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City Council set to approve new shuttle plan

City Council considers adding south Palo Alto route, modifying existing lines

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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.


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8 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2017 at 6:42 pm

Much cheaper to improve shuttle service than to build new parking garages downtown or on California Ave. Most people using the shuttle are heading to local businesses (either as employees or customers), so that is the obvious place to generate the revenue. Business have been crying for more transportation options, so now is their chance to "show me the money".

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2017 at 8:33 pm

I'm not sure I approve of buses that snake around neighborhoods and take forever and a day to get somewhere. How long will it take to get from say Loma Verde/Greer for high school students to get to Paly? This is about the longest commute for Paly and unless it can do the route efficiently, I can't see it working for students who are presently driving/being driven to school by parents.

I also don't think a free shuttle is the answer for these routes. A small fare seems appropriate to me. The only routes I would see making sense as being free would be dedicated shuttles from freeway off ramps to downtown and business areas to get incoming commuters off the streets. Unfortunately, CC has never discussed this solution as far as I know.

Although I am a great supporter of public transportation, I am not sure that this is the way to go.

6 people like this
Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2017 at 9:09 pm

I ocasionally use the current Crosstown shuttle, but it is a fairly long walk for me to get to Middlefield. I would definitely use it if it came down Colorado and along Louis as the article says, but neither of the maps in the link show a route that does that. The area between Middlefield and 101 is still not served by either option there.

13 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 3, 2017 at 10:31 am

Annette is a registered user.

I often ride the Embarcadero Shuttle and have found it to be sufficiently reliable. There are several obstacles to using it daily rather than just often: commute time is at least doubled, there are no shuttles during the middle of the day so riders are stuck at their morning destination until service resumes in the afternoon, and if one needs to get to a meeting or appointment one needs a car. And in inclement weather there are no shelters at the bus stops. An umbrella solves that last problem, but if the City is serious about making shuttle usage attractive, this and the other things mentioned should be a consideration.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2017 at 3:33 pm

I'm asking myself who is expected to use these shuttles.

As an example, if I want to visit the library, generally speaking I stop on my way home from somewhere else or do it as part of an errand run with say 3 different stops - post office, library and grocery store with possibly an appointment or meeting as part of the trip. I would rarely if ever leave my home to go to the library and then return. A shuttle would not help me to do this.

Shuttles would make most sense in my opinion for commuters who do regular trips and can time their commute around shuttles (or in the case of school kids the shuttles can be timed around their bell schedule).

Please can we have more thought put into how the shuttles will be used and by whom. People who are busy and have variable routines are most unlikely to use a shuttle if it does not coincide with their schedule or is not an efficient use of time. It may be easier than parking all day for an all day meeting but probably not to drop off tax documents with an accountant in your lunch hour.

As a result, get the shuttles to get kids to and from school and to get commuters from our freeway offramps to business centers. Otherwise, why bother?

1 person likes this
Posted by No School Bus
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 3, 2017 at 7:04 pm

I don't think these shuttles should be used as school buses. The school district should pay for and run school buses if that is what we want, like they did before the early 1990s. These shuttles should be used to supplement VTA service and to serve residents who want to get around town without using a car during the day. When I ride the shuttle it seems to be a lot of retired people who are not in a hurry and for whom the shuttle is a very valuable service. I would definitely support an expansion for those people, which is what it seems the city has in mind. I am pretty sure the city has done surveys to see who wants to use the shuttles, and it is not people like the Resident poster.

6 people like this
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 3, 2017 at 10:57 pm

Too bad we're stuck paying the increased sales tax to fund the transportation measures AND for the Palo Alto Shuttle which is why the VTA decided not to offer additional service in Palo Alto.

Given the fact that the PA Transportation and "Planning" bureaucrats have decided to eliminate 85 parking spaces near the Hays (Embarcedero & Middlefield) to accommodate the new Zoo, the least they could do is to accommodate the parents endless circling the neighborhoods and blocking our driveways by coordinating the Shuttle with school drop off/pickup times.

Like this comment
Posted by jean
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 5, 2017 at 10:34 am

In an area with such flat land promote bicycling. Bike lockers? free bikes? Off road bike paths etc. Parents should not have to drive kids.
And have you seen a full bus around? why not use smaller vans for the one or two passengers? How about an UBER type service for locals instead of vehicles running around empty. Subsidize that. Don't over-do this thing having shuttles running all the time..

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Aug 5, 2017 at 12:17 pm


The size of the vehicle is a red herring as the biggest expense is labor/the cost of the driver.

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