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Compromise on VTA draft bus-routes plan

Some Mountain View and Palo Alto routes to be kept, others combined or eliminated

Changes are ahead for North County bus lines, with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) preparing to release a draft of a plan and begin community hearings.

The Draft Transit Service Plan, scheduled to be presented to the VTA Board of Directors on Jan. 5, would overhaul the entire VTA bus system to increase ridership and make the service more efficient, officials have said. The plan covers proposed changes to bus and light-rail routes throughout Santa Clara County.

The Jan. 5 VTA board meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at VTA Headquarters, 3331 North First St., San Jose, Building B.

If approved, the plan would be released to the public for review and comment through a series of community meetings, including one at Palo Alto City Hall on Jan. 19 at 6 p.m.

VTA presented three alternatives to the public last year based on scenarios designed to increased ridership and potentially reduce coverage. The agency has said it must decrease coverage to increase ridership, and thus its revenues.

Under the draft plan, Palo Alto would lose its Line 89 bus route but it would keep service to Gunn High School on Line 88 in a compromise worked out with the VTA.

In Mountain View, one big change will add a light rail route directly from Alum Rock to the Mountain View Transit Center, saving riders from needing to switch lines at the Old Ironsides stop. The Alum Rock to Tasman light rail would arrive every 7.5 minutes. A rapid line would run from Alum Rock Transit Center to the Mountain View Transit Center every 15 minutes, said Adam Burger, VTA senior transportation planner.

Bus line 40 would be extended to cover from Foothill College down Shoreline Boulevard to the Mountain View Transit Center, closing a previous gap in the system, Burger said.

A new bus line, 20, would also run from north San Jose to Mountain View every 15 minutes during peak hours and 30 minutes during non-peak times.

Palo Alto's Midtown-serving Line 35 would merge with Mountain View's Line 32. Previously, the 35 covered the Palo Alto Transit Center to the San Antonio Transit Center. Riders would transfer in Mountain View to travel to the Santa Clara Caltrain Station. The merged line would be renamed Line 21, and its riders would be able to travel directly to the Santa Clara station without transferring in Mountain View. The new line won't cut any stops and will arrive every 30 minutes, including during the middle of the day, he said.

But VTA is also proposing to discontinue Line 34, which runs from San Antonio Shopping Center to downtown Mountain View; that line has low ridership, VTA officials say. Some of its stops would be taken up by the 21 line, which would replace it.

For Palo Alto, one scenario, with an 80 percent ridership/20 percent coverage goal, would substantially reduce the frequency of some bus lines, and another, called 90/10, would eliminate all bus routes serving Palo Alto save for two direct lines from Palo Alto to San Jose, whose frequency would increase. Express buses to the Stanford Research Park and the Palo Alto VA Hospital would not be affected.

But after weighing public input and seeking to retain service for its most needy riders, VTA transportation engineers devised a hybrid 85/15 plan. In Palo Alto, that would mean eliminating the 89 bus route, which connects the Palo Alto VA Healthcare System at Miranda Avenue with the California Avenue Caltrain station. "That service is redundant with the Marguerite shuttle, which is free. We can't compete. We have to charge $2," said Adam Burger, VTA senior transportation planner.

But VTA would retain Line 88, the route serving Gunn High School, limiting service only around school bell times with buses arriving every 30 minutes.

"We really heard strong input from the community and the PTA," Burger said of keeping the line.

Two important north-south lines from Palo Alto Transit Center along El Camino Real to the Eastridge Mall in San Jose, the 22 and 522, now run every 12 minutes for the 22 and every 15 minutes for the 522; those lines would flip in frequency, with a bus added to the 522 and one removed from the 22.

Burger said that staff "really struggled with these decisions. While the focus is on rider-coverage, we don't want (the message) to get lost that we really do care about neighborhoods with ridership needs and we really do work to retain those. It's a big balancing act overall," he said.

VTA intends to update its paratransit policy so that no current users in Santa Clara County are negatively affected, spokeswoman Stacey Hendler-Ross said.

"Note that this would discontinue VTA paratransit service in Fremont, where East Bay Paratransit also operates. Whether this means freezing the service area as it is today or grandfathering in current clients is yet to be determined," she said in an email.

If the board approves releasing the draft plan for public scrutiny, public meetings would take place from Jan. 6 to Feb. 20. VTA officials stressed that the draft plan is a starting point for public discussion.

"We want to learn how we can make this project better. We don't know the nuances of each community, which is why we want their help in improving the plan," Burger said.

The last time the agency overhauled its system, in 2008, it made 50 changes from the draft plan release to the final plan, he added. "I'm really hoping we'll get that kind of feedback as well," he said.

VTA plans to launch a robust information campaign, including a website on Jan. 5, and will host webinars or make in-person appearances to discuss the draft plan, he said. Information is available at nextnetwork.vta.org.

The agenda packet and map for the Jan. 5 VTA board meeting are available at tinyurl.com/zz57xpu.

Update: The VTA has changed details for the board meeting. The meeting is now scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. at the VTA Headquarters at 3331 N. First St. in San Jose, Building B.

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