It would be interesting to find out how will that policy be actually executed on the buses.

On Golden Gate Transit and Caltrain, the highest possible fare is deducted on the first tag, so any passenger who ride for a shorter distance has an incentive to tag the second time to get a refund.

Meanwhile, SamTrans will be introducing new fare boxes in the next few months. The new fare boxes will be able to accept and issue magnetic strip cards. One of the features planned is to provide change on a card for riders who feeds larger bills into the fare box. The rider can use the card to pay for fares in the future or possibly redeem the card for cash at the transit office.

Another feature also planned with the introduction of new fare boxes is day pass. Day pass, already available on VTA, Santa Cruz Metro, MST, and countless other agencies, is a convenient way for occasional riders and visitors to pay and use the system. Day pass also reduces transfer penalties.

While SamTrans staff recognizes the benefits of day pass. They have been hesitant on implementing the pass until they first introduce the new fare boxes, which can issue day passes automatically. What they don't want is to follow VTA's footsteps in making and distributing preprinted day passes.

The day pass is planned to cost $6, exactly the same as VTA. However, the pass is expected to be available for local fares only. Riders will need to pay an upgrade for higher fare routes. Staff is planning to introduce the pass by the end of next year, after they roll out new fare boxes and conduct public meetings and "analysis" for something that will obviously benefits riders.

What will also be helpful is to have the day pass be introduced on Clipper as a form of a fare cap. So if someone who has paid $6 on SamTrans rides in a day, all SamTrans rides will be free for the rest of day. Another thing SamTrans could do is to make all e-cash fares $1.60 for Clipper riders.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

VTA January 2011 bus changes and Caltrain weekend Baby Bullet

On January 10, 2011, VTA will implement a number of bus service changes:

Schedule changes: 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 27, 32, 34, 35, 42, 46, 48, 49, 51, 57, 60, 61, 62, 66, 68, 71, 81, 88, 103, 120, 330, 522, DASH

11 - Frequency will be adjusted to every 35 minutes. VTA says the actual travel time is longer than previously estimated.

64 - Bus will run on 13th and Julian streets in both directions between Santa Clara Street and McKee Road. The City of San Jose is converting both Julian and St. James Streets from one-way couplets to two-way streets.

180 and 181 - Line 180 will become a weekday only service between Fremont and Milpitas. Line 181 will provide service on weekends with a stop at the Great Mall. There will be no weekend VTA service along Mission Blvd in Fremont. Riders along Mission Blvd can take AC Transit local bus 217 to Great Mall.

VTA says the 181 routing along 880 and Stevenson is faster than the 180 along 680 and Mission. Switching the routes on weekends will help keep buses on time.

63 - Last July VTA added a southbound trip at night due to rider request. However, ridership numbers are not meeting minimum ridership standards (9 riders during SJSU session. Standards call for 15 riders). VTA is planning to cut that trip next July if ridership does not improve.

On January 1, Caltrain will reduce weekday service (4 late morning/early afternoon trains) and raise fares. At the same time Caltrain will add 4 weekend Baby Bullet trains on a trial basis until March. The new weekend trips will cut the travel time between San Jose to San Francisco by more than 30 minutes compared to local service. Trains will also stop at Millbrae, San Mateo, Hillsdale, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale.

If Caltrain's partners (which includes Muni, SamTrans, and VTA) decide not to further cut funding next year, the weekend express service may continue if weekend ridership grows by 10%. See schedule below:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

VTA's new hybrid buses

Earlier this month VTA rolled out its new hybrid buses. The new buses can be found on route 66.

The hybrid buses look pretty much like the older buses VTA bought 8-9 years ago. In comparison, SamTrans new buses come with a new style and paint scheme. VTA actually has a pretty good paint scheme for the small community buses, but for some reason it is keeping the old scheme on the hybrids.

The hybrid buses have a "hump" on the rear end.


The new buses are noticeably different from the older buses on the inside. The new buses have new wheelchair tie-ins to reduce driver workload, along with new seats.


The new buses also have a wider rear door.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

AC Transit and union reach agreement, prevent weekend cuts

Today AC Transit announced that an arbitration panel has reached a decision between the agency and the union representing the agency's drivers and mechanics. The decision finally ended the labor dispute that began in summer which resulted in lawsuits, driver sickouts and a threat to discontinue most of overnight and weekend service.

The binding decision essentially requires union members to contribute to their health and retirement plans. The decision also require changes to work rules. Overall it would cut AC Transit deficit by $38 millions over three years.

Given the declining state and local revenues, AC Transit sought savings from the new labor contract. After an unsuccessful effort to reach an agreement with the union, AC Transit board voted to impose the contract. The union fought back by bring the issue to court. The court agreed with the union by striking down the new contract. Meanwhile the drivers informally staged a sickout, which caused missed runs and more crowded buses.

If AC Transit were not able to realize labor savings, AC Transit would have to further reduce service to cut costs. After two major service cuts earlier this year, AC Transit was planning another cut in December, which would cut most overnight and weekend service. After this decision, AC Transit cancelled the December cuts but warned that additional cuts may be required sometime next year.

In this economy, it is counter-productive for transit unions refusing to make concessions to protect service and jobs. In San Francisco, where Muni drivers' pay was set by the city charter to be the second highest in the country (which essentially meant automatic pay raises regardless of the economy), city voter overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure last week to remove the wage provision from the city charter. Earlier in the year, Muni drivers twice voted down proposals to increase employee health and retirement contributions while maintaining charter mandated pay raises.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is Podcar another false promise?

Since the concept of a people mover at San Jose Airport was approved with Measure A ten years ago, the project eventually proved to be too expensive to build and operate, not very useful, and ineffective. Nowadays, the city is hosting a Personal Rapid Transit conference, in which PRT proponents are saying that San Jose Airport could have a people mover-like system without the price tag.

PRT, or pod car is a concept that has existed for decades, with the promise of fast, frequent, and non-stop service. Renderings of such systems often feature small cars hanging off a slim elevated track. What PRT doesn't have is a track record of daily revenue service. The PRT proponents are desperately looking for sponsoring cities, along with funding, to prove their concepts.

San Jose politicians are trying to look for a "creative" solution to a superficial problem and while dismissing realistic solutions. The simple way to bring rail to San Jose airport is to extend the light rail system from 1st Street into the airport. Light rail only needs to extend a mile to serve both terminals A and B. Light rail already serves Downtown San Jose and connects with Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE (and possibly BART in Milpitas and high speed rail at Diridon Station). Unlike peoplemover or pod car, no separate maintenance facility is needed for light rail.


View Untitled in a larger map

One has to wonder why San Jose is pretending to be progressive on transportation by promoting PRT while actually moving backwards by ignoring light rail. Cities like Portland and Baltimore have light rail located directly at the terminal. Sacramento and Los Angeles are planning to extend their light rail systems to airport as well.

VTA light rail is drawing fewer riders than similar systems in other cities because the light rail lacks destinations that are not convenient to drive. If the light rail can directly serve the airport, it will change how the system is used and perceived. While many people have brought up the idea for many years, it was repeatedly ignored by the City of San Jose and VTA (which the City has a controlling stake on).

