Palo Alto's effort to expand and re-invigorate its small shuttle program could speed ahead later this month, when the City Council approves a transit plan that includes a new route in the southern half of the city.
But even with the council's full support, the ambitious plan still has to overcome a major barrier before it becomes a reality: uncertainty over how the city will pay for the new service.
The proposal to expand the shuttle program is a central component of the new Palo Alto Transit Vision Plan, which includes a new South Palo Alto Shuttle running between California Avenue and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, modifications to the existing Crosstown and Embarcadero routes and a greater push to market the free service. The City Council is scheduled to approve the plan on Aug. 14, the first meeting after its summer recess.
While riders won't have to pay fares to ride the buses, the shuttle program is anything but free for the city. Adding the South Palo Alto Shuttle with a 30-minute frequency is expected to cost about $625,107 annually, while the expanded Crosstown and Embarcadero routes would cost $864,118 and $376,902, respectively. Collectively, the three shuttles are expected to cost about $1,866,127 annually, according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The proposed shuttle-system expansion is part of Palo Alto's broader effort to reduce the number of people driving solo around town, thereby easing traffic congestion. It is also a way to adjust to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's new transit plan, which calls for increasing the frequency of buses along its primary corridors and reducing service to the county's more peripheral areas. In Palo Alto, this would result in the 522 Express bus on El Camino Real running more often and the elimination of the 88 bus, which would be replaced by the 288 and primarily operate during the start and end of Gunn High School's daily schedule.
With VTA's plan, the percentage of Palo Alto residents who live within a quarter-mile of a bus line will drop from today's rate of 74 percent to 61 percent. If the city's shuttle plan comes to fruition, the percentage would go up to 77 percent.
Palo Alto officials have been calling for the VTA to provide some funding to make up for the drop in service. But in approving the transit plan on May 4, the VTA's board members didn't commit any funding for local shuttle programs. Instead, the board directed its staff to work on a "framework for working with cities."
Now, the city's best bet for getting county funds for local shuttles appears to be Measure B, a transportation measure that county voters approved last November and that includes $500 million in the "transit operations" category. Earlier this year, City Manager James Keene and Mayor Greg Scharff each submitted a letter to the VTA asking the county to use this money for local shuttle programs like the one Palo Alto is hoping to expand.
"This new funding stream offers the opportunity to provide enhanced mobility options to many of the areas where the Next Network Draft Plan (the VTA's plan) proposes the reduction or elimination of fixed-route service, including Palo Alto," the letter states. "A substantial portion of this funding should be made available to local agencies to provide local shuttle service and other innovative last-mile first-mile transportation options."
According to the new report from the planning department, the city plans to seek Measure B funding as well as any other sources that become available. The city is also evaluating a new "transportation impact fee," which could fund shuttle infrastructure but would not take care of the operational costs, the report states.
To get at the Measure B funds, the city will be competing not only with other cities but with VTA itself. Because the county agency both administers the Measure B funds and runs its own bus service, it's far from certain how much funding -- if any -- the city will actually see. The uncertainty is heightened by the fact that the VTA board is dominated by San Jose members and has no representatives from Palo Alto.
If the city finds the money to implement the new plan, a new South Palo Alto Shuttle would run between California Avenue and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System complex on Miranda Avenue, with special runs in the morning and afternoon hours between Palo Alto High School and the California Avenue Caltrain station. The new shuttle would also serve schools and other destinations along Colorado Avenue, Louis Road, Fabian Way, East Charleston Road, West Charleston Road, Arastradero Road and Miranda Avenue, according to staff.
The new route would help offset the VTA's elimination of the 88 line, which covered some of the same ground. So far, the VTA has generally supported the city's plan to move ahead with an expanded shuttle program, particularly when it comes to the South Palo Alto Shuttle and the Embarcadero Shuttle.
The agency did have some concerns about the proposal to expand the frequency of the Crosstown Shuttle, which will be sharing Middlefield Road with VTA's new 21 line. The city's new transit plan considers two different alternatives for the Crosstown route. Under one (known as Variant A), the shuttles would run primarily on Middlefield and thus complement the VTA bus, resulting in 15-minute headways (that is, time between buses) all day long along Middlefield if both services are taken into account. Under Variant B, shuttles would deviate from Middlefield to serve libraries, community centers and schools, according to the staff report -- resulting in greater coverage but less frequency.
While the council has yet to pick between these two, the VTA has expressed concern that under Variant A, the new Crosstown Shuttle may drag down the ridership numbers for the VTA bus and cause it to be discontinued.
"While the VTA generally supports strategies that consolidate service along major corridors in order to provide more frequent service, we are concerned that the Crosstown Shuttle's free fare would negatively impact ridership on Route 21, which may cause Route 21's productivity to fall below our minimum standard and therefore be a candidate for discontinuation," Carolyn Gonot, the VTA's interim director for planning and program development, wrote in a June 22 letter to the city.