A plan to reduce bus service in Palo Alto has some veterans concerned that their travel to and from the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs hospital will become more burdensome.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority is proposing to modify schedules and eliminate routes throughout its system as it seeks to pare back costs. Service to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System's Palo Alto campus -- near Gunn High School -- would be cut back and only run at the start and end of Gunn’s school day. (Palo Alto's service to Gunn High School would remain.)
The most significant changes would affect commuters who use the VTA Express routes -- which would either be eliminated or see reduced service -- and late-night riders who use Line 22, which runs along El Camino Real.
The transit agency will hold a public workshop to unveil its proposed 2019 New Transit Plan tonight, Feb. 6, in Mountain View and will host an online virtual meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12, for those who cannot attend. View a full list of the community meetings here.
The proposed transit plan covers all routes, including Express, frequent, local and school transportation routes throughout Santa Clara County. VTA operates 13 bus lines in Palo Alto, including to and from the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs hospital, Gunn High School and Stanford Research Park. The proposals modify a previous route redesign, the Next Network Plan, which was refined after public input in 2016-17. A changing financial outlook made it clear that Next Network, which was to be implemented when BART service enters Santa Clara County, is not financially sustainable, the agency said on its webpage for the 2019 service plan. The new plan would cost about 4 percent less to operate than Next Network and would place a greater emphasis on increasing ridership, according to the VTA.
The transit agency bases its proposed schedule and cuts on a number of factors, including the number of boardings per hour and the costs to run the route, including labor for drivers, dispatch staff and sheriff's deputies and security personnel at the Palo Alto Transit Center and at end-point transit centers. Some lines, while meeting or exceeding the minimum thresholds for ridership, still don't make the cut due to the labor costs, according to VTA.
Weekday lines 88L and 88M, which serve Gunn High School students, would continue the current schedule, with 88L and 88M operating on school days only during bell times, which include one pickup in the morning to Gunn and four pickups during afternoon dismissal times on each line. These lines would be renamed as 288M and 288L. But Line 88 (Palo Alto Veteran's Hospital to Middlefield Road and Colorado Avenue) would cease to operate as a regular route due to low ridership, VTA spokeswoman Holly Perez confirmed. The line would be renamed 288 and would operate during school times only.
Veterans outside the VA who awaited buses on Tuesday said that limiting service will add additional hardships. Many of the veterans come from San Jose to Palo Alto.
"It would affect me a lot. Sometimes my appointments are not during school times," Wesley Stanley said.
Stanley and Joseph Bernal, another veteran who visits Palo Alto VA, said the VA operates a shuttle that has proven to be infrequent. According to the hospital's website, a shuttle leaves San Jose at 10:20 a.m. and arrives in Palo Alto at 11 a.m. The returning shuttle to San Jose leaves Palo Alto at 2 p.m. In comparison, the current VTA Line 88 offers more flexible options. It has 12 arrival and departure weekday times in each direction, roughly between 6 a.m. and 6:59 p.m., according to VTA's schedule.
There's a new clinic in San Jose, but the shuttle there only picks up passengers at 10 a.m. Often it doesn't come.
"The new San Jose clinic, no bus goes there. There's only one shuttle, and some of us can't walk," Stanley said.
Veterans often wait for hours for a return ride, Bernal added. Many prefer to come to Palo Alto because it is still faster to take a VTA bus rather than wait in San Jose or Palo Alto for the shuttle, both men said.
Employees and those who work late night and graveyard shifts could also be affected by the proposed changes.
Line 22 (Palo Alto Transit Center to Eastridge Transit Center via El Camino Real), would lose four hourly runs from 1-4 a.m., although ridership exceeds the transit agency's minimum thresholds for those hours. About 120 passengers, spread across three westbound and eastbound trips, ride the route, according to the VTA.
One other need — one the transit agency never anticipated serving — is for homeless individuals. Roughly 40 to 45 people who ride during these hours are homeless and use the bus for shelter, VTA noted. The agency is looking at ways to work with community organizations who serve homeless populations to minimize the impact, it said.
Commuters relying on Express bus service could also be affected. Proposed changes include:
• Eliminating Line 101 (Stanford Research Park to Camden in San Jose).
• Reducing service on Line 102 (Stanford Research Park to South San Jose) from seven trips to five each direction.
• Reducing service on Line 103 (Stanford Research Park to Eastridge Shopping Center) from four trips to three each direction.
• Eliminating Line 182 (Palo Alto to IBM/Bailey Avenue).
VTA said the cuts are necessary for multiple reasons. Express lines only operate during peak weekday commute periods. VTA must purchase, maintain and store a bus that is used much less than an all-day fleet. Express buses also spend about 40 hours of their total hours out of revenue service, which includes moving the bus to and from the depot and driving back to the start of the route without having paid riders. By comparison, all-day buses spend about 8 percent of their total hours out of revenue service, according to VTA.
Drivers who work on Express routes are also only driving part time. Consequently, VTA pays the drivers for hours they aren't spending operating the buses. Riders on all-day buses generally only travel short distances of 2 to 4 miles, which means that VTA collects multiple fares per seat. But there is virtually no seat turnover on Express buses.
"The decision that VTA faces is not whether Express buses are good or desired, but whether they maximize the public benefit per dollar spent. The inefficiencies of commute peak period service means that VTA pays about four or five times more for an Express bus boarding than an all-day route boarding," the agency said in a Jan. 31 press release.
A rider of the Line 103, who waited at Hansen Way near El Camino Real but declined to give his name, said reduced service on that route would likely not affect him. At 4:30 p.m., his usual time of departure, the bus is nearly full. But at later times, there are few passengers.
"They have to do what they have to do," he said of VTA's choices.
Among other changes to Palo Alto's service:
• Line 35 (Stanford Shopping Center, through Palo Alto to Downtown Mountain View), which serves Midtown Palo Alto, would merge with Line 32 (San Antonio Shopping Center to Santa Clara Transit Center) to form a single route, Line 21 with some minor route changes. The frequency of weekday pickups — from 30 minutes to an hour and the hours of operation — would be similar, according to the transit plan. Saturday service frequency, ranging from 45 minutes to an hour, would remain about the same. Sunday service would operate between Stanford Shopping Center and the Mountain View Transit Center every 60 minutes between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m.
• Line 522 (Palo Alto Transit Center to Eastridge Transit Center), would see improved service, running less than or equal to every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 15 minutes on weekends.
The community meeting is open will take place tonight, Feb. 6, at 6 p.m. at Mountain View Senior Center Arts & Crafts Room, 266 Escuela Ave., Mountain View.
The virtual online meeting takes place Feb. 12, 1-2 p.m. Register here. The final day to submit comments is Feb. 28.
To view the proposed plan and submit comments, visit newtransitplan.vta.org.
Editor's note: This article initially contained information about longer wait times on VTA's Line 89, which the agency has since stated will see no changes.