While the PRT proponents welcome the attention received in San Jose, it is another loss of opportunity for a more cost effective transportation. Even if the PRT has proven to be a reliable technology, it will still be slower and less convenient for riders than extending light rail directly to the airport. Even if PRT has applications beyond the airport, its proclaimed advantages can easily be met by automobile and bike sharing, along with better bike and ped infrastructures.

Monday, October 04, 2010

First day of express light rail

With little fanfare and limited press coverage (compared to Caltrain's Baby Bullet a few years ago), VTA rolled off its express light rail trips. The new trips go from Santa Teresa to Baypointe and do not stop between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Convention Center stations. The cars used for the express trips have special blue and orange wrap and also have free wifi.


VTA Boardmember Sam Liccardo and general manager Michael Burns were on the platform at Ohlone/Chynoweth waiting for the first train to arrive from Santa Teresa. Other VTA top brass were there as well. There were no speeches nor ribbon cutting. However some riders were treated with free Red Bulls and newspapers. Liccardo boarded the first northbound express train presumably heading to the City Hall.


When a northbound express train arrives, another one deadheads to Santa Teresa.



At other stations, signs are in place to warn others about express trains that won't stop.


VTA is not accepting Clipper... yet.

The express light rail is an experiment whether operational changes can bring in additional riders, similar to how the Baby Bullet has transformed Caltrain. MTC is conducting a regional study of transit sustainability and recently found that Caltrain has raised ridership and improved cost effectiveness compared to most transit agencies (including VTA) because of the Baby Bullet. Caltrain is now considering providing weekend Baby Bullet service, despite deficit, to draw more riders.

The light rail system however is very different from Caltrain, so the opportunities to speed up service are limited. Let's see whether skipping stops and having onboard wifi will help draw riders.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

AC Transit's armageddon

Tonight AC Transit Board of Directors will consider slashing weekend service by half, along with other cost cutting measures, to eliminate a budget shortfall resulting from not getting concessions from the agency's unions.

AC Transit already had a service cut implemented in March, another one is scheduled next month. This proposed weekend reduction would occur in December. That would be a third service cut to occur within a year.

By cutting the weekend service in half, service would only be available along the major corridors. There would be no weekend bus in Newark, Castro Valley, and most of San Lorenzo. Weekend service to San Francisco would be eliminated as well. The only way to get across the Bay would be BART and ferries. On the other hand, line 217 would stay and connect with VTA light rail in Milpitas.

In addition, AC Transit plans to cut all overnight service except lines 800 and 801, which serve BART stations and are partially funded by bridge tolls (RM2).

This budget crisis and its unions' unwillingness to give concessions is forcing the AC Transit to consider contracting as a cost saving option. Also on the agenda is a plan to begin closing an in-house paratransit division and transfer the work to private contractors. By doing so, AC Transit can save more than a million dollars per year. The agency is also contemplating contracting out transbay and school services, which are provided mostly during the peak hours. Under the current union work rules, peak hour only service result in higher cost due to overtime, even though the work itself can be less than full-time.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

VTA ridership down, bus shelters, paratransit

As expected, VTA ridership fell because of the poor economy (which caused fare hikes, service cuts, and fewer people commuting due to unemployment). During the last fiscal year, bus ridership has gone down 7.3% compared to the year before, and Light rail ridership has gone down by about 9.3%. Ridership on paratransit has dropped by 12.8%, which was partly caused by an increase in fares for premium service to $16 per trip. Same-day and open return rides fell by 38% and 64% respectively.

While VTA is not proposing any additional service cuts in the near future, you might see dirtier bus shelters. Most of the bus shelters in Santa Clara County were built and are currently maintained by Clear Channel, which sells advertising spaces on 75% of the bus shelters. Clear Channel pays VTA and the cities a portion of the ad revenue. The ad agency also pays contractors to clean the shelters.

Because of the economy, VTA was not able to attract new proposals from ad agencies to replace and maintain the shelters. Instead VTA staff has recommended to extend the Clear Channel's contract for 2 years. As part of the contract extension, Clear Channel would reduce advertising to only half of all shelters (because it couldn't sell that many) and all the shelters would have fewer trash clean ups (because it cost them too much to pick up garbage illegally dumped by neighbors).

Currently most shelters are cleaned weekly with some others cleaned 2 or 3 times per week. The contract extension would cut the total cleanings by 2/3. Some of the shelters would also have the trash bins removed.

VTA really doesn't have a choice here. The ad agencies are not able to offer VTA better deals and VTA cannot afford to clean and maintain shelters on its own.

For paratransit riders, most of them should be pleased to know that Outreach would continue to be VTA's paratransit broker for at least 2 years. Over the years, there were rumors that VTA would drop Outreach as its paratransit broker. In 2004, as part of Pete Cipolla's cost cutting move, VTA contracted with Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles for paratransit eligibility verification. The contract drew criticisms from the disabled community because of its policy to require an in-person interview. VTA finally relented and Outreach resumed eligibility process in 2006.

VTA staff is stating on-the-record that its relationship with Outreach has provided better customer service and helped save VTA money. With Outreach conducting the eligibility process, it has directed some people who are not eligible for paratransit to enroll with other transportation programs that Outreach provides (and not funded by VTA). Over the years, Outreach has received federal grants to replace paratransit vehicles which VTA otherwise would have to fund. Recently, Outreach has also coordinated with other non-profits to share vehicles for paratransit rides, which reduced per trip cost by more than half.

Overall, Outreach helped control VTA's cost and improve farebox recovery. Currently the farebox recovery for paratransit is 10.7%. In comparison, farebox recovery for paratransit is 7.5% in Santa Cruz and East Bay, 8.7% in Sacramento, and 3.2% at SamTrans.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Express light rail coming this October

Following the recommendations of the light rail COA conducted last year, VTA staff is planning to implement weekday express light rail service from South San Jose effective October 4. The new trips will start from Santa Teresa to Baypointe and will run non-stop from Ohlone/Chynoweth to Convention Center stations. All other trips will remain unchanged.



The express trips are expected to save 5-6 minutes between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Convention Center, which is about 36% for those traveling between those two stations, or 12% for those traveling between Santa Teresa and Baypointe.

Northbound express trains leaving Santa Teresa: 7:16 a.m., 7:46 a.m., 8:16 a.m.

Southbound express trains leaving Baypointe: 4:07 p.m., 4:37 p.m., 5:07 p.m.

In addition, staff is also planning to extend some night trips (9:51 p.m. and 10:21 p.m.) departing from Winchester to Baypointe instead of Civic Center. This will help riders that need to connect with the late night light rail replacement bus leaving from Tasman to Mountain View.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

SamTrans following suit on COA

Following the footsteps VTA took a few years ago, SamTrans is now working a COA. In addition to finding ways to improve the bus system, the agency is hoping the COA would help improve SamTrans' financial stability. Because of the economic crisis and reduction of state transit funding, SamTrans has already eliminated most express bus routes. SamTrans' trouble is also affecting Caltrain, as the agency plans to eliminate operating subsidies (the remaining San Mateo County subsidy would only come from the 2004 Measure A sales tax) the next fiscal year.

Although San Mateo County is located adjacent to Santa Clara County, SamTrans environment is vastly different from VTA. SamTrans primarily serves a narrow corridor centered on El Camino Real. Being a smaller county, SamTrans only collects a fraction of the sales tax revenue that VTA receives, yet SamTrans provides financial support for two regional rail systems.

