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Response to Jarrett Walker study of Silicon Valley Transit

written by andy on

Late last year, VTA hired a star transit consultant Jarrett Walker (also is one of the founders of BayRail Alliance, when it was known as Peninsula Rail 2000) to review the bus network at VTA in hopes to increase transit ridership. Recently Walker released a report and challenged conventional wisdoms. This blog briefly summarized the report’s findings so I won’t cover it here. The following are more of my reviews.


 

VTA had a substantial ridership and service reduction back in the early 2000s which in terms of ridership and service levels were never recovered (even though spending have somewhat recovered). The reason for the substantial reduction was a significant decline of the sales tax revenue, which VTA was highly relied on. Back in the year 2000, VTA, like other Silicon Valley firms, was living in a bubble. They had a high sales tax revenue projection for the next few decades, in support of the 2000 Measure A sales tax, to fund BART and other projects. The measure’s critics, including myself, did not believe that the sales tax would generate enough revenue and that additional taxes would be needed to fund BART specifically. After the measure was passed, San Jose Mercury columnist Gary Richards declared “$6 billion in the bank” to describe the bubble mentality of himself (he was a Measure A proponent) and of VTA. A year later, while the bubble finally burst for valley firms, VTA was still receiving high sales tax revenue collected a year before and was still on a spending spree. VTA hired more operators and spent money to buy more low floor light rail cars and retire existing ones early. VTA eventually laid off a lot of people but still had to pay for new light rail vehicles and service the debt.

As soon as 2002, VTA proposed service reductions. Back then VTA was running light rail and line 22 every 10 minutes, and with that reduction the frequency was dropped to 12 for line 22 and every 15 minutes for light rail. On the capital side, VTA pretty much had to abandon every rail expansion project that were not already under construction except BART. VTA’s obsession for BART was strong and ideas to build the projects in phases were rejected. We had concerns that there would be high debt service cost for BART construction and its impact on bus service. Construction projects require a steady and stable funding commitment to keep pace of construction. If the same source of money is also spent on daily operation, which would be likely to cut first if there’s a significant funding reduction?

I think that there should be a level of distrust of VTA regarding sales tax projection and its obsession for BART. I am not sure whether anything realistic could be done to generate revenue to support the bus system that will be protected from BART in the event of a cost overrun or change in economy. I think a brief pause for the phase 2 of the BART extension until the phase 1 opens would be highly desirable to determine whether this high level of political obsession for BART translate into a real transformation of mode share. In San Mateo County, politicians also had a strong obsession for BART extension to SFO (while Caltrain funding needs were neglected) until the extension opened, in which afterwards ridership failed to materialize and operating subsidy for BART from SamTrans had an increasing adverse impact on SamTrans bus operations.


 

I agree with the general assessment by Walker regarding the transit network and the value of frequency. I see increasing transit ridership by improving frequency to be something of more customer retention rather than convert someone who is already driving into riding transit. Like schools, transit agencies get new customers everyday: someone who has gotten a new job, someone who just lost their license, someone who starts attending school, etc. At the same time, transit agencies lose customers everyday, someone who has saved enough for a car, someone who has finally received a license, etc. While schools want their students to succeed, graduate, and move on, transit agencies would rather want to retain them. If transit agencies have a more dependable and frequent service, that same rider may want to delay purchasing an automobile, or just getting a bike instead to complement transit. Ridership can grow without necessarily having to convert someone who is already driving to instead ride transit, which is something much more expensive to do (such as building rail or operate non-stop express buses).


 

The report identified the lack of a north south frequent transit corridor on the west side. I agree. While the east-west frequent corridors exist and well known, the same experience does not exist in the other directions. If I were to travel from Palo Alto to Cupertino, I would have to figure out the appropriate transfer point somewhere in Sunnyvale to reduce waiting time. If there’s a single frequent corridor, the decision would’ve been much easier. I think the cities need to determine the appropriate corridor to support such service, and develop transfer points. In Cupertino for example, De Anza College and Stevens Creek Blvd are transit favorable, but the city lacks a single transit center where buses can stage and passengers can comfortably transfer.

The other area where there could be more transit service is the area around the I-880 and I-280 interchange. That interchange is surrounded by Valley Fair Mall, Santana Row, Valley Medical Center, and San Jose City College. All of those locations are transit favorable and do have frequent service. However because of the street layout, none of these locations are interconnected. These locations are also less than 3 miles from San Jose Diridon Station but have no frequent bus service that stop at that station.

A shuttle service from Valley Fair to San Jose Diridon via Valley Med and City College and I-280 should be one of the ideas to be explored. Another is to break the route 25 (runs every 10 minutes east of Valley Med, and every 30 minutes west of Valley Med) and extend the terminal from Valley Med to Valley Fair. This would create connections within the core network with transfers taking place at an off-street transit center.


 

The Envision Silicon Valley, or whatever it is named, seems very uninspired. Besides the a list of highway projects and street maintenance needs compiled by highway planners and public works staff, the only major transit on the list is BART, which is seeking a 3rd sales tax increase. When I observe other regions that are seeking additional tax funding, I see many of them propose ambitious ideas, such as rail through the Sepulveda pass, or a second transit tunnel through Downtown Seattle. It seems like after 16 years,the 2000 Measure A has nothing to show for, despite all the fancy promises that were made. Consider the political leaning and the wealth this county has, the project to put dedicated lanes on El Camino can easily instead be an extension of light rail. But this county choose to neglect every other form of transit because of its obsession with BART. I think that if we are to raise revenue for transit, there should be big, bold, and new ideas to build transit infrastructure on or near major highway corridors. Raising for money for BART isn’t going to address transit needs elsewhere in the region such as along CA-85, or along US-101 as Caltrain is reaching capacity. Also , I don’t think the alternative for not having better transit plans (because they’re trying to the fund BART) should be more highway lanes, but it seems to be the case.


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