As the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority prepares to redraw the bus map throughout the county, Palo Alto is bracing for several unwelcome changes, including the disappearance of Route 88, which services Gunn High School.
But in a nod to local concerns, VTA officials signaled their intent Monday night to maintain existing paratransit services, which were slated to disappear along with the "fixed" transit routes that are on the chopping block as part of the agency's Next Network plan. Instead, the VTA is now looking to change its policy to retain access for riders with disabilities who depend on paratransit services, said Adam Burger, the agency's senior transportation planner.
In addition, VTA staff indicated Monday that they would be willing to work with the Gunn High community to obtain more information about students' needs and potentially alter their current proposal based on the new data.
The two concessions by the county agency aim to address two of the biggest concerns that Palo Alto officials, residents and transit advocates have been expressing since the bus plan was released last year. They did not, however, allay the general disappointment among some council members about the proposed cuts in bus routes.
In Palo Alto, the new program means the disappearance of Routes 35 (which goes from Stanford Shopping Center to Mountain View) and 89 (between California Avenue and the Palo Alto VA Hospital). It also means that Route 88, which goes along Middlefield, Louis, and Charleston roads en route to Gunn High, will be disbanded and replaced with two other routes -- 288A and 288B -- which will only serve Gunn during bell times.
Palo Alto is also slated to get a new bus line -- Route 21 -- which will connect downtown Palo Alto to Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. It will replace existing Route 35.
In pursuing the changes, the VTA is aiming to shift resources from "coverage-oriented" services to "ridership-oriented," which effectively means adding more buses to routes with the greatest density and demand. This comes at the expense of areas where there are fewer riders, even if those riders have unique needs and few other options for getting around.
Currently, the VTA spends about 70 percent of its operating budget on ridership-oriented service and 30 percent on what it calls "unproductive coverage-oriented service." The new plan would shift the balance to 85-15, according to a report from Carolyn M. Gonot, VTA's interim director for planning and program development.
"This reallocation of coverage-oriented service to ridership-oriented service is how the plan can offer significant benefits while not increasing the total cost of service," the report states.
"The areas that would lose service under the draft plan are generally areas that lack the transit-supportive characteristics such as dense, walkable, pedestrian-oriented spaces that are necessary for transit to be productive."
Burger noted on Monday that the shift leads to several "difficult choices." Is it more important, he asked, to carry a Gunn student at 5 p.m. or to use the same cost to carry three, four or five other people in a different part of the county?
Some council members didn't buy the argument. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a former county supervisor, pointed to Palo Alto's long history of contributing far more in tax revenues than it gets back from the county in services. The new service cuts are part of that pattern, she argued.
"I don't think we're bad at sharing, but I don't remember a time when the VTA came to us and said, 'We really need to increase bus service,'" Kniss said. "In my recollection, as far back as I can recall, the tendency has been to cut, especially at either end of the county and on the edges."
Others shared her sentiment. Councilman Greg Tanaka asked city staff what Palo Alto can do to get its fair share of service from the county. And Councilwoman Karen Holman lamented the fact that the cuts are coming in the immediate aftermath of the passage of Measure B, a sales-tax increase that was spearheaded by the VTA and that is expected to bring in more than $6 billion in revenue for transportation projects over the next 30 years.
"It's really frustrating to have been supportive of Measure B and then have these cuts come across to reduce service to Palo Alto residents," Holman said. "For us to be able to represent to our voting population that we support the VTA measure and then VTA comes along with cuts in service to our residents is frustrating.
"It's embarrassing and it makes me feel like I've been game a little bit."
Others offered more specific critiques. Penny Ellson, a longtime champion of improving bike routes and transit options near schools, said that the existing 88 bus route eliminates about 100 car trips to Gunn High during the morning bell time. She argued that the VTA analysis is based on limited data and asked transit officials to consider the data from a new survey that the school has issued to gauge students' transit needs.
Ellson said that a new survey of students indicates that the proposed 288 bus will "negatively impact student ridership because its schedule will not serve students' after-school academic and extracurricular needs."
Burger said the agency would be happy to work with the school community to further evaluate options for servicing students. The VTA, he said, wants to be there to serve the students. The problem is the other times of the day, when ridership is "so low that we have a difficulty justifying that service, when there are so many compelling needs elsewhere in the county."