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.

Monday, January 11, 2010

VTA obituaries: 33, 43

Two VTA bus routes got discontinued effective today:

33 - (Jan 10, 2000 - Jan 10, 2010) This line was created exactly a decade ago. Before the opening of the Tasman West LRT, line 20 was the main bus route between Milpitas and Mountain View along Tasman. (At that time bus 20 took 237 to get between Zanker Road and Milpitas as Tasman Drive was yet to be built over Coyote Creek.) Also at that time line 74 provided service to the McCarthy Ranch Shopping Center.

With the opening of the Tasman West LRT in late 1999, line 20 was discontinued, and line 74 was extended to connect with LRT at Baypointe, where all LRT riders transferred between Tasman and First Street trains. Line 33 was created to fill the gap left by line 20 between First Street and Milpitas. The first version of line 33 went from Baypointe to the Weller & Main bus stop in Milpitas via McCarthy Ranch.

Over the decade, that line changed alignment several times. As light rail went further east to Alum Rock in 2004 and line 74 got discontinued, Line 33 remained the local service for the McCarthy Ranch and the areas north of Tasman. Eventually in January 2008, it went only from I-880/Milpitas Station to the Great Mall Station via McCarthy Ranch.

Starting today, line 47 will provide service to McCarthy Ranch via Calaveras. The trip will be quicker from the Calaveras area but will take much longer if transferring directly from the light rail. Also the shopping centers south of 237 will no longer have any bus service.

43 - (January 14, 2008 - January 10, 2010) That number was used before its latest reincarnation in January 2008. Ten years ago, line 43, along with line 41, provided feeder service from the Lawrence Caltrain station to the north Sunnyvale/Santa Clara industrial areas. These lines were eliminated back in 2002/2003 as VTA suffered from the dot-com bust and its original 2000 sales tax projection went to hell.

Two years ago, VTA reestablish that route as a Sunday only service along Capitol Expressway between Alum Rock LRT and Eastridge. That line filled the gap left by 522, which provides service along Capitol Expressway on weekdays and Saturdays. Before 2008, line 31 provided service between the Alum Rock light rail and Eastridge, except that took side streets parallel to the expressway. Without line 43, getting to the Alum Rock light rail from Eastridge will be more difficult if not practical on Sundays. Lines 70 and 71 will continue to provide north-south service between Milpitas and Eastridge, except that those lines will connect with light rail further north closer to Milpitas.

Of course we cannot forget that lines 11 and 13 have lost all weekend service, as well as lines 42, 45, and 46 that have lost Sunday service.

Are there more cuts on the way? Who knows? What we know is that the economy is still not recovered and that Sacramento's broken politics will remain a threat. Michael Burns will say that he's trying to preserve as much of the service as he can, but you also got VTA Chair Sam Liccardo who appears to remain clueless about what everyday transit riders face.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cuts coming in effect

Today VTA will implement significant cuts to the transit system. Sadly, this has been the trend across the Bay Area, the state, and the country. It is particularly worse in California since Sacramento has eliminated some of the most important transit funding that all transit agencies receive.

In this tough times, we must fight to preserve more of the service, and work hard to restore the funds lost. After that, we have to fight to make sure that our restored service is sensible, functional, cost effective, and better than what we have before the cuts.

Mike Rosenberg at Bay Area News Group decided to portray the loss of service and ridership as a cause and effect for commuters turning to automobile. Of course there's element of truth in that (people start to ride transit all the time and leave when they can afford automobiles, a constant challenge for all agencies to keep ridership). However, much of that ridership loss is also contributed by the high unemployment rate. Compared to last year, unemployment in San Jose nearly doubled (in the double digits). There are fewer cars on the road too as a result of high unemployment. Some turn to driving as they no longer have a transit-preferable work schedule/work site or that their employers no longer provide transit subsidy (like Eco Pass) as companies try to cut costs. Also, some people turn to bicycle instead, which has the flexibility of automobile but with even lower cost and can be brought on transit.

If transit cuts result in more people buying cars, that may not be a bad news for transit. As we all know, sales tax is a major source of transit operating funds in the Bay Area. Part of the reason we are in crisis is the large reduction of local sales tax revenue, and that drop in automobile sales is a significant factor.

The current trend does not indicate increasing auto sales. Last year, there were 4 million more cars scraped nationally that were not replaced by new vehicles. In addition, auto manufacturers have decided to close dealerships and reduce production in the long run to maintain profitability (which explains why Toyota and GM decided to close the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont). This current trend in auto sales could implicate tax revenue projection for transit agencies, which could impact service.

