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.


- 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 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).