Palo Alto residents told county transportation officials to go back to the drawing board after viewing three proposed reconfigurations of the bus system during a community meeting on Wednesday night.
Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) administrators unveiled the three proposals, one of which would substantially reduce the frequency of some bus lines, and one that would eliminate all bus routes serving Palo Alto save for two direct lines from Palo Alto to San Jose, whose frequency would increase. Express buses to the Stanford Research Park and the Palo Alto VA Hospital would not be affected.
VTA officials said the changes, known as the Next Network plan, are necessary to make the agency more profitable and attract additional riders. But more than 30 Palo Alto residents at the community meeting said they are tired of their service being the first cut by the transit agency in favor of improved service at the south end of the county, particularly in San Jose.
Residents said they will oppose any more cuts to service, and they want county officials to change their strategy to one that connects all parts of the county by bus service, including areas that are barely served or not served at all now.
Reducing the number of bus lines and their frequency to improve VTA's bottom line has been tried since the 1970s, and those cuts to service have not brought the revenue results that VTA has promised, former Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commissioner Arthur Keller said at the meeting.
In 2007, VTA proposed completely eliminating the VTA 88 line. Resident Penny Ellson organized community opposition to that cut, including bringing a group of PTA volunteers, staff, City Council members, and Board of Education members to San Jose for the hearing before the VTA board.
Ellson said she worked with PTA volunteers and city staff over many months negotiating with VTA and advocating in San Jose to save the line. Changes included changing a Palo Alto Shuttle route so that it would not compete for VTA farebox revenue among other changes. She said that she supported the compromise plan in 2007 when it was the only way to save vital south Palo Alto service. With Keller, she led the fight to preserve the 86 line. But with VTA's proposal to again cut the 88 line, Ellson said she would not support the VTA's November transportation-tax measure.
The transit agency's $6 billion transportation-tax measure would add a 1/2 cent sales-tax increase to be used for an extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to San Jose; Caltrain improvements; seed funding for "grade separation" (an under- or overpass) of railroad tracks from streets; highway and expressway projects; and transportation programs in individual cities.
VTA will not come out with its draft network plan until December, after the election, which Keller and others said raises suspicions that the agency after the election will announce that the money north county voters thought would fund north county service will go to San Jose instead.
Under the most drastic plan, Palo Alto would lose its Line 88, which stops at Gunn High School; Line 89, which stops at Stanford Research Park; and Line 35, which stops near Fabian Way and Middlefield Road and serves the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.
Only Lines 22 and 522, which run along El Camino Real from the downtown Palo Alto Transit Center at University Avenue to San Jose, would remain.
A second proposal would eliminate Line 89 and would limit Line 88 to every 60 minutes during peak hours only. Currently, the line runs every 45 minutes. Line 35 would continue to stop every 30 minutes, and Line 22 would run every 15 minutes as opposed to up to 20 minutes during midday. Line 522 would run every 12 minutes with limited stops, instead of 15 to 21 minutes during midday.
Another proposal would be similar to the current configuration, VTA Senior Project Manager Jay Tyree said, but it is unclear how that would help VTA. Residents at the meeting voted to keep the line as is, but they also want improvements.
VTA says it needs to revamp its system to be less dependent on subsidies and to become more profitable. Ridership dropped 23 percent between 2001 (its highest point) and 2015, although it recovered some from its lowest point in 2006, according to the agency.
Its farebox recovery rates (the percentage of costs paid for by passengers' fares) have dropped from between 14 and 15 percent of revenue to about 13 percent since 2013. And VTA's farebox rate is the lowest of eight western U.S. transit agencies that VTA consultants Jarrett Walker & Associates studied: Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, Denver Regional Transportation District, King County Department of Transportation, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), San Francisco Municipal Railway, Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon and Utah Transit Authority. The agencies were chosen using National Transit Database data of peer agencies that exhibited similar trends to VTA, according to the Jarrett Walker "Transit Choices Report."
In the past 15 years, VTA's amount of service has also declined from a high of 1.65 million revenue hours (the measure of how much service a transit agency provides) in 2001 from combined bus and light rail to a low of 1.32 million in 2012 -- a 20 percent overall decline.
Revenue hours have climbed since 2012, but they remain 13 percent below the 2001 level, according to the agency. VTA is the only transit agency out of those studied by Jarrett Walker that has not increased service since 2011.
But residents and city officials made it clear that cuts would not be acceptable to them. Resident Elizabeth Alexis said that VTA should develop a transit system similar to that of Zurich, Switzerland, which had 42 transit agencies work together to create a seamless system where there are no transit "deserts." Everyone gets at least one bus line that comes once per day and service is well-timed, she said.
"This is asking us to choose what death you want," she said of the VTA proposals. "This is unacceptable. Start over. We want another idea. We want them to come back to say, 'How do we grow the network?'"
VTA did not start by asking the right questions but instead framed the choice as between ridership and coverage when designing the proposed routes, Palo Alto City Councilman Cory Wolbach said.
"Congestion management isn't even on the map. It's a binary choice," he said. "You should ask about mobility and congestion management and do you have a strong network."
Keller said that persons with disabilities would be seriously affected.
"Outreach (paratransit) service is based on fixed-route service. ... If you get rid of the fixed routes, the Outreach also goes away," Keller said. "Much of Palo Alto loses Outreach services, considering that the fixed routes would be eliminated, and that is simply not fair."
VTA officials conceded that there will be trade-offs. To fill buses more, the agency would have to reduce the areas served by buses. The most aggressive alternative proposal, Network 90, is based on that goal. In that scenario, green-colored lines on the map, which represent the least efficient lines that arrive every 60 minutes, would be replaced by red lines, which indicate buses that come every 15 minutes or less. That better service would be at the expense of having fewer lines, according to the agency.
But Ellson pointed out that all of the green lines in San Jose improve at the expense of taking away service in Palo Alto and the north county.
"We're on the outer edge. There is only one red line in Palo Alto and it goes straight to San Jose. That sends a very clear message to our community," she said. "I don't feel there is anything on this table that we can support."
Wolbach said he was dissatisfied with the proposals and VTA's strategy.
"My feelings about this range from concern to highly disturbed, and the timing is poor," he said, referring to the upcoming transportation-tax measure.
Palo Alto is trying to improve mobility and reduce traffic congestion by providing more transportation alternatives to cars, including a plan to upgrade its own shuttle services.
"This moves us in the exact opposite direction," Wolbach said of the VTA proposals. "It's hard for us to move forward on our planning for the shuttles because this is so up in the air. It may slow down our planning."
"This drives home for me why we've been focused on revamping and building up the shuttle system. We cannot depend on VTA," Wolbach added.
Details on the Next Network can be found at nextnetwork.vta.org/
VTA is offering the public a transit choices survey. To take the survey, visit nextnetwork.vta.org.