Palo Alto bus riders could be in for a jolt in coming months as both the city and the county move ahead with efforts to shake up long-established routes.
While both Palo Alto and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority are proposing changes that would add more riders, some elements of the county plan are prompting concern in the Gunn High School community and in south Palo Alto. The biggest change in the county's proposal -- as outlined in its new Next Network Initiative plan -- is the elimination of Route 88, which serves south Palo Alto and gets a large share of its ridership from Gunn students.
The VTA's plan calls for replacing the 88, which currently runs throughout the day, with three new routes -- 288, 288A and 288B -- that would each run once in the morning and twice in the afternoon. One bus on each route would travel to Gunn and to the VA Medical Center every morning and at around the school dismissal time. Another bus would depart at a later time, potentially serving students with after-school activities.
The decision to scale back service in south Palo Alto and around Gunn reflects the VTA's shift toward serving higher ridership routes, which comes at the expense of more peripheral areas with fewer transit options. While the VTA plans to reduce its lines around Gunn, it plans to increase the frequency of Route 522, which runs along El Camino Real and connects Palo Alto to San Jose.
The VTA also plans to introduce Route 21, which would run along Middlefield Road and replace existing routes 35 and 32. This line would connect downtown Palo Alto with San Antonio Shopping Center, downtown Mountain View, downtown Sunnyvale and the Santa Clara Caltrain station.
The VTA's goal in pursuing these changes is to focus its resources in areas where the buses would get greater use. The goal of the initiative is to use 83 percent of its operating revenues on high-ridership routes and 17 percent for routes serving "coverage goals." Because of relatively low density in its operating area, Route 88 is considered a "coverage service," Adam Berger, VTA's transportation planner, told the City Council during a January discussion.
"It's in the areas that have low density and tend to have low demand throughout the day, except for the period when kids arrive in Gunn High and leave the high school in the afternoon," Berger said.
While the agency wants to continue to provide the service, Berger said, ridership in other parts of the day is so low that the VTA has a difficulty justifying these routes.
But with the VTA's board of directors preparing to adopt the service changes on May 4, Palo Alto officials hope the agency will reconsider this decision. In February, the city submitted letters to the VTA arguing that replacing the 88 with the "school tripper" route "will not serve Gunn High School students after school, especially those who participate in extracurricular activities."
The city had also requested additional stops for routes 22 and 522; the extension of Route 22 to serve more downtown areas (including Hamilton and Lytton avenues); and the retention of paratransit services, which are typically linked to fixed bus lines.
While VTA officials said in January they plan to retain paratransit lines, the agency's overall plan has been greeted with little enthusiasm locally. Staff and consultants noted that after the VTA makes its adjustments, 61 percent of Palo Alto residents would be within walking distance (a quarter-mile) of fixed-route transit service. Today, 74 percent are within walking distance.
To offset some of these impacts, Palo Alto is considering an expansion of its own free shuttle. This week, the council got its first look at the new Palo Alto Transit Vision Plan, a document that has been in the works for more than a year and that recommends several changes for the modest shuttle program.
The most ambitious proposal in the plan is supplementing the two existing routes (the Crosstown Shuttle and the Embarcadero Shuttle) with a new one: the South Palo Alto Shuttle. The new route would start at the California Avenue transit station and run along Colorado Avenue, Louis Road, Fabian Way, Charleston Road, Arastradero Road and Foothill Expressway before terminating at the VA Medical Center.
"This route would cover that piece of 88 that is being eliminated and also enhance coverage to South Palo Alto by providing access to the California Avenue shopping area and Caltrain station," said Steve Crosley, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, which worked with the city on the new transit vision.
The city's new transit vision also proposed changes to both existing routes. The Crosstown Route would run primarily run along Middlefield Road and overlap with VTA's Route 21. The plan calls for significantly increasing bus frequency along the Crosstown Route, creating 15-minute headways for riders when both buses are taken into account.
"Coupled with the high-frequency service along El Camino Real, this would put a large number of Palo Alto residents and employees within walking distance of high-frequency fixed route service," according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The Embarcadero Shuttle, which currently runs between downtown and the Baylands and which targets employees east of U.S. Highway 101, would also be expanded under the staff proposal. The modified route would cover businesses along East and West Bayshore roads and the portion of San Antonio Road near the highway, which includes the area around Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.
The report from planning staff states that the proposed segment along West Bayshore would provide "new fixed-route transit access to several existing multi-family housing communities, as well as the Palo Alto residents who would see their VTA paratransit access reduced under the Next Network Initiative final plan."
The biggest challenge in implementing the plan is funding. The current shuttle services cost the city about $500,000, which includes the roughly $117,300 that Caltrain contributes for the Embarcadero shuttle. Depending on how ambitious the council wants to go with the service expansion, costs for the expanded shuttle system could go up to about $3.4 million per year.
The council's discussion of the transit plan came at the tail end of a long Monday night meeting and didn't kick off until past midnight on Tuesday. Given the late hour, the council opted not to take any formal action on the transit plan and to hold a meeting on the plan at a later date.
The one thing that the council did agree on is that the city should work with the VTA to fund the new shuttle services, which would backfill the agency's reduction in local service. The council directed staff to seek VTA funding for the South Palo Alto shuttle, which would cost about $1 million per year to operate, through a memorandum of understanding.