Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority is going to run some bus lines more frequently so fewer passengers get left behind.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transit agency has been requiring passengers to be spaced six feet apart on its buses and light rail cars. Doing so, though, has limited the capacity of its vehicles, and some have been unable to accommodate passengers waiting to board as they have no space available. VTA vehicles leave behind about 650 customers a day, agency officials estimate.
Seven bus routes account for the majority of passengers left behind: 23, 25, 64, 66, 68, 71 and 77. Starting Feb. 8, the agency will run buses more frequently on those routes and adjust schedules of nearly all routes in the system.
“We want to provide as much service as we can,” VTA spokesman Ken Blackstone said. “That’s the business that we’re in.”
Thanks to the changes, VTA service will increase to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels from 74 percent, Blackstone said.
The VTA’s plan is long overdue, said public transit advocate Monica Mallon.
“It’s really exciting,” said Mallon, who is the founder of Turnout4Transit, a campaign to preserve transit services. “This is something that has needed to happen for a while and has been suggested for over six months.”
VTA buses passed up more than 17,700 people in October alone, according to an analysis by the Silicon Valley Transit Users of VTA data. Some of those left behind arrived late to work or to doctors’ appointments, said Eugene Bradley, founder and CEO of the advocacy and watchdog group. Others were forced to use rideshare services instead.
VTA’s plan to increase bus frequencies on the seven routes is a step in the right direction, Bradley said.
“This is something that our group has fought for,” he said. “We were just frankly flabbergasted that people were being left behind.”
Bradley is concerned about one consequence of VTA’s plan — the agency will discontinue certain early morning and late-night light rail runs. Those changes will negatively affect riders like security guards and janitors who work graveyard shifts, he said.
VTA has seen a decline in riders and resources during the pandemic and is trying to adapt as best it can, Blackstone said. The agency proposed deep service cuts of up to 30% in November to reduce costs, but postponed the cuts after cries from the community to save transit.
But without additional federal government assistance, VTA could face up to an $80 million budget deficit for the fiscal years of 2022 and 2023, Blackstone said. “We — like everyone else — are having to make adjustments,” he said. “We are trying to make those adjustments as inclusive as we can.”
The transit system is a lifeline for people coping with financial difficulties, especially during the pandemic, Mallon said.
“Everybody doesn’t have enough money to buy a car and to pay for gas and insurance,” she said. “This is the kind of time when people want to cut costs and look into things like transit, if they are struggling financially.”
Now, the agency is shifting its focus to some of its busiest bus routes. Riders should also expect additional adjustments to its services after February, Blackstone said.
“We will continue to adjust as necessary and have another set of adjustments in June and October this year,” Blackstone said. “The changes for both are (to be decided) and will be based on conditions at that time and the pandemic.”
The changes slated to take effect in February are positive steps forward, but they won’t completely solve the problem of passengers being left behind, said John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, which represents roughly 1,500 VTA transit workers.
“It’s a good faith effort. We’re heading in the right direction,” Courtney said. “But when you really delve into the look of the schedules, it’s not really that much of an increase. The proposal they have on the table right now is still not nearly enough to pick up the people that are out there.”
More buses are needed to fill in the gaps, Courtney said. For now, the agency will reduce time granted for operators’ breaks, among other changes, to help increase the frequencies of bus routes, he said. But VTA is hiring new drivers, which will help relieve the workload of current ones.
“VTA is trying their very best. At every turn, there’s a new challenge,” he said. “The challenge now is not just [to] increase service hours, but to increase buses on the road in peak hours on all routes, and bring transit back. We just have to keep hiring, keep the buses rolling again to gain the trust of the public back and come back with a roar.”
Visit the VTA website for the description of changes that will take effect on Feb. 8.