At the August 17th meeting of the VTA board Ad Hoc Financial Sustainability Committee, VTA staff proposed that Next Network bus and light rail service increases be “dead on arrival” – a 5% service cut, instead of 10% service increase, in response to deep budget deficit of $50M-$60M per year including operating and maintenance.
In response, advocates and policy analysts are encouraging creative thinking to address the budget gap without triggering a spiral of service cuts and ridership decreases.
VTA went through an extensive professional analysis and community outreach to redesign its transit network, approved by the board in 2017, with goals to increase transit ridership with a more frequent and connected transit network. After board approval, however, the Next Network rollout was mostly delayed, waiting for the completion of the extension of BART to Beryessa in San Jose, with a delivery date that has been repeatedly deferred. Now, with facing a steep budget deficit, the bus and light rail service increases may not see light of day.
The staff report proposes to continue shifts away from service that provides geographical coverage in areas with low ridership, toward a network of routes that are expected to gain more “ridership” with increased frequency. The report proposes to keep some frequency increases on high ridership routes and to add connections to the new BART extension stations. But overall, the service level would be down instead of up.
The staff report recommends long-term consideration of capital project changes. But so far, it doesn’t include anything specific about changes to capital projects like the Vasona Light rail extension, where land use plans (or the region’s land use philosophy) may have changed since the project was initially conceived decades ago as a light rail extension into low-density suburban neighborhoods. Nor is there any sign of reconsideration of the BART extension from Diridon to Santa Clara, exactly paralleling the current Caltrain service, on a part of the Caltrain line that isn’t crowded, even as the Caltrain line is being electrified, with the potential for more frequent stops. BART service duplicating Caltrain service between Diridon and Santa Clara would be redundant, but is politically popular among local voters and leaders who have a brand preference for BART over Caltrain.
Instead of cutting redundant and/or likely-low-ridership but popular capital projects, VTA staff proposes to cut service for largely low-income riders of buses and light rail trains; though the VTA Next Network analysis showed that VTA runs fewer service hours per capita than at earlier times in VTA’s history or at other better-performing transit agencies (see the Next Network analysis reports from 2016).
While capital project changes weren’t discussed specifically, VTA has recently issued a Request for Proposals for a “Strategic Plan for Advancing High Capacity Transit Corridors.” Such strategic planning has the potential to refine VTA’s capital plans in a way that reduces the costs of projects that won’t perform as well as initially conceived, and sets the stage for better performance in the future.
Additional proposed strategies to reduce the deficit include freezing the hiring of non-critical positions, and adjustments to employee wages and/or benefits; and in the long-term revisiting contributions to regional partner services (logically including Caltrain).
Policy nonprofits recommend creative solutions
Two letters to the committee from transportation policy nonprofits, included in the staff report, offered additional suggestions to re-think VTA service.
Regional think tank SPUR recommended reviewing operating cost factors compared to peer agencies, and looking at regional partnerships no only in terms of costs, but in terms of value to customers. Working Partnerships, a labor-backed public policy organization, offered recommendations including new sources of revenue such as stronger transit-oriented development, taxes on rideshare, partnerships with major employment centers and transportation management associations (TMAs) for transit pass bulk purchases, and “mobility as a service” (MaaS) offerings to bundle first and last mile options such as scooter, bikeshare, and rideshare.
Combining SPUR’s suggestion about building on the value of regional partnerships, and WPUSA’s suggestions about MaaS and employer partnerships – VTA might get better financial results by thinking broadly and expanding service packages to meet the needs of customers, instead of retrenching to offer less service. For large and medium-sized customers, such as Google at Diridon, or Stanford, or San Jose State University, or residential developments near transit lines, it is inefficient and perplexing to have to purchase separate transportation packages from VTA, Caltrain, BART, plus carshare, carpool, bikeshare and scooter offerings. The MaaS opportunity – for services and revenue – would logically be bigger with a footprint that meets the needs of customers. Rather than retreating from partnerships, this strategy would see VTA embracing coordination to address customer needs.
According to second-hand information – your blogger wasn’t at the meeting and minutes aren’t posted yet – the VTA Ad Hoc Financial Sustainability Committee didn’t recommend the staff report’s recommendations to the board. We will seek an update on what next steps are in assessing responses to VTA’s serious budget challenges.
What are your thoughts about ways for VTA to address its budget deficit while avoiding a death spiral of service cuts to reduce revenue?