One of the possibilities for SamTrans is to provide deviated fixed route service. Under ADA, transit agencies are required to provide door-to-door paratransit service for disabled riders who cannot use regular transit. With deviated fixed route service, the bus would stay on a regular route to serve all riders and go off route to pick up and drop off qualified disabled riders. It would help meet the ADA mandate without providing segregated service. The bus agency in San Joaquin County currently provides such service and it is helping the agency to control cost on disabled service.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Free VTA schedules on your iPhone/iPod Touch

Vashishtha Jogi, who developed the original iPhone/iPod Touch app for VTA, has released a free version of the same application supported by advertisement.

The full version with additional features is available for $1.99.

The current version has updated July 12 schedules.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A ride on the 22

One of the VTA Watch readers Arcady had an interesting experience on the 22:

Last night I was coming back from Fremont to Sunnyvale, taking the 180 to Downtown San Jose to connect to the 22. It was all going quite nicely, the 180 was just a couple minutes late, there was a good amount of time to connect to the 22, it left on time at 11 pm... and then one of the passengers, who had probably had imbibed considerably earlier in the night, decided to puke up some of what he had earlier drunk. Now, this in itself was an annoyance, but I helped the other passengers open some windows and everything seemed to be fine. Until the bus driver realized what had happened. At that point he stopped the bus, probably conferred with supervisors by radio, and then told everyone "this bus ride is over, everyone off" and promised that a replacement bus would arrive eventually, but it would take at least half an hour to do so.
As this was still near downtown, I opted to walk to the train station and take a taxi back, so I did not see the end of this story. But I also didn't know about this VTA policy. It's certainly a major annoyance to passengers, who are now at least half an hour late (and potentially miss their connections with other buses, like the SamTrans at Palo Alto). On the other hand, yeah, there's something of a health and safety hazard with vomit on the floor. Anyway, I thought you might be interested in hearing this little VTA anecdote.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Could AC Transit drivers go on strike?

AC Transit today issued a statement to its workers urging them to stay on the job. Recently the agency was not able to reach an agreement with the union and it is imposing a contract on those workers. Currently the union is suing the agency trying to overturn that contract. If the court rules in favor of AC Transit, the workers could go on strike as soon as next week.

Regardless of the court outcome, nobody wins in this fight. If the union win back the benefits and old work rules, it will increase costs the agency. Because AC Transit doesn't have sufficient funding to begin with, AC Transit would have to cut costs by eliminating services, resulting in layoffs. AC Transit already plans for another round of service cuts later in the summer after the first one went into effect in March.

If the union chooses to strike, it would receive little if any sympathy from the public. A strike could have a long term negative effect to the transit system as some of the customers would go buy a used car to get around. Once they have a car, they won't go back to the bus.

Voters in the AC Transit service areas have been pretty sympathetic to the agency and have approved parcel tax increases in the past to maintain service. That attitude could change if the public believes that the workers are not willing to make concessions to save services. In San Francisco, there will be a measure on the November ballot that would end the automatic wage increases to Muni drivers. Muni drivers have refused to make concessions twice, whereas other unionized workers in San Francisco have made various concessions including furloughs.

This economic crisis is deep and severe enough that all prior projections about populations, jobs, and tax revenue probably have thrown off course permanently. We need a new business model that can sustain transit services in light of declining revenues. Labor costs is an important factor, especially as labor costs in the Bay Area have grown faster (while productivity has declined) than the rest of the nation during the last decade. Of course, we cannot forget that the Bay Area has made many bad transportation decisions during that decade. Too much money has been spent on wasteful projects and not enough money has been invested to maintain essential services.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Around the Valley this summer

An upgraded TVM has been spotted at Gish Station, that is supposed to take ATM and credit cards soon.

MST now has MCI coaches.

Late night service will be coming back on line 63 on a trial basis. If this trip carries sufficient riders, it can continue on a permanent basis.

...

New bus stop locations at San Jose Diridon Station effective next week.


Caltrain is rebuilding the Santa Clara Station partly to accommodate ACE and Amtrak trains. ACE used to stop at the Santa Clara Station from 2001 to 2005, when Caltrain decided to kick ACE trains out of the station to make room for more Baby Bullet trains (Southbound ACE trains used to stop on the northbound platform). San Francisco County Transportation Authority is a funding partner on this project (see the TA logo above the VTA logo).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Service changes in July

VTA will implemented service changes on July 12:

Schedule changes: 10, 12, 13, 16, 22, 23, 25, 26, 35, 39, 42, 47, 51, 54, 55, 57, 58, 60, 64, 66, 70, 71, 72, 73, 81, 88, 102, 103, 104, 140, 330

Major route changes as discussed in previous posts: 11, 34

VTA will also change the routing for line 64 at San Jose Diridon Station. Currently, southbound buses to Almaden turn right from San Fernando to Autumn Street, turn left from Autumn to Santa Clara, and turn left from Santa Clara to Cahill. Buses that terminate at the train station (along with parallel lines like 63, 64, and DASH) go straight on San Fernando to Cahill.

The extra routing along Autumn and Santa Clara adds travel time because of the two left turns in the area. Also, drivers on that route sometimes forgot to make the proper turn. With that minor change to route 64, the bus will stop at a different location at the train station.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Last day of line 76

Tomorrow is the last day of line 76, which goes from Downtown Los Gatos to the Santa Cruz Mountain area by Summit Road. Although VTA has tried to cut this route for many years, it did not do so because of Los Gatos High School students who live in the mountain area. For the next school year, those students will have to find a new way to get to school.

This site has an interesting review of line 76.

Line 76 is the only route that serves the mountain area. Although Highway 17 Express also travels over the hill, it does not have stops either at the summit nor in Los Gatos.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Translink being rebranded to Clipper

Translink is being rebranded to Clipper, which will be formally "introduced" to the public on June 16.

Old Translink branded reader for Caltrain. This reader should've been rebranded by now.


New Clipper branded reader for light rail, but not activated yet.

When VTA comes on line with Clipper, whoever's in charge needs to distinguish which reader belongs to which system at inter-modal transfer points. Other than being located on the VTA platform, there's no difference in appearance between the reader for VTA and Caltrain. Perhaps someone in a hurry, or don't know the station well, would tap his or her Translink/Clipper card at the wrong reader, which would result in overcharge (when a VTA rider mistakenly tap on the Caltrain rider) and/or citation.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

HSR tunnel insanity finally comes to an end

Earlier today the High Speed Rail Authority voted to put off all but one alignment option south of the San Jose Diridon Station. The current Caltrain alignment (to appease the neighbors) and all of the underground alignments will no longer pursued by the Authority. The only alternative remain on the table is an elevated alignment along Highway 87 and 280, and the station at San Jose Diridon will be elevated as well.

The freeway alignment is not perfect, but is reasonable. The underground options are simply unbuildable, and they don't need to spend all the time to figure that out.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

VTA to restore night service on line 63 in July

Riders submitted a petition asking VTA to restore the night service on line 63. VTA responded:

At the April 1, 2010 VTA Board of Directors Meeting, Ms. Joyce Weissman presented a petition, signed by 136 people, requesting implementation of a new weekday southbound trip on Line 63 leaving downtown San Jose around 10 p.m. Ms. Weissman previously made a similar request supported by a petition with 300 signatures to the VTA Board in November 2009.

