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.