On Tuesday City Council members struggled to realize visions of a city-run shuttle that would make stops downtown, at San Antonio shopping center and the movie theaters, to name a few.
"The whole idea of a constantly circulating shuttle that makes it easy for people to get around is something constituents have been asking for for a long time," said council member Laura Macias.
The possibility of testing such a system for a year or more was considered by the Council, but the cost, upwards of $1 million a year to have three vehicles circulate around the city every 15 to 20 minutes, made them hesitant.
In the end a majority of council members said they wanted to see the idea wrapped into a study of potential transportation improvements in North Bayshore where Google and other companies use private shuttles to ferry their employees to and from Castro Street, among other more far-flung destinations. The North Bayshore transportation study is underway as Google and others plan to develop space for thousands more employees north of Highway 101.
No help from Google
"If you go to North Bayshore and look at Google's parking lots, there's just so many buses standing there," said council member Ronit Bryant. "There's a lot of resources just standing there. A private-public partnership would work."
Council member Margaret Abe-Koga said city officials approached Google "to see if they would be willing to let us use their shuttles during the day when they are sitting out in the parking lot at Shoreline. They never got back to us."
Google and other tech companies might be unwilling to share their shuttles because intellectual property could be stolen as someone looks over the shoulder of a laptop-using employee, noted Mayor Mike Kasperzak. But he said there is probably very little laptop use among those who take the short ride from downtown to Google headquarters.
"Unless we have a million (dollars a year) to do this, I think this is a non-starter," said council member Jac Siegel, who estimated the cost at $350,000 per vehicle. "Unless we can get other entities to help us I don't know where we are going to get the money."
Council members said there may be grant money and VTA funds for such a shuttle, and Kasperzak mentioned the possibility of working with San Antonio Shopping Center developer Merlone Geier if the shuttle were to run down California Street to its shopping center.
Council members also expressed disappointment that no one came to the meeting to speak in favor of the shuttle. A survey posted on the city website found that 64.5 percent of 248 respondents would use such a shuttle. Most said it would need to cost less than $2.
City staff had also not been able to find any studies or recruit any help in analyzing the feasibility of such a system from the Mineta Transportation Institute or U.C. Berkeley.
Charging for parking?
Kasperzak said he would be more supportive if the city began charging for parking in certain areas, spurring drivers to consider paying $4 for parking or $2 for the shuttle. "We have people circling around downtown looking for parking space and they can't find any because it's all free," he said. "At this point in time, I'm not in favor of dragging staff through this process anymore," despite his desire for better transportation in the city.
"We have looked at this issue a number of times over the years," said council member Abe-Koga, former chair of the Valley Transportation Authority board. "The questions that have always arisen are, 'Who are we trying to serve?' and 'What would be the best route?'"
Macias said students and seniors were among those that could use such a shuttle, but with other buses and shuttles already serving those populations, Bryant said the most undeserved by transit were those trying to get to the Shoreline area, possibly Shoreline Park or the Century movies theaters on North Shoreline Boulevard. A VTA bus from Mountain View High School is already very popular among students, council members said. Seniors use a mid-day VTA shuttle, No. 34, which connects downtown to the San Antonio Shopping Center on a route that passes a senior housing complex on Montecito Avenue and the city's Senior Center on Escuela Avenue. But ridership on the 34 has been low for years and is now below 15 riders per hour, which means it may be cut by the VTA. Ridership actually went down after it was re-routed to include the senior center, Abe-Koga said.
"We will have to make a decision soon whether we should cut it or not," Abe-Koga said of the shuttle. She suggested using the $150,000 to $250,000 the VTA uses to run the 34 shuttle to go towards a new city-run shuttle, adding that the city would also have to be willing to put up some funds.