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Palo Alto residents oppose Valley Transportation Authority bus plan

Bus system redesign might drastically reduce service in area

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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

VTA is offering the public a transit choices survey. To take the survey, visit

To read the transit assessment, click here. To view the concept network design maps, click here.


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Like this comment
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on May 19, 2016 at 11:28 am

Who are the "Palo Alto Residents"?!#@

I am all for doing the "real world" trial. Numbers will tell!

3 people like this
Posted by Me me me
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 19, 2016 at 11:46 am

Yes, because as usual it is all about palo alto and the needs of a very vocal minority.

2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on May 19, 2016 at 11:48 am

"Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) officials unveiled the three proposals"

Could you please link to these proposals? This article only links to the conceptual alternatives; those maps with bold letters on top stating "This is not a proposal".

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2016 at 11:56 am

The likelihood of me using an improved line to San Jose is zilch. I don't use it now, and can't see a need for me to use it in the future. I just don't go to San Jose, or if I do I would use Caltrain or drive.

However, I do go to San Antonio, to Stanford, to the high schools and Foothill College, to Menlo Park, to Castro Street, to Redwood City, to Sunnyvale, to Los Altos and of course to the airports. I could use a bus to get to these places, if there was one.

5 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Good mass transit requires density.

Palo Alto "residentialists" don't want that.

Ergo, no VTA for us.

Simple as that.

9 people like this
Posted by Yuck!
a resident of Community Center
on May 19, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Been on a bus lately? VERY slow, lots of stops, even when there is no one at many of the stops. Dirty, smelly seats. Dirty aisles. A few drunken people, passed out, disheveled, also smelly. At night tat number doubles.

No way, Jose!

6 people like this
Posted by Adam Burger
a resident of another community
on May 19, 2016 at 1:51 pm

For Robert and other readers:

VTA will need to redesign its transit network somewhat in order to connect to BART service that will begin serving the Milpitas and Berryessa BART stations in the fall of 2017. 23,000 trips are anticipated to pass through those two stations and current VTA service in those areas is inadequate to serve that travel demand. We are also receiving direction from our Board of Directors and the public that VTA should attempt to increase ridership and improve its farebox recovery rate. This creates an opportunity to assess the effectiveness and performance of our current service and ask a question about what the goals of public transit should be. Is it to maximize ridership by putting more service in areas that have higher potential to generate ridership? Or is it to provide transit service to as many areas as possible regardless of how many riders use those services? Both are worthwhile goals, but they are in conflict with each other. You can’t do both at the same time so we look at this question in terms of a spectrum with the ridership goal at one end and the coverage goal at the other end. What should the balance between these goals be? How much of our resources should be allocated for each goal?

As Palo Alto residents and residents of other communities have noted, putting more resources toward the ridership goal means less transit routes in their area which many oppose. We understand why residents feel this way and we appreciate the input. Our objective is to collect public input that we can provide to VTA’s Board of Directors so that they can provide informed guidance to staff regarding how transit service should be designed. We are at the beginning of a five-month community engagement effort to seek public input and are happy to discuss this project with the community.

In order to help the public understand what different balances of ridership and coverage goals look like, we've created three network concepts (not proposals) that illustrate the range of potential outcomes so that everyone can understand the potential impacts. These are merely concepts and represent what we think the network would look like based on different balances of the two goals. Routes and frequencies are merely conceptual and we are a long way from developing a final plan. We encourage everyone to check out the concepts and give us feedback.

A blog post series that discuss the project and network design tradeoffs in greater detail can be found at Web Link. We encourage everyone to take the Transit Choices Survey as well as vote for their ridership/coverage preference. You can also invite VTA project staff to discuss the project with your community by clicking the book-a-planner button. We look forward to your input.

Adam Burger
Next Network Project Team
Valley Transportation Authority

3 people like this
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 19, 2016 at 8:03 pm

Why is it that all the buses have darkened windows now, so people can't see how many people are riding buses?

