Friday, June 26, 2009

Persistance of youth -- the boy who never grew up

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the 1980s recently. I was never far away, at least culturally (more than half the songs in my iTunes have a 1980s date). But recent events, especially my upcoming 20-year high school reunion (arrgh!), have given the decade renewed prominence.

Perhaps the death of Michael Jackson will help crystallize my feelings. Was I ever a huge fan? No. But "Thriller"was the first album I ever chose to illicitly copy (a cassette held up the the speakers while my cousin Marco's LP played). Jackson was a cultural phenomenon while I was in sixth grade (Lincoln Elementary) and junior high (Rosemont Middle School) and I enjoyed his music and showmanship for what it was worth.

Not that I thought the music was great (some of it began to grate on me rather early), but I thought Michael was amazing -- partly simply because he was popular. As soon as I got into Rosemont, however, the dissolution of my beliefs began. Michael Jackson was one of the first times (but certainly not one of the last) that I saw "tall poppy syndrome" in action.

"He's gay" (then as now one of the most misused epitaphs). "He's weird." "Michael Jackson is sooo lame." The put-downs came from right and left. And although I never did anything to show my fandom and was never victimized because of it, my enjoyment of Michael's music faded prematurely -- simply because of peer pressure. And to be honest, these put downs of Michael came before any of his well-document later behavior.

Whatever his later problems (and I am in no way saying look the other way when it comes to allegations about child molestation), I will choose to remember Michael Jackson as an extremely talented performer, an outstanding dancer and spectacular songwriter.

None of the numerous 1980s songs on my iTunes are by Michael Jackson. But thanks to the radio (BBC Radio 1 played an hour-long block of MJ songs today) I am flashing back to a more innocent time where I could make my own choices without worrying what others thought. RIP Michael. You were part of my youth and you leave with my respect.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

SamTrans public hearing set for ... sometime

The San Mateo County Transit District's board of directors did as expected on Wednesday and scheduled a public hearing on potentially significant service cuts.

I use the term "scheduled" loosely, as the directors set the public hearing for some vague, unidentified time in "late July or early August."

(Disclaimer: The loose schedule is distressing to me. I am a member of SamTrans' "Citizen's Advisory Committee," which offers its input to the board regarding transportation matters but wields no actual power. We have no meeting scheduled for July and our August meeting is on Aug. 5. The CAC would like to have a well-thought-out opinion for the board, but right now it's looking like the board might have the hearing before our meeting.)

As I wrote last week, SamTrans is faced with a budget deficit of about $30 million and Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey is exploring services cuts up to 15 percent to close the gap.

A public hearing is legally required before any cuts are put in place, and SamTrans also hopes to hold four community meetings in different areas of the County before the directors vote on a proposal, probably at their September meeting.

Harvey presented the directors with a couple different proposals Wednesday. Outlining what he expected with a 7.5-percent cut, Harvey said: Lines MX, NX, PX/RX and 342 would be eliminated; Lines KX and 397 would be reduced to 60 minute headways in off-peak and weekend hours; and Lines 292, 390 and 391 would end service at 10 p.m. on weekends.

Under a 15-percent reduction, all of the above would occur, plus: Lines 141, 270, 280 and 295 would be eliminated; Line 391 would no longer provide service to San Francisco; and Lines 292, 390 and 391 would end service at 10 p.m. seven days a week.

"It seems to me that 7.5 percent is a minimum -- I hope 15 percent is an absolute maximum," said director, and Redwood City Councilmember Jim Hartnett. "I would suggest (staff) not be hesitant to come up with a different percentage in-between. (But) 7.5 percent is not going to get us where we need to go."

SamTrans CEO Mike Scanlon told the directors that SamTrans actually would rather add services, especially in the face of what he called "the most-enlightened federal policy in years." Most federal transit funds, however, are being distributed for capital projects rather than operational costs.

"We don't want to leave our most vulnerable (patrons) in a bad situation while we're supposed to be an answer in a sustainable society," Scanlon said. Paraphrasing a proverb, he added, "We're definitely going through Hell right now, but we're going through it. I hope the other side is not far away."

Years of the now-ended practice of subsidizing BART operations in San Mateo County continue to plague SamTrans financially, Scanlon added, and ultimately the agency might "need to get out of the Caltrain business" in order to properly run the bus system.

