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VTA: Don’t Strand Almaden’s Seniors & Students

Matt Mahan
Mar 4, 2019 · 7 min read

Santa Clara County’s transit agency, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), recently proposed a new service plan that would eliminate light rail service to the Almaden Light Rail Station and significantly reduce bus service in Almaden Valley. Taking the big-picture view, VTA’s goals seem reasonable enough: increase service frequency on high-use routes by reducing or cutting service on low-use routes.

However, one of VTA’s proposed cuts would eliminate all bus service from the southern half of Almaden Valley, including abandoning service to Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School. Many students, seniors, and people with disabilities rely on this service and lack alternatives. For that reason, this complete service cut is unacceptable. This is especially true at a time when our economy is growing and voters have passed multiple ballot measures in support of expanding our public transit system.

VTA is proposing these service cuts to respond to deep structural challenges that derive from its funding model and high operating costs. The agency is dependent on sales tax revenues to fund its operations and has historically had to make service cuts because of volatility in those revenues.¹ This has led VTA to cut back on service over time, especially at the edges of the county. With less service coverage, VTA has seen a reduction in ridership. A reduction in ridership means less revenue. What results is a downward spiral and a decreasing ability to provide the services needed by the community.²

Part of VTA’s challenge is Santa Clara Valley’s historical land use pattern (i.e. low-density sprawl); however, while land use is an important factor in transit ridership, it is not the only one.

Since 2000, Santa Clara County’s population has grown by over 250,000 people or more than 15%,³ without a corresponding increase in developed land area. Yet during this period, VTA ridership has fallen by 30.4% (or more than 50,000 riders each weekday), the opposite of what we would expect from population density increases.

VTA Service and Ridership, 2000–2017⁴

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Most of VTA’s ridership decline occurred between 2000 and 2005, when VTA cut bus service by nearly 20%, resulting in a 36% bus ridership loss.⁵ During this time, VTA continued to boost service on a few of its busiest routes, which meant deeper cuts on connecting routes throughout the county (i.e. reducing the system’s coverage area in favor of increased frequency on high use routes). VTA has also emphasized costlier rail service at the expense of bus service, which has likely contributed to the net ridership loss. When it comes to maintaining ridership, service matters.

This bring us back to the service cuts in Almaden. This is nothing new. Almaden has lost over 90% of its bus service hours since the 1980s. Since the 1990s, VTA has reduced route 13, the Valley’s primary route, from every 20–30 minutes to every 60–80 minutes, and eliminated evening and weekend service. As a result, route 13 has lost over two-thirds of its ridership.

This time, as part of its larger overhaul, VTA proposes eliminating route 65, which skirts the northern edge of Almaden and continues to Downtown San Jose on Camden and Leigh Avenues, and route 13, which currently runs the entire length of the Valley. It recommends shortening route 63 on Meridian Avenue to turn around at Blossom Hill instead of continuing to the Almaden Center at Almaden & Camden. Route 13 and part of route 63 would be partially replaced by an extension of current route 64 to the Almaden Center, leaving most of Almaden Valley outside of the service coverage area as can be seen in the following maps.

Routes currently serving Almaden:⁶

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Proposed future service to Almaden:⁷

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I attended VTA’s community input meeting last month, hosted by the Almaden Valley Community Association (AVCA), along with another 75 or so local residents. I was glad to find that most residents seemed to appreciate the broader context around VTA’s fiscal challenges. A number of residents told me at the meeting that they thought it was a wise decision to shut down the light rail station for the time being. (Anyone who lives in our area has seen the light rail train stop heavy traffic on Blossom Hill Road only to rumble by without any passengers onboard!)

But what residents also said, clearly and consistently, was that the proposed bus route cuts go too far. A number of our older residents view the current 13 as a “lifeline” service that enables them to age in place. It runs the length of the Valley and makes a large loop that provides walking access to a number of stops. While their numbers aren’t large by San Jose standards, the potential human impact of cutting service from the southern half of the Valley is significant.

It’s also worth noting that the 13 has been remarkably resilient since the last major service cut in 2010. While many other routes have continued to lose ridership in response to service cuts, the 13 has seen stable usage. If anything, the proposed changes squander an opportunity to improve the quality of existing service along the 13 and thereby potentially increase ridership.

