A controversial plan by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to save money by reducing bus service in Palo Alto has left some riders and city leaders fuming and questioning the agency's commitment to the northern part of county.
These concerns and frustrations spilled out during a Tuesday night hearing of the City Council's Policy and Services Committee on the VTA's proposed transit plan, which the agency plans to roll out later this year as part of an effort to reduce costs. The plan calls for reducing the service on Route 22, which currently runs all night but which under the new plan would not operate between 1-4 a.m. The change will impact about 120 people who ride the bus during the late-night hours, including about 40 who use it for shelter.
The plan also calls for eliminating or reducing service on several VTA Express routes; and reducing service on Routes 88, 88L and 88M, which would more closely hew to the schedule of Gunn High School. By contrast, route 522 on El Camino Real would see greater bus frequency.
For the VTA, the moves represent good business. The agency has been gradually reducing its coverage area and turning its buses away from areas where ridership is particularly low and where the agency's subsidy on a per-rider basis is especially high. Concurrently, it's been putting more resources into dense, geographically central areas, where it can generate more revenue. The shift away from a "coverage" model to a "ridership" model calls for fewer routes but more frequency on those routes, said Adam Burger, the VTA's senior transportation planner.
Burger said under the agency's current transit plan, 70 percent of the routes are "ridership-purposed" while 30 percent are "coverage-purposed." In its 2017 bus plan known as Next Network, which was never implemented, the agency was moving toward an 83/17 balance. The new plan would move it to 90/10.
Burger also highlighted the significant difference in how much it costs the VTA to operate some of the routes with low ridership, including those that serve the Gunn High area during hours when school is not in session. For some of the agency's most efficient routes, he said, the VTA's subsidy per boarding amounts to about $6. For the least efficient ones, the subsidy can be as high as $94.
The VTA's shift toward a more sustainable business model accelerated over the past year, as the agency found itself facing a $50 million budget shortfall. About half of the gap is expected to be filled with revenues from Senate Bill 1, according to the VTA. Even so, the agency still has a budget gap of about $25 million, which prompted the agency's board of directors to achieve about $14.7 million in savings from service cuts.
Carol Lawson, the VTA's fiscal resources manager, told the committee on Tuesday that the agency does not have a dedicated local revenue source for capital expenditures, requiring the agency to use the same pool of funding for capital and operating costs. In the past, those expenses were funded from the agency's board surpluses and its reserves. By now, those reserves have been completely depleted, she said.
Despite the financial pressures, Burger said the VTA's staff still make sure to serve some of Santa Clara County's most vulnerable riders.
"As staff, we do our best to minimize people losing access to the extent possible," Burger told the committee. "But we are faced with a budget reality and some pretty firm directions from our board of directors. We are doing our best to balance both of those."
But about two dozen residents, many of them residents of senior-living community Channing House, attended the hearing to assert that the VTA's best isn't good enough. Some chafed at the district's proposed service reductions in Palo Alto and nodded disapprovingly when VTA staff disclosed to the committee that one of the VTA board's directions for the new plan was to "protect south county." Burger explained that this referred to areas that would have no transit services at all if the VTA moves its buses away.
Barbara Bowden, a Channing House resident, called the VTA's proposed service reductions "unconscionable." If anything, the agency should be increasing bus service so that the residents of the senior-living complex wouldn't have to drive.
"It just seems unconscionable that we pay more in taxes and get less in service," Bowden said.
Patty Irish, a member of the Stevenson House board of directors and also a resident of Channing House, noted that Palo Alto already has a large — and growing — senior population.
"For a lot of seniors, it isn't even a choice about whether they can use a car," Irish said. "A lot of seniors have to give up their cars and they need public transportation."
College Terrace resident Pria Graves urged VTA staff to preserve the late-night service 22 line. She and her husband use the line frequently, she said.
"I realize we're the outliers, but we shouldn't be. We should all be on buses, rather than in our individual cars," Graves said.
Some on the council shared the residents' frustrations. Councilman Greg Tanaka repeatedly pointed to a VTA route map, which showed a density of routes in San Jose and a relative paucity of them in north county. Noting that Palo Alto provides roughly 7 percent of the sales tax revenues that the VTA relies on, Tanaka said he believes the city doesn't seem to be getting a "fair share for transit."
Tanaka attributed that to the city's lack of representation on the VTA board, which includes among its 12 voting members 10 council members and two Santa Clara County supervisors. Of the 10 council members, five are from San Jose. Palo Alto, by contrast, has no representation. The north county has one rotating seat, which is currently occupied by Mountain View City Councilman John McAlister.
Tanaka asked whether the city can "opt out" of the VTA and likened its treatment of Palo Alto as "taxation without representation." Palo Alto, he argued, should not be spending its money to subsidize bus services in San Jose.
"We have to fix the representation issue," Tanaka said. "We can't be outvoted by San Jose every day. We have to figure out how to keep dollars here in Palo Alto to serve the people in Palo Alto."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a former VTA board member and chair of the Policy and Services Committee, also signed off on a letter to the VTA, questioning the agency's decision to cut services.
The letter highlighted Palo Alto's role as a major employment center and noted that many employees come from other communities within the VTA service area.
"We have been working with large employers in our community to be innovative around the way that their employees get to and from work in Palo Alto," Kniss' letter states. "Our goal is to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips by continuing to expand available transit services in our community and not to contract them.
"While we broadly understand VTA's financial situation, we also do not want to constantly be subject to service reductions every time VTA needs to make a cut."