In January 2010, as part of the 8 percent service reduction, four Line 63 night trips were eliminated due to low ridership. This resulted in the last trip leaving downtown San Jose at 7:39 p.m. Previously, the last trip left downtown at 9:29 p.m. and carried about nine to ten passengers.

Staff is planning to add a later-night southbound Line 63 trip starting on July 12, 2010, based on the information presented by Ms. Weissman. This new trip would start at 7th and Santa Clara Streets at 9:34 p.m. and end at Almaden and Camden at 10: 15 p.m. This time was chosen to maximize connections with other bus routes along the line and the availability of a bus to run the route efficiently.

VTA will add this trip on a trial basis for 6 months. If the trip does not meet the minimum ridership standard of 15 riders per hour, VTA will remove it again. It is important that those who signed the petition for a later service need to use it to justify the existance, especially in this tight budgetary times.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Nutty San Jose HSR tunnel idea continues

After seeing the high cost and difficulty of putting high speed rail deep underground in the San Jose Diridon Station area, the City of San Jose has requested HSRA to study a shallow undergound option in hopes to reduce cost and improve constructability.

Under the shallow tunnel option, rail tunnels leading to and from the station would be built using tunnel boring machines. At the station area and the station approaches where the tracks join, the underground structures would be build by cut and cover. The shallow underground alternative has a similar alignment as the deep tunnel alternative, where the station would be located diagonally in front of the current train station.



The advantage of the shallow tunnel is that it costs $1.3 billion rather than $3 billion, but that's where the advantage ends. Under that alternative, the HSR station would have be dug out under the current light rail tunnel in front of the station and would have to occupy the land under the proposed baseball stadium, which is to be located south of the train station.


Deep tunnel option (upper) and shallow tunnel option (lower)

The shallow tunnel alternative would require changes to the BART project. Under that scenario, the BART tunnel would run under the proposed HSR tunnels rather than over it.

Because VTA has no funds to build BART beyond Berryessa, switching positions between the two rail lines is a feasible option. What VTA should also consider is to drop the redundent portion between San Jose Diridon and Santa Clara stations entirely. However, even if VTA is willing to address that issue, the conflict between cut and cover construction and the proposed stadium would likely kill this alternative.

Another option the city requested to study is to route HSR over the freeways rather than following the existing Caltrain corridor. Although this option has constructability concerns because of the need to maintain traffic flows on the freeway, it also presents an opportunity to build an iconic bridge for San Jose. As long as that iconic bridge does not end up to be another Bay Bridge fiasco, it might be the most reasonable option. With this option, the city would make HSR a part of the city's identity rather than to hide it.



Some of the cities further north on the peninsula are fighting HSR by pursuing another lawsuit against HSRA (HSRA already lost the first one). If San Jose is truly interested in HSR, it needs to decide how to accommodate HSR without adding more costs to the project.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

AC Transit's second set of cuts this year, MTC's transit sustainability

Eric at the Transbay Blog is reporting that AC Transit has scheduled a public hearing on May 26 on another series of service cuts to be implemented in September. AC Transit originally planned to cut service by about 15% last month. Because of some funding shifts, the agency was about to reduce the service cut to about 8%. However the worsening budget situation is forcing AC Transit to propose additional cuts.

Because AC Transit essentially redrew its bus network in March to reduce service impact on transit dependent population, this series of cuts will be more painful since the agency already made much of the painless cuts.

Two major bus cuts in the same year is truly disappointing. What is more disappointing is that we as taxpayers and transit riders haven't get the same value for our transit dollars. Last week, MTC issued its annual report showing that since 1997 (after adjusting for inflation), transit costs have gone up by 52%, while revenue hours and ridership have increased by 16% and 7% respectively. Transit services in the Bay Area are also more heavily subsidized than their counterparts in Los Angeles and New York.

MTC is taking the lead trying to control that trend through the transit sustainability project. So far it has identified some strategies like work rule changes and reduction in administrative costs. On the other hand, labor agreements limited cost-savings options at most large agencies.

Because most of the cost increases is not the result of service addition or enhancement, increased spending on transit over the years provided little if any added benefit for riders. MTC should take a look at various internal factors particularly healthcare and control those costs. Transit riders should not have to pay more and get less service.

MTC could possibly recommend consolidation of transit agencies, but that could be a wrong step to take. One of the reasons why transit agencies are suffering because MTC so far hasn't done much to control cost or provide additional funding for transit operations. Also, most of the transit advocates are distrustful of MTC given its record of backing BART expansions at the expense of cost effective transit. However there are opportunities to consolidate overhead (like San Mateo County, where the same office staff work for both Caltrain and SamTrans) that can keep front line operation intact and decision making process local.

The increasing cost to provide transit, without much increase in service or ridership, is disturbing. It weakens taxpayers' confidence and has harmed transit riders with fewer services and higher fares. With our growing senior population and changes in land use trend, we cannot afford not to have cost effective transit.

Friday, April 23, 2010

End of the road for that SFO shuttle

After raising the SFO surcharge from $1.50 to $4.00 last year, SFO and BART finally came to an agreement (with lots of horse trading over ad revenue and so forth) to revert the surcharge for airport employees, and that the employee shuttle between Millbrae and SFO would be eliminated.

Rising that surcharge for employees was a terrible idea in the first place. The airport has many blue-collar jobs and most of the current round trip fares on BART exceed their hourly wages.

However, eliminating the shuttle will increase expenses for employees. Even before BART raised the surcharge, the fares at SFO have always been higher than the fare at Millbrae. For the employees who take SamTrans buses on El Camino or Caltrain, that means no more free rides.

Of course those who got impacted the most are travelers taking Caltrain to SFO. Without that shuttle, they would have to pay the $4.00 fare with a confusing transfer in San Bruno. A decade ago, BART promised a free transfer for Caltrain riders because the extension would replace a free shuttle.

Even without the employee shuttle, Caltrain riders can still boycott the ridiculous $4.00 fare just to get between Millbrae and SFO. Here's how:

- From any station between Palo Alto and Hillsdale, just skip Caltrain entirely and take the SamTrans KX. SamTrans only charges $2.00 and KX stops by (on El Camino) many of the Caltrain stations between Palo Alto and Hillsdale. The northbound bus stop at Hillsdale is located a block south on El Camino and 37th Avenue.

- From Hayward Park, San Mateo, Burlingame, and Broadway station, skip Caltrain and take the SamTrans 292. Again it charges $2.00 and the bus picks up by many of the above stations.

- From further south, you can take Caltrain to Burlingame station and transfer to SamTrans 292. The northbound bus stop is located on California Drive and Howard Avenue, a block from the Caltrain station. From the station, just walk south to Howard Avenue and turn west to California Drive.

The timings between Caltrain and 292 work out some of the time. Before Caltrain and SamTrans slashed their services last year, it was possible to take Caltrain and transfer to the KX.

A better solution (and the best boycott against BART and SFO) is to use San Jose Airport. VTA and San Jose Airport still offer a direct, frequent, and free service to connect Caltrain and the light rail to the airport. The only downside is that San Jose Airport doesn't offer as much international flights or direct flights to big cities.