Even at rush hour, I try to see how many are riding the buses, and they often appear nearly empty when I can see anything.

Not so much the VTA alone, or on El Camino Real, but almost all buses now. It's easy to see how many people ride trains, but not the buses. It's those dark windows.

4 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 20, 2016 at 8:51 am

@ Me: Mountain View is increasing density dramatically and the cuts, such as to the 35 bus, affect them too. The main focus of VTA now is BART and connectivity to BART.

9 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 20, 2016 at 8:59 am

@ Supply & Demand: In 2007, there was an attempt to improve ridership through a similar approach. Palo Alto lost the 86 bus then. Ridership didn't improve. So they are trying again.

An important goal of VTA is providing coverage to most of the county, a goal they are considering eliminating.

I hear a giant sucking sound with our dollars going to San Jose.

1 person likes this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Barron Park
on May 20, 2016 at 7:40 pm

Some years ago I read that because the bay area is mostly suburban and spread apart, only with massive subsidies can there be sufficient coverage to make catching the bus a more convenient choice over driving.

11 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on May 20, 2016 at 9:11 pm

Folks, we can be fooled once, and then again and now they want us to pay more for what always turns out be that great sucking sound called BART. Does BART help Palo Alto??? Occasionally the VTA says they might spend some money up this way but it never works out. BART has sucked it all dry. So this fall you know how to vote the third time they try to shake us down...

5 people like this
Posted by EllenU85
a resident of Downtown North
on May 22, 2016 at 5:23 pm

EllenU85 is a registered user.

VTA 35 is the only link between Palo Alto and Mountain View that doesn't run on Caltrain or El Camino Real
Lose the 35 and lose a lifeline - for all citizens - especially seniors visiting Avenidas and the residents of Channing House, visitors and employees. RRP and Parking is a critical problem.

Lose the 35 and you lose the only transit option to attend Monday night Council meetings in City Hall - the Library and the Community Center at Mitchell Park -

Adam Burger (Next Network Project Team) - please schedule Out Reach familiarity sessions - along the route of VTA 35 and publicize where it goes - and hands-on show citizens how to plan trips with Google Maps, Transit 511, and VTA Customer Service. Offer this event at Avenidas, Channing House and every senior and Nextdoor community.

Give it a try for 3 months - and keep score. See if you can move the needle enough to change the 35 from pale blue to red

4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 22, 2016 at 6:35 pm

If the VTA gives up on Palo Alto, I hope that Palo Alto can take up the slack with the city's shuttle busses. Add more shuttle busses in the evening and add a route to downtown Mountain View and the VTA lightrail station.

2 people like this
Posted by Eric
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2016 at 6:38 pm


Considering that transit is competing with other forms of transportation that contine to be subsidized on a far larger scale, that does make sense.

2 people like this
Posted by Zack
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2016 at 8:50 pm

Another reason to vote NO on the upcoming VTA tax measure. It's been plain as day to anyone paying attention that Nearly all of any new tax dollars collected are for the $4B BART tunnel from Alum Rock to downtown San Jose and/or the Caltrain station. Period, that is what that tax is for. Bart is assuming it, VTA's extra misleading push-pull 'surveys' make that point clear, and the so-called Silicon Valley Leadership organization has been shilling for any new tax dollars being poured exclusively into the BART tunnel for years now. For reference, nearly every dollar of the decade+ of previous transportation revenues in Santa Clara County have somehow, ended up funding the BART extension south to Alum Rock. Hello people, this isn't a Santa Clara transportation tax measure, it's a BART tax measure. Palo Alto, with arch foe Caltrain serving it, are expected to pay for, but receive no benefit from, VTA sponsored transportation taxes.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2016 at 9:50 pm


Considering where BART is routed, that's where the majority of county voters are, transit ridership is, and where the most growth is expected to take place, you can argue about the expense but its not like BART is being built for a small section of the county population. One drawback of limiting growth in Palo Alto, while I'm not going to argue the merits, is that it will continue to get smaller pieces of the pie.

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