When the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority asked voters in 2016 to approve a sales tax increase, the agency promised to use the funds to repair streets, expand the BART system to San Jose and support the efforts of Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale to redesign their rail corridors.
Now, staff from the transit agency are pitching an abrupt change of direction: spending all proceeds from Measure B over the next decade to pay for the BART extension and allocating no funding at all for Caltrain improvements, road paving or highway upgrades. While the VTA's board of directors has not taken any action on the proposed scenario, the tentative plan is already stirring anxieties among local officials throughout Santa Clara County, who are characterizing the abrupt shift as nothing short of a betrayal of public trust by the agency.
Critics of the new proposal have plenty of history to point to. The VTA's prior tax measures, which were approved in 2000 and 2008, were used primarily to fund BART projects, despite promises to fund transportation projects in other parts of the county. An analysis conducted by the Santa Clara County Department of Roads and Airports estimated that about 80% of the proceeds from those two measures were directed to BART.
To ensure that this doesn't happen again, city and county officials included in Measure B language that explicitly caps expenditures on BART Phase II — the 6-mile extension of the system to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara — at 25% of the measure's total revenues. The rest would be divvied up for transportation projects throughout the entire county, including congestion relief along the state Highway 85 corridor, upgrades to highway interchanges, street improvements and Caltrain capacity enhancements such as level boarding. The measure also allocated $700 million for grade separation — the redesign of rail crossings to separate roads from tracks — in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale. All three cities are currently advancing plans to redesign their rail crossings and are banking on Measure B to partially fund the construction work.
In the newly proposed scenario, all of these projects would receive no funding at all at least until 2030. BART, meanwhile, would receive $1.95 billion between now and 2030, according to information that Marcella Rensi, the VTA's deputy director of grants and fund allocation, provided to the agency's Policy Advisory Committee, which is made up of local elected officials from throughout the county.
While Rensi emphasized at the Nov. 12 meeting that the presented 10-year plan isn't a proposal but a "baseline to start discussion," her presentation drew a sharp rebuke from committee members. Even though the item was labeled as a "study session," which typically precludes formal action, all 10 members who were present slammed the new scenario and voted to reject the staff report. They particularly objected to a slide that showed annual allocations to BART and blank spaces next to every other category (bicycle and pedestrian improvements was the lone exception).
Saratoga Mayor Howard Miller reminded VTA officials that the primary reason for the measure's passage was the agency's commitment to improving local streets and roads. When residents were polled in 2014 and 2015 about various transportation projects, almost every item on the list — including the BART extension — had support levels below the 66.7% needed for the measure's passage, he said. The only item that polled above that level was "streets and roads," Miller said. That's the only reason why the measure had passed.
"If we believe that the reason that this measure was passed was so that it can be raided to fund BART, I believe there will be citizen outrage, or I believe there will be a lawsuit and we will have no way to fund BART," Miller said.
His view was widely shared by other local officials. Over the course of the discussion, council members from Los Altos, Cupertino and Los Gatos all argued that the new scenario is inconsistent with Measure B. Other local officials, including Mountain View Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga and Palo Alto Council member Liz Kniss, a former VTA board member, have also come out against the new scenario (both serve on the Policy Advisory Committee but both were absent from the Nov. 12 meeting).
In a Nov. 16 letter to the VTA, Abe-Koga noted that her city had already spent $2.3 million on engineering and environmental clearance for Caltrain grade separation at Castro Street, a project that was banking on $10 million in Measure B funds for final design work. Mountain View has also spent nearly $4 million for engineering and environmental analysis relating to its grade separation project at Rengstorff Avenue. The city is counting on Measure B funds to bring that project into final design, Abe-Koga wrote in the letter.
"It is imperative that the Measure B 10-Year Outlook serve the needs of the entire County to the greatest extent possible and not be focused on a single project to the exclusion of the other Measure B programs," Abe-Koga wrote in the Nov. 16 letter to the VTA board.
Kniss said she was "astonished" to see the VTA attempt to shift funding to BART yet again, even despite the provisions in Measure B. The measure requires a supermajority vote by the VTA's board of directors to change the allocation formula. While this would normally make it next to impossible for members to shift funding, the fact that San Jose dominates the board makes the protective measure far less than ironclad.
The 12-member board includes six elected officials who represent San Jose, including Mayor Sam Liccardo. Two other members are Santa Clara County Supervisors Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez, whose districts cover San Jose. Kniss serves as an alternate board member on behalf of Palo Alto, while Mountain View is represented by Council member John McAlister.
The VTA board is scheduled to hear an update on the 10-year plan for Measure B funds at its Dec. 3 meeting.
On Monday, Kniss cited San Jose's outsized presence on the VTA board and suggested that the new scenario, while presented by staff, is in fact coming at the behest of VTA board members from San Jose. The Palo Alto City Council has long been critical of the VTA's governance, which last year was subject to a scathing audit from the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury. In its June 2019 report, the grand jury concluded that the VTA board "had not effectively managed the finances of the VTA" and that the board is "too large, too political, too dependent on staff, too inexperienced in some cases, and too removed from the financial and operational performance of VTA."
"What we have found is that the staff has found clever ways to determine that this money should be spent first on their project," Kniss said just before the council voted to send a letter of opposition to the new funding scenario.
Palo Alto Council member Eric Filseth also expressed shock at the agency's by-now familiar pivot toward BART and San Jose.
"No one actually believed they would do this again," Filseth said. "We know the VTA has execution and operation problems. Ethics problems was — I think — something that people haven't really suspected."
Had Measure B stated that the funding would be used primarily for BART, it would never have passed, Filseth noted.
"To go back and do this now is a pretty gross violation of public trust," Filseth said.
Signed by Mayor Adrian Fine, the letter criticizes the proposal to strip funding from local transportation projects, particularly grade separation. Removing funding, the letter argues, will delay relief from the impacts of increased Caltrain ridership on at-grade crossings in Palo Alto and other cities by a decade or more.
"The City of Palo Alto urges you to reconsider this ten-year Base Scenario outlook, and instead of prioritizing BART Phase II, prioritize your member cities and projects, particularly ongoing projects supporting Caltrain grade separations," the letter states.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose district includes Palo Alto, also blasted the new scenario proposed by the VTA. At the Nov. 19 meeting of the county board's Housing, Land Use, Environment and Transportation Committee, Simitian portrayed it as an attempt by the transportation agency to backtrack on its promises to voters. The agency is effectively telling voters that notwithstanding the taxes they paid, the region's congestion challenges, and the county's 20-year history of directing tax funds toward BART, the VTA will be going a full decade without any funding for local streets and roads, expressways and highway improvements.
"I think the scenario we've been presented with is an act in bad faith," Simitian said. "There's no other way to describe it. If the intention of folks at the VTA was to prompt the discussion, I'd say that has happened."