VTA board adds study session to address transpo tax, sympathizes with calls for bus improvements

On Thursday, the VTA board board heard an update on the transportation sales tax measure being proposed by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. Multiple board members (Chavez, Price, Rocha, Campos, Kalra) seemed supportive of community comments urging funding for bus in addition to rail investments.

A common theme in public comments was a request for investment in the bus system, in addition to backbone rail. So far, the ballot measure proposal includes $1.8 Billion in funding for BART and Caltrain, $1 billion for expressways and expressway interchanges, and $50 million to support transportation for seniors and the disabled.

Why invest in buses in addition to trains?

The rail-heavy investment mix is unbalanced in terms of social equity – a higher proportion of seniors, disabled, and low income people use the lower-cost buses than the higher cost trains. San Jose has the highest car ownership of the nation’s largest 30 cities. Many lower income families use cars despite the heavy cost burden, because transit isn’t practical for their needs.

The population of non-drivers includes an increasing number of younger folk across the income spectrum. Caltrain’s recent rider survey showed that 40% of Caltrain riders don’t own a car or don’t drive, and the survey didn’t ask how many own cars but drive them infrequently.

Fundamentally, the county’s network of frequent transit includes buses in addition to trains (see map below – yellow is Caltrain, red is the BART extension, blue is frequent bus, lavender is community bus). Buses serve more destinations and more corridors than the region’s backbone rail. The bus network is needed to serve people who don’t drive because they can’t drive, can’t afford to drive, or choose not to.

Santa Clara County Frequent Transit Network - bus and rail

Visualization created in collaboration with Ian Rees (@woolie) and Chris Lepe of TransForm.

What sorts of bus improvements?

According to Chris Lepe of Transform, bus service has slowed substantially in the last decade, as traffic has increased. Improvements would be needed to speed the bus routes. Also, the BART extensions are driving the need for connecting bus and shuttle service to get people to and from stations.

Recently, similarly sprawling Houston announced a redesign of its transit system to provide frequent, 24-7 service on key routes. With a frequent bus network, Santa Clara County could enable a more equitable and more effective transit network.

On Thursday, the VTA board asked staff to come back by the 26th and propose potential improvements for the bus system in addition to rail.

New technologies

Board members Price and Chavez asked about the flexibility to adapt to new transportation modes.   Technology is changing. Rideshare networks and on-demand shuttle services are here today and growing; autonomous vehicles seem likely to be mainstream over the lifetime of a 30 year tax.

More public input and board discussion

Several board members mentioned the need for public input and board deliberation. In order to hear more public input and have more board engagement in the decision, Chair Kalra had scheduled a 3 hour study session on June 26 to hear community feedback and discuss the content of the ballot measure.

Based on questions asked by Board Member Yeager, it’s possible that there will be special board meeting during the VTA Board’s traditional July vacation to discuss the measure further. The board will need to vote on whether to put the measure on the ballot by August 7.

Your chance to weigh in

If you want Caltrain funding to be used for Caltrain, and have other ideas about the transit network, rail and bus, come to the study session on the 26th if you can, and write VTA board members if you can’t be there in person.