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In new bus plan, VTA looks to retain paratransit service in Palo Alto

Santa Clara County transit officials prepare to change policy for providing service to riders with disabilities

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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."

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Comments

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2017 at 4:38 pm

It is a poor situation where buses are becoming more rare while traffic is getting worse. Instead of trying to attract riders to VTA, VTA are eliminating routes. Instead of looking to see what local people would find useful, they are just ignoring the pleas of locals.

We desperately need some enlightened public transportation. We need good shuttles to get us to Caltrain stations, to airports, to schools, across county lines and to get drivers from freeway onramps to places of business.

Palo Alto shuttles are not a comprehensive bus service. VTA is not a comprehensive bus service. But we do need a comprehensive, efficient, affordable bus service as an alternative to getting stuck in traffic and then not able to park at our destinations.


1 person likes this
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2017 at 7:26 pm

I am glad that VTA is willing to do a little to help Gunn students, but I am even more glad they are not going to be running empty buses around all afternoon as Penny Ellson wants. The 88 route is terribly under-utilized and I think it is selfish for Palo Alto people to complain about service cuts on unused bus lines. VTA is criticized for having low farebox recovery, but when they try to cut the costliest routes they meet with resistance. Palo Alto apparently wants the rest of the county to pay to run buses around town that aren't used. If there was demand and ridership in Palo Alto I am sure that VTA would be happy to offer service, but there just isn't.


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2017 at 9:21 pm

So how will the people who use these services manage to get to their destinations?

Many VTA users are unable to drive for financial or ability reasons. How are these people supposed to get to where they need to go? The cost of taxi or Uber would be too costly to be viable.

VTA is public transportation. Public transportation is a public service.

VTA should be looking at better integration with other public transportation services, it should be seeking higher ridership, it should be looking at more useful routes, it should be developing better service to become more of efficient and affordable alternatives to get people where they need to go.

Public transport is a public amenity. When an amenity disappears, we all suffer.


1 person likes this
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

VTA is in the business of providing public transit, and I am sure that they would love to be able to serve everyone who needs it. They have bent over backwards to serve the Gunn students on a real loser of a bus line. The problem is that they just don't have enough money to cover a sprawling area like we have in Santa Clara County, and the public is not willing to give them the money that it would take to cover everyone. People would rather spend hundreds of millions of dollars on freeway interchanges rather than fund public transit. Given the financial constraints that VTA has, I support their plan to cut lines that are causing them to bleed money (it costs them $9.30 per passenger on line 88, with fares being #1.25 - $2.00).

I would love to see VTA able to provide transit everywhere at all times, but that is just not possible now. Given the fiscal realities, I want to see VTA spend its limited money on routes that people are actually using. That doesn't include line 88 except for a few times per day.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 24, 2017 at 9:55 pm

Look at it in terms of "the greater good."


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2017 at 9:11 am

I remember an episode of the old BritCom, Yes Minister, in which a hospital was running efficiently without any patients. The admin staff, the medical staff, the janitorial staff, were all working well, happy and the hospital was one of the best performers. Except for one thing, the hospital didn't have any patients. (Excellent satirical show - highly recommend watching it).

So now we have a VTA that is here to serve the public. Only, the public finds it doesn't meet the public's needs. So instead of trying to serve the public it reduces service. It sounds to me that more of this thinking will mean that the VTA will have a wonderful service with buses on a few popular routes and absolutely no service anywhere else. Great, the books will balance and everything looks good on paper, everyone is happy. Apart that is for the people who would like an efficient alternative to get through the gridlock to get to work each day and now have no alternative but to drive.

I am no expert, but I would imagine that a transport agency is in the business of providing a service, an amenity, and has a mandate to provide that service or it loses its mandate. For example, if PG&E or Greenwaste, stopped servicing part of its area because that area was difficult to service, I would expect it to lose its mandate also. Why isn't a transportation agency the same?

Taking away an amenity without providing an alternative is not what a service provider should be doing.

It is about time VTA and all the other agencies were merged into one, and a Bay Area transit authority took over. They should be working together rather than competing.

As I said, I am no expert, but Public Transportation is a service run amenity, not a competition run chain store. The people who depend on VTA, depend on VTA and for many there is just no alternative. What are they supposed to do to live their lives? Why on earth should we be expecting new developments to be encouraging a carless lifestyle? If Google can run buses for their employees get them also to run a local bus service too. We can't have the incompetence of VTA any longer.

This is a disgraceful situation and I personally am shocked at this lack of foresight in an area of myriad traffic and parking problems.




2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 25, 2017 at 11:40 am

I am really disappointed that bus routes will be eliminated and that this will negatively impact those who have no other alternatives.
I want to offer a personal example. My son's grandparents pick up my kindergarten son via route bus 88. They don't drive. That's the only way they can pick him up. Yes, the buses are not full but they are used by elderly people, young people who can't drive, and other people with less resources.
His elementary public school is advocating and encouraging parents to use other alternatives than using the car due to parking and traffic congestion issue. Yet, we are eliminating public transportation?

While I understand about cost-return analysis and budget constraints, I agree with others that stated that public transportation like utilities should be viewed as a public good and should try to have a minimum coverage.



Like this comment
Posted by I_Got_Mine
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 25, 2017 at 3:02 pm

During my stroke recoveries, I needed Paratransit ( I hate the name and lack of service ) rides to the REACH program at the Cubberley Campus. We filled in the paperwork...and waited....and waited. We finally just used our own vehicles to get me to my REACH sessions. TWICE! Actually, I'm GLAD I didn't have to rely on the VTA run (non)service. I noticed that the other patients were often missing or late that used this system.
There had better be a complete overhaul of this transit option. A " band-aid " solution will not work! Fix it or scrap it. Don't play with solutions that do not work.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2017 at 12:21 pm

According to Mountain View Voice, VTA is piloting a mega bus route from Gilroy/Morgan Hill to Mountain View. Web Link is an excellent start at an attractive fare of $4 to get commuters from the south county to the north county. We now need to get this well publicized and shuttle services to the Mountain View bus stop.

Sorry for putting this on an old thread, but Weekly editors didn't let me start a fresh thread.


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