Two years ago, VTA similarly proposed to eliminate route 13 service. After hearing how important the service was to the public and listening to ideas on how to improve ridership, VTA proposed a new route, the 83. It would preserve the coverage benefits of the 13 but better connect residents to key institutions and amenities by also serving shopping centers at Blossom Hill and Almaden and the Almaden Community Center and Library, as well as Castillero Middle School.⁸ All this with just one route. Almaden’s 4,000 middle and high school students are potential riders and are exactly the clientele VTA needs to remain viable in the future. Meanwhile, route 83 would continue to meet the needs of older residents, as well as those who simply do not drive.

AVCA board member Michael Lee came to the community input meeting with an extensive report and a poster board he created on the viability of route 83. Building upon past work by the Almaden community and VTA, he made a convincing case that route 83 had much higher ridership potential than existing service. Perhaps most significantly, Michael came up with an idea to fund route 83 and restore much-needed evening and weekend buses to Almaden at no additional cost beyond what VTA has already committed in its new transit service plan, simply by making a few tweaks to the proposal.

His analysis also shows no justification for ending route 63 service to Almaden Valley. Cutting route 63 is unlikely to save VTA money but will strand Almaden residents who depend on the service to reach Downtown and San Jose State.

Some of the proposed cuts on our side of town seem reasonable (e.g. light rail at Almaden Lake). But I believe that the high level of community feedback and the vulnerability of the residents who will bear the burden of these cuts create a compelling case for preserving route 63 and giving route 83 a try. The 83 will give VTA the opportunity to increase quality and ridership on a key bus route in Almaden Valley.

Almaden residents understand the need to keep costs under control, but it’s also important to keep these decisions in perspective — out of the approximately 450 vehicles that VTA operates at any one time, there is only one bus dedicated to Almaden Valley and its nearly 40,000 residents. Is the hardship imposed by removing this one bus worth the savings?

I doubt it. Instead, I would encourage VTA to use this opportunity to experiment with new ways of managing costs while providing mobility solutions for as many of our outlying residents as possible. For example, can we restore VTA’s “Community Bus” program which had lower operating costs for lower-use routes? Can we partner with Uber and Lyft to provide subsidized trips when regular buses are not operating? Or work with the nonprofit sector to create a volunteer pick-up/drop-off service for residents who lack alternatives to driving? Perhaps we need to test fare increases to subsidize greater coverage?

Our community can have valuable input, too. Look no further than the proposal from Michael Lee that actually increases service and likely improves ridership using only the limited resources VTA has already committed to Almaden under its new transit service plan.

I hope that VTA will respond to the strong community feedback it received last week with flexibility, creativity and a willingness to take risks to better serve our community.

You can help by signing our petition: https://www.change.org/p/vta-board-and-senior-staff-vta-don-t-strand-our-seniors-students

Matt Mahan is a tech entrepreneur, husband, father and civically active resident in the Blossom Hill/Almaden area. If you have suggestions or want to collaborate, please reach out to matthew.mahan [at] gmail [dot com].

Footnotes:

[1] Historic VTA service cuts and structural budget issues:

https://www.mv-voice.com/morgue/2003/2003_05_02.vta.html

[2] Many transit advocates argue that cutting peripheral service ultimately hurts the core service and can lead to a death spiral of lower revenues and more cuts in repetition. While I don’t have the room in this post to fully address this debate, I think it is worth studying and understanding how past service cuts at VTA have impacted systemwide ridership and revenues.

[3] Santa Clara County population: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Clara_County,_California

[4] Ridership data: http://www.vta.org/sfc/servlet.shepherd/document/download/069A0000001OZbXIAW and http://www.vta.org/sfc/servlet.shepherd/document/download/069A0000001OZbhIAG

[5] Historic VTA service cuts: https://gilroydispatch.com/2003/05/12/vta-mulls-deep-cuts-layoffs/ andhttps://web.archive.org/web/20030413050523/http://www.vta.org/news/2003_aprilchanges.html (one in a series of service cuts between 2000 and 2005)

[6]Current service: http://www.vta.org/sfc/servlet.shepherd/document/download/069A0000001csuCIAQ

[7] Proposed service: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56c7a8e68a65e2903b636e0a/t/5c4b5c14cd836601cdfc67ed/1548442644372/2019_Draft_NTSP_System_Map.pdf

[8] At residents’ urging, a version of the 83 route option was considered and adopted by VTA in 2017 during an earlier planning process. It was never implemented. Michael’s report makes improvements on the original plan for the 83, but keeps the spirit of that earlier compromise between the VTA and residents. Then AVCA board member, Bob Strain, came up with the idea of routing the bus to the library and Castillero Middle School.

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