Friday, April 10, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: VTA's Future Transit Plans - My Take on VTA's Proposed Changes between 2015 and 2017

Big service changes are coming to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in the next two years. I have heard voices from Brandi Childress, Colleen Valles, and Cody Kraatz, writing on VTA's blog to see what will come next, and I've seen them all online and on social media, which I have sometimes commented. The changes I am hearing comes from service plans for Levi's Stadium, BART's arrival in Santa Clara County, and the expansion of light rail service in Mountain View. Some of the routes will be gone, at least two routes will be combined into one, and several more routes will undergo major frequency changes to headways between buses and/or light rail. This is not to mention that I also got a response from AC Transit a year ago regarding the major changes associated with BART coming to Santa Clara County and possible overnight service from Fremont BART to the new Warm Springs/South Fremont station.

Nearly two years ago, I heard from a VTA bus operator that told me about what will happen to various bus routes when BART opens at both Milpitas and Berryessa stations. As line 181 is currently the only route that operates every day including holidays between downtown San Jose and Fremont BART station, VTA has imposed improved frequency and major route changes to reflect which bus lines would serve Fremont BART station besides line 181.

Meanwhile, AC Transit has yet to make a decision on how bus line 801 will extend from Fremont BART to Warm Springs BART station. AC Transit is unable to extend that route beyond Warm Springs given that Milpitas is within VTA's service area. The closest route that would be accessed is VTA's line 66, which the current line only goes to Dixon Landing Road. One insider did tell me that line 68 (Gilroy to San Jose Dirdon) once served Fremont BART from Gilroy, though line 66 was created in order to relieve bus operators from having to drive long distances, which the original line 68 is about 50 miles long. The current alignment for VTA's service area in Milpitas allows AC Transit line 217 to use the Great Mall/Main Street Transit Center, which also has VTA's light rail station there. However, the last bus for line 217 leaves Great Mall at approximately 10pm and arrives one hour later at Fremont BART station. In comparison, VTA's line 66 does not end their service until around 11:30pm, while the last bus for line 68 leaves downtown SJ for Gilroy at around midnight.

VTA bus drivers that drove lines 180 and 181 are nostalgic about the changes that could affect their driving careers. VTA will need to make a decision on all drivers of whether any of the drivers that transports San Jose-bound riders will be keeping their jobs and moving the drivers to heighten the frequency of both lines 66 and 68 to 15 minutes on weekdays and 20 minutes on weekends and holidays. It still remains unclear of whether AC Transit will recommend to VTA to have a night owl service between Fremont and San Jose, which no service currently exist, according to a VTA representative that told me on social media. My latest review of all the schedules within VTA's system reveals that line 68 is the only route that emulates BART's service hours (but not frequency between buses).

If I were a VTA official or board member, then I would have my voice. The following section goes line-by-line on both bus and light rail routes, so here's what I think of the upcoming changes (for dates, refer to VTA's website), with the following notations based on my experience as a transit rider:

Approved - this means that I do (or strongly do) approve the changes to the specific line. 
Approved with Condition(s) - this means that I do approve the changes to a specific line, but there are conditions or further improvements that the transit agency will possibly need to make.
Questionable Condition(s) - this means that I am OK with the changes, but there are some questions regarding how will the riders get used to the major changes. 
Not Approved - this means that I won't approve that specific line for a reason. One or more reasons may be behind the possibility of riders.


Line 10: The change is to decrease the frequency from 15 minutes to 30 minutes on weekdays with the introduction of line 11. Approved with Comdition(s); for San Jose Earthquakes games, the frequency probably should remain at 15 minutes to ensure that soccer fans get to and from Caltrain quickly. 

Line 11: The introduction of this line runs from downtown San Jose at Dirdon Station, going through downtown SJ, up First Street to Julian Street, and running along the Highway 87 corridor to Skyport Drive. Questionable Condition(s); the portion of the trip along Highway 87 is questionable in terms of the alignment of fare structure. If VTA opts to change the line to 111, then the route would remain the same except for that the cost to ride the bus is $4. Normally, most local routes run on streets and some expressways. In the case of the proposed line 11, VTA chose to run along highway 87, which would make the trip more of an express route than a local route.

Line 13: This line will have some major implications with the schedules, putting the last four trips to leave Ohlone-Chynoweth at 47 minutes past each hour. Approved with Condition(s); VTA must inform riders what the purpose of the last four trips are for, such as school bell times at Gunderson High.

Line 14 and Line 17: The two routes will be combined, with the latter extended to weekends and holidays and both routes continue as one another. These two routes are the first buses within southern Santa Clara County (and the second route couplets after lines 48 and 49) to operate on a loop that terminates at St. Louise Hospital. Approved; weekend service is essential for those that needs a ride to the Gilroy outlets with heavy congestion during shopping season.

