The taxpayer-funded agency in charge of offering transit solutions to Santa Clara County's traffic jams is currently embroiled in a mess of its own.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the multi-billion dollar agency that plans and operates the county's road and transit network, has been called out as one of the most inefficient organizations of its kind.
A new county Civil Grand Jury report released last month found that VTA is spending more and accomplishing less than nearly every other comparable transit agency in the United States.
Just over the last decade, the cost of running VTA's buses and light rail system has nearly doubled, mainly due to labor costs. Meanwhile, fewer riders appear to be using VTA transit services than they have in the last 30 years. Ridership on bus and light rail has dropped nearly 20% just over the last decade. Taken altogether, this means VTA is losing about $9.30 per rider, according to the report.
The grand jury report lays much of the responsibility for this dysfunction on the VTA Board of Directors. The 12-member governing board consists entirely of political appointees who must be currently serving as city council members or on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Often, board members face a steep learning curve, and it doesn't help that they often lack any experience in transportation, finance or management of an agency of this size, the report says.
What results is that VTA board members quickly become overwhelmed with their duties, which include reading through board packets hundreds of pages long. It becomes too difficult to govern the transit agency in addition to the communities they were elected to serve, so VTA board members tend to focus their attention on their own communities instead of VTA. VTA reports generally go unread, and board members tend to make decisions to benefit their own constituents, that are not in the interests of the county as a whole, the report maintains.
After reading the grand jury report, Mountain View Councilman John McAlister described it as "all true, and it's long overdue." For about two years, McAlister has represented Mountain View, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills on the VTA board. In that time, he says he has been disappointed by the lack of interest and engagement by some of his colleagues. There doesn't seem to be any political will to correct the problems, he said.
"Some board members are there because their mayor planted them, or they're there to pad their resume," he said. "There's no true continuity on the board, and then there's no feeling of responsibility because you have this continual change of characters."
The grand jury report echoes a common complaint from North County city leaders who say that San Jose exerts outsized influence on the VTA board. San Jose is allocated five board seats, while another five are split between the other 14 cities in the county. The county Board of Supervisors receives two seats.
In part, the report blames this dominance by San Jose political interests for the problems with the county's underperforming light rail system. The light rail line extends more than 42 miles, running from Mountain View south through much of San Jose, yet it has failed to link to many obvious destinations such as jobs centers, shopping districts or the San Jose International Airport. Taken on its own, the light rail costs taxpayers about $11 in subsidies for each passenger who uses it, costing about three times more than bus transit.
"A case can be made for dismantling or phasing out the light rail system altogether," the grand jury report noted. "A large reduction in the taxpayer subsidy of VTA operations could be achieved by focusing future investment in transit solutions other than light rail."
However, the VTA board actually seems to favor doubling down on light rail and expanding the service. The transit agency is currently considering a pair of light rail extensions to bring it to the Eastridge shopping center in San Jose and near the Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos. The 2.4-mile Eastridge extension will cost $453 million to complete ($146 million has already been spent). If built, it is expected to generate a net total of 611 new riders.
At a meeting on June 6, the VTA board voted unanimously to approve the final environmental impact report for the Eastridge extension, one of the last steps before the project moves forward. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who sits on the VTA board, acknowledged the project doesn't make sense unless its usage wildly exceeds its projections.
"It's not because of the ridership today, because the ridership today doesn't support this kind of investment," Liccardo said. "But what we see happening in the city in terms of opportunity is an incredibly vibrant corridor. If we can get this right, this transit system will be at the core of that."
According to the grand jury report, the case for expanding light rail is weak and is based entirely on political pressure. The authors of the report say they found "virtually no support" for the Eastridge expansion among VTA staff, and the project seemed to be happening solely to satisfy goals in Measure A on the 2000 ballot.
The best way to fix VTA administration would be to change its governance, the report concluded. Having fewer members, but giving them longer office terms would give the board more expertise and institutional knowledge. The report also recommends directly electing board members to their seats, rather than having them appointed.
The VTA board is starting to investigate this possibility. McAlister is leading a new board enhancement committee tasked with restructuring VTA governance. The committee has only convened one meeting so far, but it eventually will deliver some kind of recommendations back to the full board.
"My gut preferences would be to make VTA an independent board not made up of elected officials," McAlister said. "But I don't want to rush it. It's like the Mueller report. I want to take the time to get it right."
The VTA board has not yet commented on the findings in the civil grand jury report, but it is required by law to issue a formal response within 90 days. In a blog entry, VTA board chairwoman Teresa O'Neill, a councilwoman from Santa Clara, could only say that the report's recommendations would be investigated.
"We intend to carefully review the report provided by the Civil Grand Jury," she wrote. "The report will help to inform the work we are currently performing."