Friday, January 08, 2010

San Jose insists HSRA to study something that it can't afford

City of San Jose is a master of hypocrisy. Years ago, they insisted that trains should route through its city. Since HSRA selected an alternative that routes through San Jose. The city now demands it to go underground.

Last month, despite the fact that HSRA board voted to drop the underground alternative citing high cost and engineering risks, HSRA now has agreed to further study that concept after San Jose delusionals (Mayor Reed and the awful Councilman Sam Liccardo) sent a letter to the authority.

Underground HSR proponents think that a visible alignment through San Jose would somehow divide the city, conveniently ignoring the fact that San Jose has two ugly elevated freeways (87 and 280) separating the downtown with neighborhoods to the south and the west. Although they continue to cite the Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco as a reason for their opposition against elevated structures, they are not demanding that these two San Jose freeways be torn down.

Is the City of San Jose prepared to tax itself to put HSR underground? If San Jose does not want a HSR visible in the city and cannot afford to build it underground, shouldn't it be supporting the Altamont alternative instead. Also, by removing the ugly elevated 87 freeway (which was recently widened with support from Carl Guardino), the city would do much more to tie the rest of Downtown San Jose with the proposed HSR station and HP Pavilion than putting anything underground.

Unfortunately, HSRA's action sets a bad example and does nothing other than wasting time. On one hand, you got Rod Diridon on the HSRA agreeing to waste time to study an option that San Jose cannot afford, yet emboldens the NIMBYs further north on the Peninsula to make the same demand. On the other hand, you got Quentin Kopp (also on the HSRA) fighting San Francisco by forcing HSRA to study another unbuildable alternative HSR terminal in San Francisco that nobody (other than Kopp's friends) wants, and which is unnecessarily threatening the residents at Rincon Hill as Kopp's alternative would require removal of a 300-unit condo high rise.

It is time for reform at HSRA.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

VTA to start planning work on BRT and more

On the VTA Board agenda tomorrow is the approval of an agreement between VTA and the City of San Jose on the BRT project along the Santa Clara-Alum Rock (SCAR) corridor. Knowing that VTA has no money along with other issues, VTA decided to change what was originally a light rail project into bus rapid transit.

The proposed project would consists of two BRT lines, 522 and 523. In San Jose, new "stations" would be constructed on San Carlos Street, Santa Clara Street, and Alum Rock Avenue. Along San Carlos and Santa Clara streets, the BRT stops would mostly be longer curbside bus stops that cover the parking lane (so that buses would stay on the traffic lane while at stop). On Alum Rock Avenue east of King, BRT will have an exclusive bus way on the street median and will have dedicated BRT stations similar to light rail.

14 stations are planned along San Carlos, Santa Clara, and Alum Rock Ave. Included in the proposal is a station on Santa Clara and 28th Street, which is intended to be a BART transfer point if VTA ever finds the money to build it beyond Berryessa. Since funding for an extension beyond Berryessa is unlikely at least in the foreseeable future, VTA also proposes a BRT station at 24th Street (instead of 28th Street) to better serve the neighborhood. In addition, VTA will consider two station options near the San Jose City Hall. One option would put the eastbound bus platforms right in front of the City Hall between 5th & 6th streets. Another option would put it where it is now between 6th & 7th streets. The City of San Jose is actually quite elitist by not allowing VTA to put bus stops right in front of the City Hall. Before the construction of the City Hall, there was a bus stop for the 22 line on the southeast corner of Santa Clara Street and 4th Street. It was moved to 3rd Street during the construction and was never returned.

Included in the BRT plan is the stop enhancements along Capital Expressway between Alum Rock light rail and Eastridge, under the assumption that VTA cannot find funding to extend light rail from Alum Rock to Eastridge.

Meetings on Vasona LRT extension

Despite the fact that VTA studied the extension nearly 10 years ago, and the fact that most of the original proposal has been completed, VTA will be hosting a meeting in Campbell next week for the extension from Winchester to Vasona Junction. While VTA has completed the environmental document for the project to Vasona Junction before the construction of the line to Winchester, VTA needs to update the document and complete the federal environmental process to qualify for federal funds. Like the Alum Rock-Eastridge light rail extension, VTA no longer has local funds to build them as originally planned.

Wednesday, January 13, 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Campbell Library
77 Harrison Avenue, Campbell