By Douglas Moran
No on B, Faithlessness and FecklessnessUploaded: Oct 8, 2016
Measure B is the 30-year half-cent sales tax increase for VTA. The arguments for it focus on what is needed, what it could fund, and what has been agreed to for the funding. Experience is that what will actually get funded is very, very different, and I argue that that expectation calls for a "No" vote.
It is not just a question of whether Palo Alto will receive even a significant fraction of its fair share of the funding. Recognize that if passed, this tax will likely reduce the possibility of Palo Alto being able to pass a tax to fund its unmet transportation needs.
Santa Clara County's Valley Transit Authority (VTA) is govern by a Board of Directors with 12 voting members and 6 alternates, all of whom are elected officials appointed by the various jurisdictions within the county. The City of San Jose has over half the population of the county, and San Jose City Council members occupy half (5) of the seats that are appointed by the cities. The remaining 5 seat are for Council members from out-county (non-San Jose) cities, and their seats rotate among those cities. The remaining two seats are filled by County Supervisors. Our district (District 5, Simitian) is the only one that doesn't include a significant chunk of San Jose (map). Consequently, the VTA Board often has a majority (7 to 5) that sees itself as representing San Jose: 5 Council member + both Supervisors. The current Supervisors on the VTA Board are Cindy Chavez (District 2 = San Jose) and Ken Yeager (District 4 = San Jose + Santa Clara). The rotation of seats among the out-county cities further reduces their influence because those representatives are constantly getting up to speed, both individually and as a group.
At a neighborhood meeting in December 2015, Council member Cory Wolbach spoke of his experience serving as an Alternate on the VTA Board. He reported that the attitude of the San Jose contingent, and some of the other cities, was that Palo Alto's "streets are paved with gold" and that we should tax ourselves for our transportation needs, that is, the VTA's Board is hostile to funding services for Palo Alto.
San Jose's top priority for VTA is BART to north San Jose. That coalition includes:
- Large property owners: By making their office parks more accessible to workers from the East Bay, their properties become more desirable and hence more valuable.
- Construction companies and associated labor unions: When BART-to-SJ was first proposed, it was rejected for funding by the Feds as being too cost ineffective, and was approved only after substantial political arm-twisting.
- Companies in north San Jose who benefit from having easier access from the East Bay.
San Jose's second priority is bus service for their residents who are dependent on public transit--typically those that can't afford cars. Bus service has gone through repeated contractions as the VTA budget has been both reduced and shifted toward BART, and this priority has been the primary determinant is which bus lines to keep.
The distant third priority has been Light Rail, but this may have faded. This is a system that routinely winds up at the bottom of the lists of such systems in both performance and cost-effectiveness.(foot#1)
Mayor Burt has worked with other out-county officials and they have negotiated an agreement with San Jose for a fairer, more proportionate spending of the funds to be raised by this tax. Representing San Jose are its Mayor and VTA Board member Sam Liccardo and Carl Guardino, CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) (which is behind the campaign for this tax).
Two questions should immediately pop to mind: Is it likely that SJ/SVLG/VTA will honor this agreement, and if they don't, do we have effective recourse to have it enforced? As best I can tell, the answers are "No" and "No".
The existence of this agreement is evidence that it will not be honored: It wouldn't have been created if SJ-VTA wasn't opposed to it. If SJ-VTA had been agreeable to more equitable sharing of the revenues, that would have been part of the original ballot measure and not a subsequently negotiated agreement. SJ-VTA was forced into this agreement by prominent out-county officials telling SJ-VTA that they would not support the tax measure without such an agreement, and that without their support, the ballot measure would likely fail.
OK. So SJ-VTA doesn't like the agreement's apportionment of revenues and they have the votes on the VTA Board to ignore it once the tax passes. Since the tax would run for 30 years, the "wrath of the voters" is irrelevant as a deterrent. Could we expect the courts to enforce it? The history of court cases related to High Speed Rail (HSR) says "Fat chance!" Repeatedly the courts have twisted facts, logic and the law to let the HSR project proceed. For me the most egregious example was the overriding one of the major "guarantees" in the proposition: That the project would not proceed unless the State found private investors (as a validation of the viability of the project). When no such investors could be found, Gov. Brown allocated funds to HSR from those collected by the State from companies under the Cap-and-Trade program (carbon-credits,...). The court accepted this as those companies choosing to invest in HSR. So even if the agreement is legally enforceable, it seems foolish to expect the courts to not again let politics trump law.
History: The biggest reason not to trust SJ-VTA is the previous sales tax measure: The funding was supposed to be split between BART-to-SJ, Caltrain, buses, ... However, when BART went over budget (and when doesn't BART do so), the VTA was like "Didn't you understand? BART has first call on all the money from that sales tax. Caltrain ... gets whatever is left over." Caltrain got stiffed, and the bus network was greatly reduced. But this was only part of an ongoing pattern of disproportionate resources to San Jose, and of VTA changing what was promised to the voters. Then there was killing the Dumbarton rail connection to give BART its $91M.(foot#2) The feeble responses to these previous diversions of funds probably has SJ-VTA thinking that they can get away with it yet again.
Before you argue "But this time, we can trust them", listen to yourself and then remember "Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!" (no guidance of additional times being fooled).
