In search of transportation improvements

Gilroy
– Before Jayliza Piña got a car, it took her two hours each way
to get from Gilroy to downtown San Jose, and that was without
counting the 2-mile walk between her home and the nearest bus
stop.

It was really hard. I was pregnant,

said Pi
ña, who now lives in Santa Clara.

I would have to walk really far, and the cost for a day pass
just to get around town was ridiculous.

Gilroy – Before Jayliza Piña got a car, it took her two hours each way to get from Gilroy to downtown San Jose, and that was without counting the 2-mile walk between her home and the nearest bus stop.

“It was really hard. I was pregnant,” said Piña, who now lives in Santa Clara. “I would have to walk really far, and the cost for a day pass just to get around town was ridiculous.”

And the trip to San Jose?

“By the time you get back, you blow your whole day,” Gilroy resident Esther Rangel said. “Service has gotten better over the last couple of years, but it’s still hard to rely on transit, especially if you have to go to San Jose.”

For all the wealth pouring into town, Gilroy is still one of the poorest places in the county, populated with seniors, migrant workers, recent immigrants and low-income residents who can’t afford cars, have a hard time accessing social services and health care, and can’t find work without cheap and reliable transportation.

But a network of social service agencies and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority hope they’re about to change all that. This month, the agencies will kick off a six-month effort to figure out how to improve transit for low-income Gilroy residents and how to pay for it. The program is part of a venture sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to fix transit in the Bay Area’s 25 poorest regions.

“The purpose of this is to find the gaps between where people live and where they need to go and identify solutions and possible funding sources to fill those gaps,” said Kat Mereigh, a management analyst for the VTA. “We need to have an understanding of what the need is and what is lacking.”

According to residents and social services providers, the needs are many. Gilroy is a small town, but it’s laid out for drivers. Neither of the two bus lines cross Monterey Highway, so if you live in the northwest part of town and want to travel east, you must first visit the Caltrain station, which doubles as a transit hub, on the southern edge of town. The VTA has been cutting bus service, especially on the weekends, and raising prices.

“We detect a lot of needs in employment services and homeless referral services,” said Jeff Fishback, employment services coordinator at St. Joseph’s Family Center. “Even if I’m helping clients find jobs that pay better, the way transportation is, there’s a diminished return. I’ve had a number of clients [who have trouble getting work] because of the costs and limitations of transportation.”

Gilroy is the first of three cities in Santa Clara County to develop what’s known as Community-Based Transportation Plan. The VTA will eventually create similar plans in Milpitas and east San Jose.

Mereigh said the Gilroy plan will be a grassroots effort, heavily dependent on input from Gilroy residents about what they need to make it easier for them to get to work, the doctor, daycare, or wherever they need to go. Social service providers will soon start distributing surveys around town and hosting focus groups at places like St. Joseph’s and the Mexican-American Community Services Agency.

But transit planners already have an idea of what Gilroy needs: more options to get to the retail centers east of Highway 101, which have become the town’s major employers, and better options to get to San Jose, where many must travel for health care and treatment programs for domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

Sherri Stuart, who works with non-profit agencies in Gilroy, said that travel to San Jose is so difficult that teenagers in the criminal justice system often can’t get to treatment and diversion programs for much-needed counseling that could clear their criminal records.

“For kids to take advantage of programs that would actually help them get the help they need and clear their record, they have to take a completely onerous five or six-hour round-trip,” Stuart said. “As a consequence, very few kids from South County participate in these treatment programs.”

Stuart would like to see the county offer a shuttle service that stops in Gilroy and Morgan Hill and connects to major transit routes in San Jose. It that’s sort of idea, one that gets away from fixed-line option likes buses and trains, that planners want to encourage.

Therese Knudsen, a planner with the MTC, which is sponsoring the $60,000 study, said the point of the program is to investigate every possible option to improve transit in Gilroy, whether it be a bench at a bus stop or an employer-sponsored shuttle service.

“A whole range of issues come up,” Knudsen said. “From transportation service itself, times, frequency, and more amenities like bus shelters and benches. More bike and pedestrian safety programs. We’re looking at reducing barriers to car ownership, car sharing. This covers all types of transportation, not just fixed-route transit.”

Whatever the solutions, they will cost money. It will be easy to figure out what Gilroy needs, and a lot harder to figure out how to pay for it.

“Unfortunately we launched this program just as many operators are experiencing financial difficulties,” she Knudsen said. “But maybe as a result of this very focused outreach you can find out how to restructure services.”

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