Line 18: This route will discontinue it's weekend service, possibly due to low ridership in a similar scenario to line 37 (as opposed to higher ridership on weekdays). Approved; the low ridership may be the primary factor to VTA's bus system in Gilroy.

Line 19: One morning trip in each direction on weekdays will be discontinued. Approved with Condition(s); this line may need to serve Christmas Hill Park for riders that do plan to head over there, particularly during Gilroy Garlic Festival events. Inquires with Gilroy Garlic Festival organizers reveal that riders must walk at least six blocks to Chrismas Hill Park, but VTA has yet to respond on that issue.

Line 22 (All-Nighter Network): Extra trips are to be added on Saturdays during early morning and late-night hours. Approved; VTA would expect higher ridership on this popular route.

Line 23: Extra trip would be added on weekends and holidays. Approved; this popular route may be experiencing more increases possibly due to congested traffic near Valley Fair and Santana Row.

Line 32: This line is very interesting - VTA plans to convert this route from a small bus (30 feet) to a regular bus (40 feet) and charging standard fares like most regular lines. The route would change the alignment from Central Expressway to Maude and making the line more straight than the current alignment of going on and off Central Expressway. Approved; this is likely for safety reasons because pedestrians are not typically allowed on Central Expressway.

Line 35: This line will improve the frequency from one hour to 45 minutes on Saturdays, but the last weekday evening trips in both directions will be discontinued. Approved; there were requests on social media for improvements to this line as the user wanted to make an appeal to VTA requesting more frequency than normal.

Line 42: This line will have a slight reduction in services, with the first and last northbound trips axed from the schedule. Approved; it's possible that there's not enough demand.

Line 46: This line is also facing the same fate as line 42, except the fact that one southbound trip will be axed from the schedule. Approved; same reason as line 42.

Line 47: This line will have the southbound last trip and a reduction of stops in the northbound direction on weekdays. Approved with Condition(s); while the weekday trips will possibly not have sufficient demand, it is likely possible that the weekend schedule may need to have some improvements in the future.

Line 48 and Line 49: These two lines will see an improvement during peak hours, but one Sunday/holiday trip on the latter route will be axed. Approved; while the Sunday service may not have sufficient demand on the last line 49 trip, the concern that VTA has may likely be on peak-hour traffic in Los Gatos. It is possible that service may need to increase further in the future, but will remain with the smaller buses than the standard buses.

Line 51: This line will no longer exist. VTA plans to merge this route with line 81 (see that route below). Approved with Condition(s); see line 81 for more information.

Line 55: VTA plans to put newer express trips as Line 55X to provide direct trips to Fremont High School and change the alignment of the express trips to operate on Fair Oaks instead of Maude. Asides from new express trips, the Saturday trip will split into two trips. Approved; VTA apparently has a strategy in their efforts to transport students to Fremont High School, in which the Sunnyvale Unified School District is probably trying to solve. As for the Saturday trips, riders may have more choices in whether to get on the bus earlier or later. Line 55 is likely the first line in the entire VTA system to feature an "X" of which unlike most express routes (100-level routes), the "X" travels on local roads, mimicking the effects of a limited-stop line (300-level routes).

Line 56: This new, peak-hour route will service between Component light rail station and Sunnyvale Caltrain Station. Approved with Condition(s); it is not known whether VTA plans to operate in one direction or in both directions. Parts of the route, however, will replace line 58's current alignment when the changes are in effect.

Line 57: This route will have major improvements to service during peak-hour weekdays and major improvements to Sunday/holiday service. Approved; riders along line 57 won't be confused when headed in the West Valley College direction.

Line 58: This route will have major alignment and frequency improvements that will include a new Saturday service. Santa Clara Transit Center will replace West Valley College as the southern terminus, as VTA felt that there should only be one route that won't confuse riders heading to West Valley College. Approved with Condition(s); it is unknown whether VTA plans to offer Sunday service in the future as developers are possibly building more shopping centers near Alviso south of SR-237 along First Street.

Line 60: This route will see a major improvement to Sunday service. Approved; as the route serves both Santana Row and Valley Fair due to possible congestion.

Line 61 and Line 62: Those two routes will see frequency improvements on both sides, but a reduction of service on the former during weekdays. Approved; line 61 apparently does not have as many riders as line 62 does on a typical weekday.

Line 66 and Line 68: These two routes will see improvements from 30 minutes to 20-minute headways on weekends and holidays. Approved with condition(s); see also explanation in the picture.

Line 70: Look for improved frequency on Saturday mornings as one trip will split into two trips, giving more choices for riders. Approved; looks like there are increased ridership on that line.

Line 72: This line adds one more trip in each direction on weekday mornings and one more northbound Sunday trip. Approved; it looks like there are more added riders on line 72 because of the added congestion near downtown San Jose.