You can thank Quentin Kopp (former state senator and now HSR boardmember) for the mess at SFO. Back in the 90s, he lobbied for the current BART alignment at SFO knowing that it will drive up operating costs and make transfers (BART to Caltrain, and Caltrain to SFO) inconvenient. Last year, he was at it again by trying to prevent HSR from getting to Downtown San Francisco by throwing roadblocks at the Transbay Terminal project. Two weeks ago, when HSRA staff told him that his trojan horse alternative was considered infeasible, he casted the only no vote on the HSR alternative analysis for the Peninsula corridor. He was and still is an enemy to Caltrain riders. The sooner he becomes irrelevant, the better off we are.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April tidbits

July service changes

VTA's Transit Planning & Operations Committee will decide tomorrow on proposed bus changes for July.

VTA staff has originally proposed to change lines 11, 34, and 45 because of low ridership. After a series of public meetings last month, staff kept their recommendations for 11 and 34, and withdrew the proposal for line 45.

Unlike most public meetings in the past, VTA Vice Chair Margaret Abe-Koga (Mountain View) attended meetings in Mountain View on line 34 and in San Jose on line 11.

The proposal for line 11 is to eliminate the segment to the Market Center on Coleman and only provide service between Downtown and Taylor & 17th with a new route. The new route would have mostly two way service every 30 minutes (currently hourly) in that area and would offer better access to the City Hall and San Jose State.

For line 34, the plan is to reroute it to serve the senior center on Escuela Avenue. This proposal received support in the community.

Staff first planned to reroute line 45 down McKee between Alum Rock (in the foothills) and Capitol Avenue, and boost frequency from hourly to 45 minutes. VTA eventually withdrew that plan after receiving opposition from riders. The riders told the staff that the proposed 45 minute frequency wouldn't be as convenient because the schedule would be harder to remember.

Besides these three lines, VTA will also eliminate line 76 and the River Oaks Shuttle after receiving approval from the board last year. VTA delayed the elimination of line 76 until the end of the school year in June. The River Oaks Shuttle will run until July 9 when funding agreement expires.

Light Rail McDonald's wrap

McDonald's food isn't exactly healthy, but the fast food chain is supporting VTA service by wrapping light rail cars to promote french fries. Unlike the buses, the light rail cars have been ad free until a few years ago. At first, VTA place its own advertisements (like "New VTA") and was later expanded to other businesses.

Pictures below are taken by a VTA Watch blog reader.



VTA probably followed Caltrain's lead, which began wrapping its trains in 2004. Caltrain wrappings are rare because of the high cost.



VTA iPhone/iPod Touch app update

The author of the iVTA app recently released a new version of the software with improved functions. This application is particularly useful if you don't like to carry a lot of stuff and want to know what time the bus or the light rail will come.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Express light rail coming soon?

This Thursday, the VTA's Transit Planning & Operations Committee will consider approving the final light rail COA. Last year, VTA staff began studying various options to speed up light rail service and attract ridership. Unlike the prior effort to redesign the bus system in 2007, the light rail system is full of constraints and improvements to the tracks carry a high price tag.

The light rail COA is recommending:
1. Trains on the Santa Teresa - Alum Rock line would run non-stop between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Convention Center. Trains on the Almaden line would continue north to Mountain View and serve all stops. Trains from Winchester would turn back in Downtown San Jose. This operating plan is feasible with the current infrastructure.

VTA wants trains from Winchester to end in Downtown San Jose because the Vasona line has two single track segments and most stations there have two-car platforms. It costs $135 million to double track the entire line and lengthen the platforms, which could be avoided if VTA were to route trains from Almaden to Mountain View instead.

2. If BART is built to Berryessa, trains would run from Alum Rock to Mountain View during peak hours, with express service between Old Ironsides and Mountain View (a stop at Lockheed Martin). During off-peak hours, trains would run between Old Ironsides and Alum Rock. This operating plan requires adding another track in Mountain View.



What got dropped?
1. Double tracking on 1st Street in Downtown San Jose to speed up service - This idea is opposed by downtown businesses.

2. 4th Street station at SJSU - VTA considered an idea to have trains from Winchester to end at a new station on San Carlos and 4th Street, rather than having the trains run on 1st and 2nd streets. The cost for a new station is $20.6 million and would have 1400 extra riders, which is lower than having those trains run on 1st and 2nd streets.

What's still left?
VTA has drafted a list of "independent" improvements, which can be funded and constructed individually under any operating scenario. Those improvements include grade separation at 1st and Montague, fencing along 1st Street, a new station at Great America ACE (to replace Lick Mill and Great America stations), etc.

What is surprising is that VTA is anticipating 81,900 weekday riders on light rail in 2018 without adding additional service. VTA assumes land use changes and downtown growth would contribute most of the increase.

When it comes to projecting future ridership, it appears that the light rail planning staff have smoked the same joint as the BART-to-flea market staff. Today, light rail averages 34,305 weekday riders, which means light rail ridership is to be grown by 138% in 8 years!

In reality, between 2000 and 2008, light rail ridership has increased by about 32%, which included additional riders from system extensions. The light rail system has added 45% in route miles within that 8 years. It is ironic that on one hand, the planning staff are using phony projections for ridership, and on the other hand, budget staff are using more realistic projections for finances.

The most important question is how much the new service would cost. VTA is estimating that the express service would add $2.5 million to $3.5 million per year (about 5-6% of the current light rail operating budget). The BART-related service would add $7.3 million per year (about 13% of the current budget).

This COA is a planning document and no immediate service change is expected when VTA board approves this report. What this COA will do is to provide directions to staff for pursuing outside funding and for future service planning.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Does VTA know the way to financial recovery?

Without much fanfare, VTA's ad-hoc financial recovery committee (comprised of some boardmembers and "stakeholders" like former vice-mayor Cindy Chavez) is reviewing various strategies to keep cost under control. Some of these ideas have been discussed in the previous financial stability committee back in 2003. VTA is currently looking for ways to increase ongoing revenues or decrease ongoing costs, rather than one-time revenues like the ARRA grants.


Ideas:

- Eliminate Eco Pass - Rather than allowing employers to buy annual transit stickers for all of their employees, VTA is considering eliminate that program and require all riders pay the regular fares. VTA believes the Eco Pass program is underpriced. According to VTA, if 50% of riders using Eco Pass pay the regular fares, VTA would break even on fare revenue. If less than 50% of those riders continue to pay the fare and ride VTA, VTA would be better off keeping Eco Pass.

- Extend 2000 Measure A indefinitely - While portions of the 2000 Measure A funds support the existing operation, it is a silly idea because it has no implication in the near term. Measure A isn't ready to expire until 2036.

- Service cuts - Not a new idea. Although VTA has a policy in place to evaluate low ridership services, VTA can't continually just cut services alone.

- Privatize transit service through competitive contracting - Privatizing service is popular among the business interests, but is heavily opposed by the labor groups. VTA says other agencies who have pursued contracting saved 32%-38% in operating costs. VTA used to outsource services like the DASH and the light rail shuttles. Today VTA only contracts out the ACE shuttles, which are funded by grants. As a variation, VTA could potentially use contracting for "new" services like BRT.

One of the biggest cost drivers is the health insurance cost for employees. In less than ten years, health/dental insurance premiums have more than doubled, from less than $15 million in 2000/2001 to over $30 million in 2008/2009. The employee contribution only covers a small fraction of the rising cost. VTA is considering plans to reduce employee benefits or require additional contributions from employees to cover more of the cost.

