Palo Alto this week endorsed a scathing report calling for governance changes at the Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority, though the city has yet to determine what changes it wants to see.
The City Council unanimously approved on Monday a letter that represents the city's official response to a recent report released in June from that Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury. The report concluded that the VTA's operating performance has been deteriorating over the past decade and that its governance structure is deeply flawed. The agency's board of directors, the report found, suffers from "a lack of experience, continuity and leadership" and is dominated by representatives from San Jose and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
The Palo Alto City Council, which for years has complained about being marginalized at the regional body, overwhelmingly endorsed this assessment. Councilman Greg Tanaka wondered whether it would be possible for the city to officially split away from the transit agency, potentially with other partner cities from the northern end of the county.
"We're giving a lot of dollars and not getting a lot of services," Tanaka said.
The tensions between the city and the transit agency may flare up further in the coming months, as the VTA finalizes its implementation plan for distributing $700 million in Measure B funds for grade separation — the redesign of the rail crossings so that the tracks would no longer intersect with streets — in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale. City Manager Ed Shikada said Wednesday that the agency's Executive Director Nuria Fernandez had indicated that the funding would not be based on the number of grade crossings in each city that need to be separated.
That criterion would have favored Palo Alto, which has four of the eight crossings. At Wednesday's meeting of the Expanded Community Advisory Panel, a group that is helping city staff and the council plan for grade separation, Shikada said that any assumption that funding would be based on the number of projects was "never written down" and that the "commitment does not exist."
"The process going forward is one they're putting together that will involve criteria (such as) project readiness, cost-effectiveness and others in making the funding allocation decision," Shikada said.
The new criteria, particularly "project readiness" would put Palo Alto at a disadvantage in obtaining funding, with both Mountain View and Sunnyvale well ahead of the city in defining their respective preferred alternatives. The Palo Alto City Council is now hoping to make a decision on its preferred alternatives by spring 2020.
The letter that the council approved Monday endorses the grand jury's recommendation that the VTA engage with smaller cities to discuss alternative governance structures for VTA. It also argues, however, that smaller cities currently don't have a consensus on the issue and recommends that the VTA provide funding for a process that would facilitate such a discussion.
The letter also suggests that the VTA's governance should be considered not just in terms of population distribution (which clearly favors San Jose) but also based on factors such as employment and sales-tax generation.
"As a major employment center and sales tax generator at the edge of VTA's service territory, Palo Alto has historically been unrepresented in VTA policy decision in ways that do not serve the traveling public," the letter signed by Mayor Eric Filseth states. "How representation relates to communities of interest with shared permanent transportation issues, such as Caltrain and High Speed Rail interests may also be a consideration.
"Pending decisions on railroad grade separation funding under Measure B pose further risks to VTA's ability to follow through on commitments made to Santa Clara voters, such that a thoughtful consideration of governance is particularly timely."
The grand jury also recommended that the county or another VTA agency propose legislation that would change the governance structure of the VTA, which is set in the California Public Utilities Code. Potential changes that could be considered include increasing a directors' term of service (from the current two-year terms), adding term limits or allowing the appointment of directors who are not elected officials.
The grand jury report concludes that, more so than in 2004 and 2009 (the last two times the VTA was reviewed), the board is "in need of structural change to enable it to better protect the interests of the County's taxpayers and address the many complex challenges presented by emerging trends in transportation, rapidly evolving technology and the changing needs of Silicon Valley residents."
While Palo Alto's letter states that the city is open to participating in developing such legislation, council members also recognized on Monday night that changing the VTA's governance structure would be a challenge, particularly for a city like Palo Alto, which is positioned at the northern end of the county.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, the only council member who has served on the VTA board, said any member in the northern end of the county is considered an "outlier."
"We can make any number of suggestions and they will continue on as they have been," Kniss said.