Sunday, January 25, 2009

The New Coastal Express Bus Stop

A few days ago Councilmember Brian Brennan and I turned up at the new Coastal Express bus stop on Thompson Boulevard at 5:30 in the morning to see how things were going. Being a former restaurateur, Brian naturally set up a card table and dispensed coffee and doughnuts. In general, we found a hardy group of Santa Barbara commuters who were eager to talk to us and understandably concerned about having their bus stop moved.

On the morning of January 12, the city and Coastal Express moved the downtown bus stop from the intersection of Santa Clara and California to mid-block on Thompson between Oak and Palm. As the city’s representative on the Ventura County Transportation Commission, I started getting angry emails at 8 a.m. that day – in other words, as soon as the commuters got to work! Since then, Councilmember Brennan and I have tried to work with Coastal and our own staff to see how to make the situation better.

The bus stop has been at Santa Clara and California since 2001. It is remarkable how many people use the downtown stop – 20 or 30 people line up for each bus, and at rush hour there’s a bus every 20 minutes or so. In other words, Coastal is a huge success.

But there have always been problems with the Santa Clara/California location. Most people park in the downtown garage, which was not intended for commuters. This is why some years ago the city put four-hour parking in the lower levels – so the commuters were park upstairs. With the construction of the office building on California (which will use approximately 60 spaces in the third level of the garage) and the onset of paid parking on Main and California, we expect to see far more pressure on the parking garage.

Of greater concern was the ability of the buses to make the tight turn at Santa Clara and California. Tom Mericle, our city traffic engineer, tells me that in the last few months the Coastal buses (which are charter bus-style, much larger than city buses) have clipped the traffic signal pole at the intersection four times, knocking it down twice.

On top of that, Gold Coast Route 16 was re-routed from Main to Thompson a couple of weeks ago, creating the opportunity for a direct transfer; and the city wanted to put a stop on Main Street over near Patagonia (which has many reverse commuters from Santa Barbara) without slowing the schedule down. That’s why the stop was moved to Thompson.

As I said at the council meeting on the 12th, there is no question that we totally botched the roll-out of this change. We did not inform the riders but a few days in advance, nor did we engage them in a discussion about it.

As we listened to the riders, we heard a number of concerns – mostly about the safety of parking their cars in the surface lots near the stop (including one at the Salvation Army) and the difficulty of crossing Thompson, which is a busy street. Based on our conversations with the riders, we have already been able to make a couple of changes.

First, some of the spaces in the surface lot behind the Valero gas station and the Hong Kong Inn have been converted to all-day parking. This is a well-lit lot close to the stop.

Second, we have increased the police presence in the vicinity of the stop between 5 and 7 a.m.

We are working on other minor improvements that might help.

Also, Supervisor Bennett and I – who represent Ventura on the Coastal Express committee – still have to meet with representatives of the riders to see what else we can do.

Stay tuned ….

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