Unlike the previous 2003 committee, this committee has not (yet) proposed large fare increases (which didn't work), new taxes (since they would most likely fail), and tougher eligibility requirements for paratransit services. Back then, the proposal on paratransit received strong opposition from the disabled community. Although VTA approved most of the ideas, the board later reversed many of those policies.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Transit police investigates Caltrain Taser incident

The San Mateo County Sheriff, which patrols Caltrain in all three counties, is investigating a Taser incident onboard a Caltrain after a night Giants game on April 1. On that night, a passenger onboard became enraged. He was later removed from the train by the police and was tased on the ground. At first, the police tried to tase that passenger onboard but missed, and rather skimmed another passenger (who later checked his arm). The tased passenger later appeared unresponsive and was taken away on a stretcher.


Monday, April 05, 2010

Good bye Translink; say hi to Clipper



The logo above is what you'll see as Translink transitions into Clipper in the next few months. This new logo will appear on Translink equipment as soon as later this month. On June 15, cards with the Clipper logo will be available to the public and all Translink and Clipper card users will go to clippercard.com to manage add add values to their cards.

Basically this is a rebranding effort. MTC wants to rebrand the card because it thinks the Translink name is too generic (Translink is the name of the transit system in Vancouver BC, for instance). The selection of the name Clipper is supposed to evoke historic Clipper ships (which explains the design of the new logo). The backend infrastructure will still be the same. If you have a Translink card, the card will work the same way after the transition. If you don't have one, you may be eligible to get a Clipper card for free (usually $5 for a card).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The funding relief couldn't help save night service in Sacramento

Despite a partial restoration of the state transit funding by the governor, Sacramento RT yesterday approved a huge service cut in June that would involve elimination of 28 routes and cut all transit service after 9pm. In the past many large transit agencies have either considered ending overnight bus or late evening service because it would save the cost of dispatchers, supervisors, as well as the associated cost of providing paratransit service as required by ADA, but so far none has considered cutting service as early as 9pm. The agency should've done more to maintain service at least until 11pm so that there'll be some level of lifeline service available, or it can consider some type of flexible drop off service. The fact is that riders have jobs and classes that end after 9pm.

This is the kind of cuts that we don't like to see and that we work hard to fight against. As much as we rather want no cuts at all we all must face the ugly reality of the economy. We prefer cuts that are strategic, surgical, and would maintain a reasonable transit network.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Governor grants relief to transit riders

Despite an earlier threat to veto the gas swap legislation last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made deals with the legislature and signed the gas swap legislation along with two other bills that provide various tax credits yesterday.

The partial restoration of state funding will help reduce the need for more fare hikes and service cuts throughout the state. In additions to the cuts approved by Bay Area agencies, the funding crisis also hit hard on the transit system in Sacramento. Last Friday, Sacramento RT proposed to cut 37 of 91 bus routes and ending all bus and light rail operations after 9pm. Sacramento already has one of the most expensive local transit fares in the state. The proposal to eliminate service after 9pm would have a huge impact on swing shift workers and college students taking night courses.

Perhaps the governor isn't as bad as we first thought. (another movie clip)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Schwarzenegger screws transit riders once again

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a gas swap deal that would have preserved sales tax on diesel fuel for transit operation.

In response to a state court ruling last year that sales taxes on fuel must first be used for public transportation, Schwarzenegger proposed to eliminate sales taxes on all fuel and replace it with excise taxes. That excise taxes would be used to reduce the state's budget deficit. Under that plan, drivers would see a slight reduction in fuel prices because the excise tax would be smaller than the sales tax.

As we all know, public transit all over California is facing huge fare hikes and service cuts because of the elimination of state funding as well as reduction in local funding. The Democratic legislature later approved a more moderate swap by only eliminating the sales tax on gasoline and keeping the sales tax on diesel. Through the diesel sales tax, $400 million would be made available to transit agencies statewide. Although that plan was still flawed, at least it would have addressed the immediate crisis.

However, Schwarzenegger decided to veto the smaller swap. In a letter to the state legislative leaders, he wrote: "Instead you are sending me a bill that provides no tax relief to consumers at the pump and raises taxes on commuter rail services. I cannot sign this flawed legislation as written."

It was wrong for the governor to propose a budget gimmick and tried to pass it as a benefit to people who drive. It was also wrong for him to portray himself as a green governor while forcing transit agencies to make deep cuts, especially hurting seniors and the disabled.

But what else could you expect from a Republican politician? The party's stubbornness over its twisted ideology is inconsistent with the will of California's voters on transportation issues. That's why California Transit Association and League of California Cities are looking at a state ballot measure to prevent future budget raids.

His repeated budget raids on transit truly evoke a scene from his first Terminator movie:

Monday, March 15, 2010

VTA app, Highway 17 Express fare increase and more

iVTA

These days, portable electronics like iPhones and iPods are common and very popular among transit riders. Not only we get to enjoy the music, we also get to watch downloaded TV shows or play games, all while we are on transit. The open application platform for iPhone and iPod Touch have spawned many transit related applications. Many of them target large transit systems like the New York Subway. A few also target BART and Caltrain.

Finally there's an app for local transit in Silicon Valley, the home of Apple, Google, and many other companies. The San Jose Transit application was created by Vashishtha Jogi, a graduate student in software engineering at San Jose State University. The program allows the users to browse all VTA bus and light rail schedules and spot the next scheduled trip. The program can also show the departure times for a selected route at a particular time point (which is something also posted at certain bus stops).

This application is a good alternative to carrying stacks of paper schedule, and it is more convenient than calling VTA for times. While other online tools like Google Transit and 511 are available, they all require users to type in the origin and destination each time and therefore are inconvenient for long time transit riders, who usually know the system better than any automated trip planners.

This program works offline, which is useful for iPod Touch (basically an iPhone without the phone and AT&T service charge) owners in areas without a wifi connection.

The application costs 99 cents at the iTunes site. The author said that he will update the program for the upcoming schedule changes. Lets hope this program will get improved and have additional features added overtime.

Highway 17 Express fare increase

Santa Cruz Metro has scheduled a public hearing on a proposed fare increase for the Highway 17 Express route. While the detail has yet to be known, one of the reasons for increasing the fare is to maintain an "optimal" farebox recovery ratio. [update: Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that Santa Cruz Metro plans to raise fares by 25%. One way from $4 to $5, and monthly pass from $90 to $113. However, the agency doesn't seem to be in any financial danger that poses immediate risk to the service.]

Highway 17 Express fares have not changed since 2004, when it was combined with the Amtrak Thruway service. However this route continues to generate a much higher farebox recovery ratio than most transit routes.

Hearing date and location: Santa Cruz City Council Chambers, 809 Center Street, Santa Cruz, at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, March 26, 2010

Translink/Clipper



VTA is currently installing Translink/Clipper readers on its buses (as shown in the picture, which is located next to the farebox under the black plastic wrap. A VTA Watch reader has reported that he saw an unwrap reader installed and appeared operational, but didn't want to test it to see whether the reader was actually working.


Monday, March 01, 2010

VTA land sales

On this Thursday's VTA Board Agenda is the proposed sales of various lands owned by VTA.

