Santa Clara VTA steps up in Silicon Valley
By Michael T. Burns
The worldwide financial crisis that began in late 2008 resulted in an unprecedented rise in unemployment with job losses in the millions. The loss was particularly profound in Santa Clara County, with the unemployment rate peaking at 12.1 percent in January 2010. Record unemployment in Silicon Valley impacted ridership levels and sales tax revenues necessary for advancing projects and funding bus and light rail operations. Rather than wait for an economic recovery to stimulate ridership, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) looked at ways to deliver innovative services, within the confines of its own financial constraints, with the explicit goal of attracting new riders to the system.
In June 2011, the VTA Board of Directors adopted a two-year budget and transit service plan that supported VTA’s objective of increasing system efficiencies and ridership by investing in service, infrastructure, and the agency’s capital program. We put recommendations into action on how to enhance VTA’s Express Bus and Limited Stop Services that serve commuters between the southern and eastern residential neighborhoods of the county and employment centers to the northwest. In Silicon Valley, it is common to find employers like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Cisco offering their own commuter bus services to compete and retain talented high-tech employees.
To become more competitive with this high-level service, VTA conducted a study to evaluate service options and vehicle amenities that were most attractive to Silicon Valley workers. Based on the feedback received, VTA introduced an enhanced Express Bus service in January 2012, featuring faster travel times, more convenient access to bus stops and adjusted schedules that fit Silicon Valley workers’ preferred commute times.
With the long-distance commuter in mind, VTA deployed 20 new Gillig hybrid buses complete with Wi-Fi and reclining, high-back seats to make the travel experience more comfortable and enjoyable. VTA also launched a new express route serving the Fremont BART Station, a major destination point where passengers from the South Bay connect to the rapid rail line serving the San Francisco Bay Area.
Since the January launch, ridership on VTA express routes has increased by 17 percent compared to the same period last year. Routes that feature the high-amenity vehicles have seen an average ridership increase of 28 percent during the first five months of 2012, with the most popular routes experiencing increases in ridership as high as 70 percent.
Is this bus or light rail?
Staying with the goal of offering a service that features upgraded amenities to attract new customers and meet the needs of loyal customers, VTA’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) program is one of the most highly anticipated transit improvements to serve the streets of Santa Clara County.
High quality, high-speed BRT provides the same service and amenities of light rail but at a much lower cost to implement. The plan is for BRT service to operate at 10-minute frequencies 18 hours per day, seven days per week throughout the county.
BRT lines will feature light rail-like stations and facilities that bring all the benefits of rail service to a rubber-tired vehicle. Stations will facilitate rapid boarding and limited dwell time. Stations and vehicles alike will offer comfort and amenities to passengers such as Wi-Fi, real-time information, quality seating and lighting, and off-board ticket vending machines.
Three corridors are currently planned for BRT service, the first being the Santa Clara-Alum Rock Corridor which connects San Jose’s HP Pavilion to the Eastridge Transit Center in east San Jose. Paid for by California State bond funds and local sales tax revenue, the $128 million project should be under construction by summer 2013 and operational by fall 2014.
The second BRT corridor planned for El Camino Real will benefit the most cities in the county including San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos and Palo Alto. The 17-mile stretch is currently in the planning and environmental review phases. VTA is actively pursuing federal Small Starts funding for this project, which the agency anticipates to begin service by 2017.
The third corridor, which is in the early stages of conceptual design, serves one of San Jose’s largest shopping and entertainment areas along Stevens Creek Boulevard through the cities of San Jose, Santa Clara and Cupertino. There has not been a cost estimate or a base design developed for this project. However, the high travel demand in this corridor has VTA taking initial steps to offer more frequent, limited stop bus service – the first step towards building an effective BRT line.
Beginning October 1, 2012, new Limited Stop Line 323 will provide faster, more direct service between De Anza College and Downtown San Jose with 15-minute headways on weekdays. This new line will help relieve the over-crowded buses passengers currently experienced on the existing local service.
Santa Clara County residents have never been hesitant in voicing their needs and opinions on what public transit should look like in Silicon Valley. In fact, voters have long supported taxing themselves, by passing a total of three sales tax measures in the past 35 years, to deliver much-needed and desired transit service and infrastructure improvements. With improvements like the enhanced Express Bus service and plans for future Bus Rapid Transit in place, VTA continues to pursue opportunities that will deliver a rapid, innovative, and more efficient transit system well positioned for future growth in Santa Clara County. BR
Michael T. Burns serves as general manager of Santa Clara VTA, Santa Clara, CA.