Comparing cuts in bus service to pruning a fruit tree with the intention of bearing greater fruit, the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority Board of Directors voted unanimously on Thursday night to terminate the 88-bus segment that serves Midtown residents.
Board members acknowledged the cuts are painful, but the new lean, mean, transit-operating machine -- the VTA Comprehensive Operations Analysis Plan (COA) -- is designed to make the countywide bus system profitable. Cutting line 88 in Midtown will save an estimated $750,000 to $1 million, transportation authority officials said.
The revised bus route cuts service to Midtown residents altogether along Louis Road, with the exception of one bus to and from Gunn High School. Midtown riders will no longer have access to Caltrain stations in Palo Alto, downtown, Stanford Shopping Center and Stanford Medical Center. Direct transit service to the new Taube Koret Jewish Campus on Charleston Road through Midtown will not occur.
The new service also reduces bus capacity to a smaller 25-seat bus. The 88 line will operate between the Veterans Administration Hospital and Mountain View Showers Drive Transit Center along Charleston, Arastradero and San Antonio roads, with an deviation via East Meadow Circle and Fabian Way to serve the new housing and Campus for Jewish Life/Bridge projects.
The 88 line will operate two buses to Gunn High School in the morning and afternoon school commute times, but the route will not serve Midtown or Channing neighborhoods, Lytton Gardens, downtown Palo Alto or Palo Alto Caltrain stations, according to a City Manager's report. The new route is expected to be in service by Jan. 14, 2008.
VTA officials promised to work with Palo Alto in the coming months to overhaul its transportation system, which is served by VTA, SamTrans, Stanford's Marguerite and the City of Palo Alto and contains overlapping routes. The review of Palo Alto's system will begin in September. A report is expected to be given to the Palo Alto City Council by VTA in December, VTA General Manager Michael Burns said.
City officials were cautiously optimistic that the collaboration can punch up the city's transit system, making it efficient and in keeping with the city's commitment to a "walkable" Palo Alto while addressing the growing city's needs. But city officials present at the meeting expressed concern that a solid financial commitment from VTA to create the new system has not been identified.
"When someone has taken three-quarters to one million dollars away from you, when have they ever given it back?" Palo Alto City Councilmember Dena Mossar, who has sat on the VTA board, asked.
Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said she supports the overall goals of the new plan, but implored the board to reject the comprehensive design, saying that Palo Alto has taken up "a call to action to build a green economy through innovation. Palo Alto has the highest job density outside of San Francisco. Thinking regionally, we play a regional core role."
"I'm excited about the three or four agencies working together. The caveat is the resources we have to have," she said after the meeting.
"There are no reserve funds at this point, but it would be our responsibility to identify some," Burns said.
Palo Alto and north-county cities provide substantial tax revenues to the transit system; yet get a disproportionately low share of the service, VTA Board member Breene Kerr pointed out.
"I am alarmed by the lack of (financial) commitment. It is incumbent (there be) the restoration of funding in North County for intelligent planning for Palo Alto. Palo Alto needs a budget for what they will spend when they do have a plan. We are redeploying those resources to downtown San Jose." He added he is committed to working with Palo Alto to secure those funds.
Others said the commitment should come before the board votes through the plan.
"Morgan Hill and Gilroy partnered with VTA on their comprehensive reviews prior to community bus service changes in their communities. It seems fair to ask that Palo Alto be extended the same attention to planning and review that you extended to other cities before you transfer services out of our community," said Penny Ellson, Palo Alto Parent-Teacher Association Traffic Safety Committee Chair.
The cuts come at a time when Midtown is experiencing significant growth, Ellson added.
Nine hundred sixty-seven new housing units and 352,000 square feet of new office, commercial and community center space are planned for the area served by the current 88 line. The development will draw users from the entire Peninsula to the current 88-route area. The new Oshman Family Jewish Community Center alone will add about 4,000 member visits per day to a site that has been vacant for nearly a decade, she said.
"I'm very disappointed," Ellson said after the vote. "We're going to have to work so hard" (to get the money back).
VTA Board Member David Cortese compared cutting service to pruning a fruit tree, "where you can't worry about how painful it will be. This is the first step." The ultimate goal is to enable the tree to bloom and make fruit. VTA has lost $8 million from its state funding with the recent passage of the state budget, and the current system was dependent on subsidies for its operations, manager Burns said.
"We're hopeful that we'll create an environment where the bus will be the first choice of transportation," Board member Nora Campos said.
"The changes are necessary to make VTA 'the choice' and not the necessary evil," Board member Dolly Sandoval said.