These lands are located in various cities in Santa Clara County. VTA wants to get rid of these properties because it believes they are no longer useful for transportation purposes and that the potential for joint development is low. VTA believes that some of the more valuable land would provide significant one-time revenue to the agency.

Park and ride on Capitol Avenue near Alum Rock - currently a narrow strip of underutilized parking lot. It is over 1/3 mile from Alum Rock light rail station, which also has parking.
Communications Hill at CA-87 in San Jose - a little piece of land up by the hillside not facing any roads

Park and ride at Lawrence Expressway/Moorpark Park - currently a bus only commuter lot, but often misused by those at the nearby strip mall. The lot is also leased to a nearby local private high school for overflow parking.
Lean and Herlong in San Jose - Basically a narrow strip of land located behind a row of single family housing and the CA-85 freeway. VTA proposes to sell that land to adjacent home owners.

North 1st & St. James - It is small parking lot leased to a parking operator. County of Santa Clara owns the rest of the lot and it is planning to use the land to expand the courthouse.

Page Mill/El Camino Park and Ride in Palo Alto - While it has a higher potential for TOD, VTA considers the land too small to worth its time and resources. The current lot is not well used by transit riders.
After approval by the VTA Board, VTA would first offer these lands at market value to other public entities for schools, parks, or low income housing. If other entities do not accept the offer, the land would be offered to the public.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

VTA plans route changes for 11, 34, 45

VTA will host three public meetings in March to accept comments for proposed route changes for lines 11, 34, and 45. All three routes are considered under-perform according to VTA's ridership standards.

11 - This route was reincarnated in January 2008 to serve the Market Center on Coleman and the Japantown area. The line has a big one way segment northeast of Downtown because of pressure from San Jose Councilman San Liccardo. However this route did not perform well and Saturday service was discontinued earlier this year. VTA proposes to reroute the service between Downtown and 17th & Taylor to provide two-way service and eliminate the service to the Market Center. In exchange, the service will boost from every hour to every 30 minutes.

34 - VTA proposes to extend the service to the Mountain View Senior Center on Escuela Avenue. VTA has attempted to cut the service last year but withdrew the plan.

45 - This line was established in January 2008. Before that it was a part of line 64, which serve Alum Rock Avenue between Downtown and East San Jose. VTA proposes to reroute the line to run on Alum Rock and McKee east of Capitol Avenue. Service along Toyon and Penitencia Creek would be discontinued. In exchange for a shorter route, the line would run every 45 minutes instead of hourly.

The three meetings will take place on the same week in different locations:

Line 11 Public Meeting
Tuesday, March 16, 2010 6:00 p.m.
Northside Community Center
Community Room
488 North 6th Street, San Jose

Line 34 Public Meeting
Monday, March 15, 2010 10:00 a.m.
Mountain View City Hall
Council Chambers
500 Castro Street, Mountain View

Line 45 Public Meeting
Thursday, March 18, 2010 6:00 p.m.
Alum Rock Public Library
Community Room
3090 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Power outage in Palo Alto



A plane crash in East Palo Alto caused a power outage in the Palo Alto area, forcing businesses to close. Caltrain also suffered minor delays as trains slowed down at each road crossings. Ticket machines and validators also went out of power.

Fight onboard AC Transit

Unfortunately violence between passengers also happens outside San Francisco.

While violence between passengers can be frightening to others, it is completely avoidable.

  1. There are some people that we should not start a conversation with, even though it would appear impolite if we ignore them.
  2. There is no point in escalating the argument. Since no one will win or lose anything by winning or losing any argument, why don't we just shut up and get to where we need to go as quick as possible.
  3. We should never encourage others to fight. (some riders on this video tried to calm the riders down, whereas the riders on the Muni video encouraged the Chinese woman to fight).

Update: This is the video after both got off the bus.

It appears that both men involved in this fight have issues. If you look carefully, the writing on the back of the blue T-shirt the white man was wearing says "I am a motherfucker." What a conversation starter!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Again...Don't mess with FTA

Today, FTA told BART and MTC that the Oakland Airport Connector will no longer be eligible for the stimulus funds because of BART's failure to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Last month, while MTC and BART continued their support of the project and pledged to address FTA's concerns, FTA said that BART would not be able to comply with Title VI before the deadline, and that the Bay Area would be better off spending the $70 million stimulus funds in other ways. Transform, which has been advocating against the OAC in favor of bus rapid transit, wants the money to be directed to local transit agencies, which would help reduce the need for service reductions and fare increases.

Transit agencies are indeed short of funding. Muni in San Francisco is trying to address a $16.9 million mid-year budget deficit with series of fee hikes and service cuts. AC Transit has approved a series of bus cuts to be implemented next month. SamTrans and VTA made painful cuts in December and January.

While the $70 million will be useful, it is largely a one-time relief. The more important battle to ensure future funding stability for transit is happening in Sacramento, where the governor has proposed to eliminate sales tax on fuel (which is restricted to transportation uses only by ballot initiative) and create a new gas "fee" that cannot be diverted to transit.

Unfortunately, the Democratic-controlled legislature isn't helping either (from MTC Advisory Committee member Margaret Okuzumi):

The main differences between the proposals are that the Democrats would hold on to the diesel tax. They also propose giving regional agencies like MTC the ability to put a regional gas tax on the ballot to help get money for transit. MTC has been asking for this authority for years and the legislature has always said no.

Giving MTC this authority might be a help. But it’s a risky funding strategy for transit because there is no guarantee that voters would approve a regional gas tax. It has rarely polled over 50% in the past, polling well only once when voters were told the money would fund initiatives to stop climate change. That was soon after Gore’s movie came out, and climate change is no longer a top concern of voters due to the recession and successful disinformation campaign by climate change deniers. Also, anti-tax groups are likely to sue.


Please contact your state legislators (Assembly and Senate) and let them know that they need to preserve funding for transit.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

VTA 2010 SRTP

VTA tomorrow night is expected to approve its Short Range Transit Plan. SRTP is a routine planning document for transit agencies statewide. It forces them to predict future revenues and how they plan to spend the money.

Last year, VTA predicted it could keep the same level of transit service for the next 10 years. However, a month after approving that SRTP, VTA publicly admitted that it needs to raise fares and cut services. This time, the SRTP assumes new financial realities. Today, VTA uses more conservative scenarios in projecting future sales tax revenue growth (negative growth in sales taxes after adjusted for inflation). Nonetheless, VTA also assumes that somehow State Transit Assistance (which was removed for 5 years by the state legislature to balance the state budget) would come back next year, and that all federal eligible federal capital funds would be diverted fo operations (under the preventive maintenance category).

The current draft SRTP assumes that the reduced transit service will continue for the next 8 years. To handle the projected ridership on some bus routes, VTA would use more articulated buses. In 2013, VTA expects to operated enhanced 522 BRT service. the 523 BRT service on Stevens Creek would start in 2017.

Also included in the SRTP is the first year of BART operation to Berryessa. In 2008, VTA cheated the VTA Board and voters by presenting a financial scenario showing that the Measure B tax would fully fund the operating cost for BART extension. This SRTP however, shows the exact opposite. Starting in 2019, the first full year of operation, VTA is expected to pay $46.32 million to BART for operating subsidy and $10.09 million for capital reserve. On the other hand, VTA is expected to receive $37.34 million from the 1/8% sales tax. Although not shown in the SRTP spreadsheet, the capital reserve is expected to raise every year for the next 15 years.