Line 81: This line will be extended to add stops from Vallco Shopping Center to Moffett Field as a result of the combination with line 51. Approved; apparently, the combination of line 51 and line 81 to provide one continuous route is a strategy by VTA to ensure more ridership.

Line 82: This line is to provide more Sunday service, starting one hour earlier and ending one hour later than the current operating times. Approved; VTA may anticipate a slight increase in ridership.

Line 89: This line will run all-day on weekdays with the introduction of midday service. Approved; apparently, this is a strategy for long-term service that VTA wanted to see as Palo Alto residents and workers near various companies want to see between peak hours.

Line 101, Line 102, and Line 103: VTA plans to take a test run to see if riders appreciate the route taking students to Stanford University. In addition, the latter two lines will see an increase in service. Approved with condition(s); it is unknown how many riders near South San Jose are Stanford students, as VTA's concern is more congestive commute on SR 85 and I-280.

Line 120 and Line 140: VTA plans to reroute these lines to include the new Warm Springs BART station. The former line will have a reduction of stops to terminate at Lockheed Martin, while the latter route will be realigned to serve the Great Mall/Main Street BART station. Approved; it looks like the realignment is meant for more customers who are looking for more trips to serve any BART stations.

Line 168: More peak-hour commute trips in each direction will be added. Approved; VTA is concerned with increased commute on 101 between San Martin and south San Jose. The Mercury News reported that southern Santa Clara County has experienced the most increase among all Bay Area freeways, which is a 37% jump. Continued problems along the corridor will likely see line 168 even more increases in service and traffic increases through Morgan Hill city streets.

Line 180: This route will terminate at Warm Springs BART station instead of continuing to Fremont, along with the reduction of service and frequency. Approved; the latter portion of line 180 is replaced with line 140, which will continue from Warm Springs. Line 180 will only serve people getting between the Warm Springs BART station and the Great Mall/Main Street light rail station. Apparently, VTA wants to encourage riders that takes BART to use this route.

Line 181: More frequency increases on both weekdays and Sunday service are expected. Midday trips will be aligned with both morning and evening commutes in both directions on weekdays. Sunday service will be improved and aligned with Saturday service in terms of headways, as ridership continues to increase. Approved; VTA noted that ridership for both weekday and weekend service has gone way up and is trying to solve the problem with huge increases to this popular express route. VTA also noted that the increases to weekday ridership has been partially attributed to San Jose State University students who uses this route to get to or near the BART station.

Line 182: The alignment change will have this line to remain on Santa Teresa Blvd, with a stop at Bernal Road. Approved; it looks like VTA's strategy is to reduce stress from making too many turns on side roads.

Line 323: This route will see increased service on both weekdays and weekends. Approved; VTA is trying to address overcrowding problems on many line 23 trips along the corridor during the early-morning, post-evening, and weekend commutes. Both Valley Fair and Santana Row are apparently attracting more ridership. Their strategy is to prevent total gridlock on line 23 trips.

Line 328: More frequency during commute times to be added. Approved; looks like VTA may anticipate more riders.

Line 354: This is a new peak-hour line that will go from De Anza College to Lockheed Martin via Sunnyvale Caltrain station. Approved; this may be the latest limited line to be introduced by VTA. It is likely that this route may run in both directions, though it remains unclear how frequent the line will run.

Line 522: This route calls for a major overhaul and renames this line to BRT 522. The plan is to have hybrid articulated buses that would run anywhere from 10-15 minute headways on weekdays and 15-20 minute headways on weekends and holidays. The major overhaul also includes huge increases to service. Ticket vending machines will be positioned along the area. Questionable condition(s); the way that VTA sets up this service could be a concern for their budget. While the service could remain the same, it would be better if VTA runs the BRT to mimic the headways that BART runs their service in order for VTA to manage their budget.

Line 901 (Santa Teresa - Alum Rock light rail line): One early morning trip will start at Baypointe. Approved; VTA does not anticipate huge improvements until BART to Silicon Valley is completed.

Line 902 (Winchester - Mountain View light rail line): One more southbound trip is to be added on weekdays and weekends. Approved; although VTA will have the second track ready for service, major changes won't occur until BART to Silicon Valley has been completed. This has been under discussion by VTA, in which some riders want the headways changed from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. However, the change that VTA will do is related to the alignment of service with additional trips anticipated between Alum Rock and Mountain View. The resulting end product when BART is in service will result in the southbound termination to end at Almaden instead of Winchester, and then increase service, resulting in two light rail lines that are due to increase along SR 87 corridor, leaving line 901 to upgrade to all-day Express trains in both directions between Ohlone-Chynoweth and Convention Center. It remains unclear of whether the independent Winchester - St. James line will be taking the "line 902" name and/or having the Almaden - Mountain View line taking the "line 900" name. It is likely that the Alum Rock - Mountain View line will be taking the "line 903" name, though.

Original Work: Kyle Chak
Twitter: @KyleSChak