The question of allocation of VTA funds extends beyond where and on what it will be spent to how effectively it will be used. I mentioned the abysmal Light Rail system above. But for a recent, prominent example consider the proposal for dedicated bus lanes on El Camino. VTA's position has been that this proposal would not increase congestion on El Camino because vehicles would simply take alternate routes such as Alma and 101. Is VTA so feckless that it is unaware of the congestion on those routes? After all, even if VTA staff is unfamiliar with local traffic conditions, all one needs to do is go to Google Maps and select "Traffic" to see the congestion. VTA didn't care when residents and officials told them that this would push commuter traffic onto residential streets. VTA started paying attention to the problem only when County Supervisor Joe Simitian made public comments about it. As reported in "Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority seeks to reassure critics of bus-only lanes: Transit agency prepares to make decision on controversial Bus Rapid Transit proposal" (Palo Alto Online, 2015-09-22): " 'My worry is that the continued push for the BRT and dedicated lanes will alienate potential supporters for the transportation tax,' Simitian said Monday. 'I don't think the VTA staff is as sensitive to that possibility as they could or should be.' " For a politician such as Simitian, such a public statement, and a thinly veiled threat at that, usually occurs only after they have long been frustrated in trying to convey their concerns private. Think about that: A County Supervisor has to publicly threaten a County agency in order to get them to even consider what they should have been doing from the beginning many years ago.
I have been told that VTA's position on Caltrain electrification is that Palo Alto will be allowed input on construction details only at the crossing streets, and not the sections between the crossings--the sections adjacent to homes, Palo Alto High School, ...
City Council candidate Arthur Keller has been pointing out that the reduction of bus service (such as the 88 and 35 lines) will make much of Palo Alto ineligible for (federally-funded) Outreach services (paratransit). Ditto for many other out-county areas. There is a substantial number of Palo Alto residents who depend on this service. That is why I said above that the San Jose-dominated VTA seemingly restricts its concern about people who are dependent on public transit to those living in San Jose.
Nor is this the first time the issue of reduction of bus service and Outreach service has come up: It is a repeat of battles in 2007-2009. Then, as now, Keller and Penny Ellson are leading the effort to retain those services.
The frustration with VTA's priorities and performance is such that over the past months I have heard multiple transit advocates say that they were thinking of or expecting to vote against the measure. I didn't probe whether this was a considered decision, just an expression of that frustration, or public statements to try to get VTA to listen (similar to Simitian's statement). However, it does give a sense of how deeply VTA has alienated people that one would expect to be supporters.
When you look at the funding being proposed for Caltrain grade-separation, be aware that there are 48 at-grade intersection along the Caltrain route (last numbers I have). I don't know the split between Santa Clara County and San Mateo County. Nor do I know how many need grade-separation in order to allow an increased Caltrain schedule and how many have low enough cross traffic that grade separation is only desirable, but not necessary. Council member and former Supervisor Liz Kniss talks about the Measure B funding for grade-separation as being primarily for studies. Grade-separation has been a serious issue for 15-20 years and we are still hearing about getting funding for studies? Draw your own inferences.
Don't fall into the trap of saying that because we have substantial transportation problems and needs that voting to give VTA a large, long-term funding stream is a solution. Ask whether the projects and services that VTA is likely to fund--as opposed to what it currently says will be funded--will address the County's priorities, or benefit limited special interests and constituencies. And even when the projects themselves have merit, ask whether VTA, given its history, will provide an effective implementation.
Voting No is not a solution, but voting Yes on a 30-year tax may well remove any pressure on VTA-SJ-SVLG to find a solution.
Aside: In addition to making decisions on how to spend local tax revenues, VTA also functions as a conduit for federal and state funds for grants.
My conclusion is that Measure B will provide too little benefit to Palo Alto and might even result in projects that are negatives. Various local officials and candidates are implicitly and explicitly accepting that VTA is largely abandoning Palo Alto, and advocating for significant expansion of the Palo Alto shuttle services. Ask yourself if Measure B passes, will there be enough public support for another transportation tax to fund that shuttle system and related services?
1. VTA Light Rail as costly, poor performing: Some articles:
- "Study shows Bay Area's transit systems among nation's most, least cost-efficient", KTVU, 16 September 2012.
- Behind the Mercury-News paywall: "25 years later, VTA light rail still among the nation's worse" by Mike Rosenberg, San Jose Mercury News, circa 31 December 2012 on MercuryNews.com.
- "VTA light-rail extension to Los Gatos: $175 million for 200 new riders" by Mike Rosenberg, San Jose Mercury News, circa 28 November 2012 on MercuryNews.com.
2. "Palo Alto urges greater Caltrain role in proposed tax measure: City Council advocates for more funding for commuter service", Palo Alto Weekly 20 May 2014.
In April, $91M in transit funding for the inactive Dumbarton cross-bay rail project were proposed to be permanently transferred to the BART project rather than used for transit needs in the mid-Peninsula. Those funds had been "loaned" to the BART project and the proposal was to forgive that loan. Who could have seen that coming? Actually many people did when the "loan" was proposed. "BART vs. Dumbarton Rail debate gets testy", The Almanac 29 July 2008.
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
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