Even though VTA plans to collect the 1/8 cent tax years before BART opening (thus not having to spend it), VTA would likely exhaust that surplus in less than 10 years after. If this scenario holds, VTA would eventually have to cut bus service or raise taxes to further subsidize the useless BART line. So much for "Measure A pays operating costs for BART, rail, and buses for decades without additional taxes." (Carl Guardino in the 2000 Measure A rebuttal)

In future years, financial projection will change depending on the economy, political leadership, and tax structure. Despite optimistic scenarios used in some years, transit riders were more affected during economic downturns than during economic booms. During good economic times, transit unions generally demand much of the new revenue to go toward their salaries and benefits instead of new services. When good times come to an end, agencies cut costs mostly by cutting service. While agencies including VTA try to cut labor costs, factors like pensions and healthcare seriously limit their options.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A very good day for high speed rail

President Obama announced that $2.34 billion will be awarded to California for high speed rail and the state-funded Amtrak system.

Although the funding is relatively small compared to the overall cost of the high speed rail project, it is a seed money that can expedite some elements of the entire program. If it is spent wisely by the High Speed Rail Authority and local agencies, it can create jobs and bring some transportation benefits before the entire high speed rail system is built.

While some supporters expressed concerns that this federal aid is too small, it is also important to note that Washington is likely to approve additional funding in future years, especially if the Democrats keep control of the Congress and the White House.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Don't mess with FTA

Up in Oakland, MTC and BART believed it is still business as usual as they plan for the Oakland Airport Connector, a people mover providing connection between the Coliseum station and the Oakland Airport. However it is no longer the case when BART received a letter from FTA threatening to pull out $70 million stimulus funds from the Bay Area because BART failed to produce an equity analysis showing the impacts of the OAC project on low income and minority communities.

In response, MTC staff has recommended its board to continue supporting the OAC project, but would give BART a few weeks to complete the equity analysis. If BART fails to convince FTA, then that stimulus funding would be distributed to local transit agencies. Under that alternative, Muni and BART each would receive $17 million, VTA would receive $12 million, and AC Transit would receive $7 million.

OAC supporters argued that OAC stimulates the economy by providing needed construction jobs. At the same time, distributing the same funds to local agencies also help the economy by curbing job losses by transit agencies as they cut service. Even after a series of service cuts implemented by Muni last month, Muni is still projecting a $16.9 million budget gap, which means further service cuts and fare hikes. For VTA, that $12 million could go a long way as VTA is dipping into reserve this year and next year, on top of service cuts implemented earlier this month.

Although the Obama administration has expressed willingness to increase federal transit funding and loosen up the eligibility requirements to receive such funds, it is also clear that maintaining transit service is a priority. Yesterday, President Obama was speaking at an event in Lorain County Ohio and commented on the impact of transit cuts in that county: "You can't get to work or go buy groceries like you used to because of cuts in the county transit system." Lorain County eliminated 2/3 of its bus routes after voters rejected a sales tax increase to address the funding shortfall. The service cuts are hitting hard especially on senior and disabled riders, and making economic recovery difficult as more and more unemployed have difficult access to jobs and schools for training.

Back in the Bay Area, one of the main issues for the OAC is the proposed $6 one way fare. The current AirBART shuttle service costs $3 one way and requires no tax subsidy. Compared to the bus service, the proposed project would not be significantly faster or frequent, and would drop off riders at the airport further away from the terminals than the existing buses. While many airport travelers may be willing to pay the high fares, $12 round trip is obviously too high for airport employees. To address FTA's concerns, BART could argue that it can give fare discounts to airport employees and other low income groups. But then can BART promises ever be trusted? 12 years ago, BART promised free fare for Caltrain riders between Millbrae and the SF Airport. Now, it is $4 one way for a one station ride. Also, BART does not waive the $4 airport surcharge for SFO employees, which prompted the airport to provide its own employee shuttle to Millbrae.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Buy VTA passes online

VTA has announced today that bus/light rail monthly passes can be purchased online. The online store accepts VISA, Mastercard, and Discover Card. A $1.50 shipping and handling fee will be applied. VTA will send the passes to customers by US Mail within two days.

Adult local, express, youth, and senior monthly passes are available.

VTA is currently in the process of putting Translink readers on its buses, in hopes of implementing Translink later this year. Once VTA accepts Translink, riders can buy electronic passes online for their Translink card. The electronic passes require no handling fee and will be activated automatically on the rider's card within 72 hours. Translink passes are available for AC Transit and Caltrain. The only downside for Translink passes is that there's no free transfer privileges for agencies that don't currently accept Translink.

Also in the works by Translink contractors is a pass accumulator, which is a feature that allows riders to pay cash fare with Translink card until the rider hits the daily and/or monthly fare cap. Any additional rides afterwards would be free for the rest of the day or month. In other words, instead of buying a $6.00 day pass in the morning, you could just pay the $2.00 one way fare with Translink for each ride. After your 3rd ride, any rides for the rest of the day will be automatically free. With an accumulator, you will always get the best value without having to think about whether to buy a pass.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Transit is about independence

It is nice to see transit riders having their voices heard about the transit cut backs and fare increases on San Jose Mercury News. Obviously, service reductions and fare hikes have impacted quality of life for many transit riders, especially for the seniors and disabled. They now face more difficult choices between spending money on transit and other essential expenses like rent and food. Many also have less choices on where they can work, shop, get education, and even receive medical services.

Politically, transit riders get left behind. People who drive automobiles (which most politicians are) typically do not appreciate the importance of public transportation, especially local bus service, because they find most transit unattractive to use. As such, politicians are more interested in pushing expensive and wasteful projects (like light rail and BART) while transit riders suffer from service reductions.

As unattractive as it may appear to people who have cars, local transit provides independence for the low income, seniors, the disabled, and teenagers. Although they cannot travel as fast as those with cars, transit service allows them independently to access jobs, shopping centers, schools, and hospitals/clinics on their own. Public transportation is generally safer, less expensive, more dependable, and environmentally superior than any other alternatives, including owning unsafe and uninsured clunkers to get around. Although transit services may appear optional and less important than other societal priorities, transit serves as a critical link for many to these other priorities, a means to an end.

The current transit funding crisis is threatening the future success of transit service. Like most businesses, transit services need time to grow its ridership base. It is generally unrealistic to expect full trains and buses on the first day of the new service. With periodic service reductions (and especially service eliminations), riders who come to depend on the service have to make important adjustments, and which may cause them to abandon transit altogether. Even if the service could be restored in a few years, that same rider may not come back.

The situation in the Bay Area is actually a scratch on the surface. As funding cuts affect agencies across the state, many transit providers outside the Bay Area have made even deeper cuts. Some rural transit agencies have discontinued their limited service that made intercity connections. In those areas, taxi service is much more limited, and Greyhound service is unavailable.

Of course transit also provides independence for those who drive cars. With high quality transit, car owners can choose not drive to certain places and free themselves from high parking fees, and families who might need two or more cars can cut down to just one. Parents would not have to always drive their kids around, and adult children would not have to always drive their elderly parents around.