According to SamTrans Chief Financial Officer Gigi Harrington, SamTrans is providing $16.5 million for Caltrain operations this year, compared to Santa Clara VTA's $16.3 million and San Francisco Muni's $7.2 million.

One more sign of the distressing situation local newspapers find themselves in: once upon a time, our three local dailies would have pounced on this important story. Yet staffing cuts (the San Mateo County Times once had a dedicated transporation beat reporter) have taken their toll -- not one word of this proposal has made it into the Times, San Mateo Daily Journal or the Daily News.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Don't miss the train

The Ghan is Australia's main north-south train, but you want to ride INSIDE it.

When I was in Australia last November, I was very excited to take the country's premier long-distance trains, the Indian Pacific and the Ghan and chronicled my journey here in my blog.

The journeys were fabulous, despite my sitting up in my seat for up to three nights at a time, and a great way to see the Outback without necessarily roughing it. I particularly liked the short whistle stops, but made sure as heck I was back at the train on time -- I didn't want to get stranded in the middle of some Outback town without my luggage -- so I made every effort to get back on that train.

I'm not sure I would have gone the route of Chad Vance, however. According to the BBC, Vance, a fellow American who took the Ghan, found the train pulling away after a stop in Port Augusta -- without him on it. Vance, 19, ran after the train, banged on the door and windows without response, then hung onto a stairwell for about two-and-a-half hours as the train sped through the Outback at about 70 mph.

Speaking of his May 28 journey in the Adelaide Advertiser, Vance said, "I was worried I wasn't going to survive. If I'd fallen off at that speed and hit the nasty-looking rocks below, I don't think I would have made it."

After hours of exposure from the wind and cold, Vance's lips were blue according to the conductor who finally noticed him and pulled the train's emergency brake.

I was extremely paranoid about being left behind when I rode Great Southern Railway's trains in Australia. When I was in Broken Hill, for example, I carefully noted the time the train was to depart and timed my walk so I would be back at the train 15 minutes before scheduled departure time, just to be safe. When I was in Kalgoorlie, I got back 45 minutes early -- both because the town shuts down early and I wanted to blog from the train station.

After reading Vance's story, I'm glad I did.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

SamTrans may cut service by 15 percent in face of $30 million deficit

SAN CARLOS, Calif. -- The San Mateo County Transit District faces an unexpected $30 million budget deficit and may have to cut service by up to 15 percent as soon as September, transit officials said Wednesday night.

Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey told the district's Citizens Advisory Committee that the economic downturn, lower sales tax revenues and a cut in state transit subsidies have caused an unprecedented budget shortfall for SamTrans. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this week cut the transit subsidy for the next three to five years after a number of budget initiatives failed in May's special election.

"I certainly wish I was here to talk with you tonight with better news," Harvey told the CAC. "This is an evolving issue that is literally changing hourly."

(Disclaimer: Your blogger is a member of the SamTrans CAC.)

While no fare increase is on the horizon, Harvey said, the possibility exists that SamTrans -- which just raised its base fare by 25 cents in February -- may need to ask for one in Fiscal Year 2011. Harvey stated that a fare increase would only improve revenue by a couple million dollars -- a pittance in face of a $30 million deficit. Service cuts are more effective, said the SamTrans COO.

"We don't want to balance our budget on the back of our riders," Harvey (right, at podium) said.

SamTrans staff will go before the district's board of directors next Wednesday to ask them to schedule a public hearing and a number of public meetings in July, with the board making a recommendation on cuts in August. Any changes would likely take place sometime in the third quarter, Harvey said.

"We simply cannot survive as an agency with a $30 million deficit," Harey said. "This causes us to make some difficult choices now."

The board could choose to cut service by less than the 15 percent staff is planning for, Harvey said, and any changes in bus service would also be reflected in similar cuts in paratransit services. According to Harvey, the agency would also reorganize its administrative side, with job cuts to senior staff and administrative personnel.

Harvey said it is too early to point out any specific cuts, but noted that if the board recommends the full 15 percent cut, lines 295, 342 (which Harvey said is the least cost-effective line in the system, with an average of 140 riders spread over 20 daily runs) and most express services would be completely eliminated. Other lines would see a reduction in service frequency.

But ridership numbers cannot be the sole determining factor in the cuts, Harvey said, thanks to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which seeks to "fairly" distribute transit resources among the entire population.

"We can't reduce service based simply on mathematics," Harvey said. "I can't tell you what impact (the deficit) will have on both SamTrans and Caltrain."