News


Grand jury report blasts VTA for inefficiencies, poor oversight

Report: 'A case can be made for dismantling or phasing out the light rail system altogether'

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."

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Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Mark Noack writes for the Mountain View Voice, the sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

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Comments

15 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of another community
on Jul 5, 2019 at 8:13 pm

I think that the discussion on the way the directors are chosen sort of misses the point. I don’t think it matters that much how the directors are chosen. Change my mind.

However, the grand jury is onto something when it writes “Despite the serious ongoing structural financial deficit, the VTA Board has been unwilling to review and reconsider decisions made years or even decades ago regarding large capital projects (and their attendant operating costs) that are no longer technologically sound or financially viable, based on their costs and projected ridership.”

Based on current ridership projections, the Eastridge extension is questionable. This is especially true if you consider that it duplicates the existing Rapid 522 service.

An even bigger waste of money, which the grand jury ignored is the extension of the multi-billion dollar BART line from the San Jose to the Santa Clara Caltrain stations. This would duplicate existing Caltrain service and the 22/522 buses from San Jose to Santa Clara. This just reinforces the common impression that big ticket transit projects are a waste of money.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 6, 2019 at 6:26 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

The status of "the government of CA" right now is that housing is suppose to be provided next to transportation routes. Yet no one wants to use the transportation because it is so bad. We keep getting trapped in these situations of pronouncements from the "government" but the ability to control what criteria is available to satisfy the requirement is not there. The next time the "government" issues some mandate regarding housing and transportation then it is time to speak up. That is our governor who thinks up these situations and the assembly that keeps writing legislation to write laws. Enough is enough.


2 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2019 at 4:11 pm

So the response of the VTA to this grand jury report is to issue an RFI for "radical technological solutions" to the traffic problems?

Just what we need. More boondoggles like HSR that will cost billions, take forever and never ever produce any tangible results.

But it will distract attention from the total mis-management of the VTA.

/marc


20 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 9, 2019 at 8:10 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Another transportation problem in PA is the way that major streets are being reduced in number of lanes. Did anyone in the PA city consult with the fire department or police department? I do not see how emergency vehicles will be able to respond to emergencies at commute time when the streets are backed up. If we are suppose to go to the right hand side to allow passage there is no place for us to go to make that happen. And concrete / planters in the middle of the road prevent the fire trucks from riding down the center of the road. I do not see any comprehensive planning anywhere at this point in time. It is like a bunch of special interests just going ahead with whatever they have thought up with no central theme as to how the whole picture works when an emergency happens. And that can be winter when we have heavy rains.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2019 at 10:15 am

Posted by Steve, a resident of another community

>> I think that the discussion on the way the directors are chosen sort of misses the point. I don’t think it matters that much how the directors are chosen. Change my mind.

I can't change your mind. I agree with you.

>> However, the grand jury is onto something when it writes “Despite the serious ongoing structural financial deficit, the VTA Board has been unwilling to review and reconsider decisions made years or even decades ago regarding large capital projects (and their attendant operating costs) that are no longer technologically sound or financially viable, based on their costs and projected ridership.”

This is the big one. It isn't really a "Grand Jury" sort of problem with "waste, fraud, abuse". It is a problem with wishful thinking. They should not be spending money they don't have.

>> Based on current ridership projections, the Eastridge extension is questionable. This is especially true if you consider that it duplicates the existing Rapid 522 service.

I'm unsure about this. I don't know much about transit in the area, and I don't know what the area looks like at rush hour. Other than being completely stuck north of there in gridlock after being dumb enough to venture there after 3 PM against my own better judgement. But, personally, I vastly prefer light rail that keeps moving at rush hour over sitting in a bus not moving in gridlock. And, I don't overuse the term "gridlock" either. People talk about it, but, 680/Milpitas/880/etc has it, and, if this extension will increase ridership by getting people through/past the gridlock area, that is all to the good.

>> An even bigger waste of money, which the grand jury ignored is the extension of the multi-billion dollar BART line from the San Jose to the Santa Clara Caltrain stations. This would duplicate existing Caltrain service and the 22/522 buses from San Jose to Santa Clara. This just reinforces the common impression that big ticket transit projects are a waste of money.

Make all connections at San Jose Diridon. One of my relatives has done that frequently in the past. Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE, VTA, Santa Cruz CA-17 buses, it is all there. Let's keep and expand the inter-system connections right there. I think it makes sense to extend BART to Diridon, IF the money is there for it, but, not further.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2019 at 10:22 am

Apologies for a follow-up post, but, this editorial raises a lot of issues with the Eastridge extension. I may change my mind about it, despite my support of light rail:

Web Link


6 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2019 at 8:45 am

Anon: 'Make all connections at San Jose Diridon. One of my relatives has done that frequently in the past. Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE, VTA, Santa Cruz CA-17 buses, it is all there. Let's keep and expand the inter-system connections right there. I think it makes sense to extend BART to Diridon, IF the money is there for it, but, not further."

About a decade ago, I agreed with Web Link that the BART project was over-engineered and that the selected route was subopitmal

I/we lost that fight and it is old news.

I accept that BART will go as far as the Shark Tank/SJ Caltrain station, which was tastelessly named after a still-living politician, but oppose it going to Santa Clara because that would duplicate existing service.

I am sorry if this was not clear previously.

Regarding the Eastridge LRT extension, I just will VTA would do a benefit/cost analysis, something not done with transportation projects any more.


7 people like this
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2019 at 9:28 am

And speaking of auditors, what about BART?
Web Link


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2019 at 4:12 pm

I heard on KQED this morning that VTA gets only 9% of its operating revenue from fares. So why does it bother collecting fares? Operate VTA as a public resource. Let everybody ride free and watch ridership soar.


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