VTA postpones Santa Clara County cuts to service for next year
A VTA Blue Line train travels through downtown San Jose. File photo.

    The Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority postponed voting on its proposed service cuts for next year, bringing transit advocates a sense of cautious relief.

    “This isn’t over,” said public transit advocate Monica Mallon. “We’re going to be needing to fight the cuts next year.”

    VTA announced Nov. 17 it would delay committee and board votes on its 2021 Transit Service Plan. The plan included three proposals for service cuts, ranging from 10%, 20% and 30% in the agency’s operational budget.

    VTA spokesperson Brandi Childress said the agency’s 2021 Transit Service Plan and its corresponding service cuts have been paused indefinitely.

    “We really expected that we were going to see some relief in early 2021 with the pandemic… but we’re not seeing that relief,” Childress said. “It’s just a more responsible approach for us to try to solve the transit service issues that we’re having now, instead of trying to plan for a future that we don’t know.”

    Childress said the agency is looking at increasing frequency on seven bus routes — including routes 23, 25 and 64 — with the highest number of “pass-ups,” or incidents in which at least one rider cannot board a bus due to lack of space. On an average weekday, there are about 260 pass-ups on VTA’s bus routes, according to Childress.

    “It’s not as though we’re leaving people in the lurch, but we’re definitely inconveniencing them,” Childress said. “We have to be reliable, especially for people who rely on us the most.”

    VTA aims to increase frequency on these routes by the end of the year, Childress said.

    VTA had proposed the cuts in anticipation of a $100 million budget deficit for 2021. The cuts would have reduced service frequency and duration on most routes, as well as eliminated bus routes 83 and 52.

    Following public outcry against the idea, VTA said it would draft a new proposal to avoid cutting service by 30%. However, public transit riders remain wary, given the agency’s history of favoring big projects over supporting existing service.

    Eugene Bradley, founder of SV Transit Users, said VTA’s move to increase frequency is a reaction to the thousands of riders who have been passed up on routes since the start of the pandemic. Bradley said some rejected riders have even thrown rocks at bus windows after being left behind.

    “VTA has enough money to have at least a 10% service increase,” Bradley said. “We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to study automated vehicle service and BART…  The money’s there.”

    The agency also announced it would cease pursuing a reduction in the county’s social distancing requirements. VTA had advocated for a 3-foot social distance requirement on its busses and trains, a policy that drew criticism from transit operators.

    Bradley said such a policy was dangerous and would contribute to a much faster spread of coronavirus. VTA bus driver Audrey Lopez perished from COVID-19 at age 53 in October.

    “You would think Donald Trump was running that agency,” Bradley said. “There really should be citizen outrage.”

    Bus rider Mallon said maintaining 6-foot social distancing is especially important, considering many bus riders are senior citizens, students or have lower incomes.

    “Most of those people may not have great health insurance, or any health insurance at all,” Mallon said. “We need to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.”

    John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, said the Santa Clara County Public Health Department refused to grant VTA an exemption to the 6-foot requirement, particularly given the county’s newest health order. VTA had proposed the new policy to increase bus capacity and pass up fewer riders, but the union instead pushed for increased service frequency.

    Childress said the agency had advocated for a lower social distancing requirement last month, and that San Francisco’s Municipal Railway was able to safely increase its train capacity.

    “We’ve even gone so far as to meet with public health officials to demonstrate all the things that we have in place to keep customers safe,” Childress said. But given the faster spread of coronavirus and the county’s new health restrictions, the time for that initiative has passed.

    Courtney said VTA is looking to hire new transit operators in January. He hopes service will increase along routes 22, 23, 25, 66 and 68, without VTA cutting service on less-frequented routes.

    VTA may reveal further details on its 2021 service plans during its congestion and finance committee meetings scheduled for Nov. 19. Readers can tune into the meetings by visiting VTA’s website.

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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