The decision to scale back service in south Palo Alto and around Gunn reflects the VTA's shift toward serving routes that have higher ridership, which comes at the expense of more peripheral areas.
To offset some of these impacts, Palo Alto is considering an expansion of its own free shuttle. This week, the City Council got its first look at the 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 is to supplement 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 proposes changes to both existing routes. The Crosstown Route would run primarily along Middlefield Road and overlap with a new VTA bus line, Route 21 (which would run along Middlefield Road and replace existing VTA routes 35 and 32). Crosstown shuttles would also come more frequently, creating at most 15-minute wait times 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 service," states a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The Embarcadero Shuttle, which currently runs between downtown and the Baylands and 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 the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center .
The report from planning staff states that the proposed segment along West Bayshore would serve existing apartment and townhome complexes, "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 midnight Tuesday. Given the late hour, the council opted not to take any formal action on the plan and to hold a meeting on the proposals at a later date.
The one thing the council did agree on is that the city should work with the VTA to fund the new shuttle services, which would backfill the county 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.
Besides reducing service around Gunn, VTA plans to increase the frequency of Route 522, an express bus that runs along El Camino Real and connects Palo Alto to San Jose. And the VTA's new Route 21 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.
However, VTA staff and consultants noted that after the agency makes its adjustments, 61 percent of Palo Alto residents would be within walking distance (1/4 mile) of fixed-route transit service. Today, 74 percent are within walking distance.
VTA's board is preparing to adopt the service changes on May 4. Palo Alto officials have submitted letters to the VTA arguing against the elimination of route 88; requesting additional stops for routes 22 and 522 along El Camino; the extension of Route 22 to serve more downtown areas; and the retention of paratransit services.
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