News

Cities slam VTA plan to reroute Measure B funding toward BART

Council members from Palo Alto, Mountain View among critics of new 10-year scenario

Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority bus driver Jesus Rivera inspects his bus at the agency's North Yard in Mountain view on June 14, 2016. Embarcadero Media file photo by Michelle Le.

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.

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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.

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"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."

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Cities slam VTA plan to reroute Measure B funding toward BART

Council members from Palo Alto, Mountain View among critics of new 10-year scenario

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Dec 1, 2020, 5:14 pm

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."

Comments

Midlander
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 1, 2020 at 6:06 pm
Midlander, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2020 at 6:06 pm
4 people like this

I think there may be a typo here:

"BART, meanwhile, would receive $1.95 million between now and 2030..."

I think this may be "$1.95 billion" rather than "million"?


Gennady Sheyner
Registered user
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Dec 1, 2020 at 7:19 pm
Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2020 at 7:19 pm
5 people like this

@Midlander. Thank you for pointing out the error, which has been corrected.


Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 1, 2020 at 10:23 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2020 at 10:23 pm
12 people like this

North County government representatives need to represent us.
We must receive some improvements in the near and medium term.
BART is a costly, oddball rail system - and one wonders if it can be sustained...and it isn’t in the north or middle of the county.
Seems like an audit is called for: BART extensions so far have been eye-popping $, but what else is new in this poorly governed state (see: high speed rail....yes, I know that’s the state’s fault and not our county’s...but it’s still all our taxpayer dollars).
Note to city and county officials: it’s unacceptable to not include north county - BART or no BART.


jr1
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Dec 2, 2020 at 10:58 am
jr1, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2020 at 10:58 am
9 people like this

The VTA should be shifting money from BART to Light Rail. Light Rail can be built faster and cheaper. Light Rail is already in SC County and yes it is a little slower but has newer technology and is already serving Mt. View and other areas of SC County. The system should be expanded into Palo Alto.


Green Gables
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 2, 2020 at 11:37 am
Green Gables, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2020 at 11:37 am
23 people like this

We voted for Measure B in the original state and not what the VTA Board of Directions want at present. Isn't this a bit illegal?


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Dec 2, 2020 at 12:14 pm
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2020 at 12:14 pm
23 people like this

Can we sue for misrepresentation and diversion of taxes?

and can we ask them to stop using precious taxpayer dollars to run those useless 'I like transit" ads....have seen them so often in the Post. Use the money instead for a reliable and complete transit so people will want to use public transit..

and remember to vote NO next time VTA asks for money.


VTA is broken and now, it is clear, corrupt.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2020 at 1:03 pm
VTA is broken and now, it is clear, corrupt., Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2020 at 1:03 pm
14 people like this

It's time to unravel VTA and reorganize transit agencies to give fair representation to north county cities. San Jose control of the board has been a problem for years, and this action makes it clear that nothing is changing. Break them up.

I voted for Measure B with the expectation that representatives would spend the money as promised.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 2, 2020 at 1:25 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2020 at 1:25 pm
9 people like this

Maybe the north county cities should just refuse to collect / impose the sales tax. It may be the only way for the VTA to get the message since they keep doing this.

It was only a few years ago that PA voted to support another tax on the promise of more bus service only to have the service cancelled because PA already has its own shuttle service but we were still stuck paying for that tax, too.


Jeremy E.
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 2, 2020 at 5:25 pm
Jeremy E., Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2020 at 5:25 pm
5 people like this

VTA is also suggesting this while having reduced and reorganized bus service several times since the 2008 recession, especially affecting the north county area including Palo Alto and Mountain View. Prioritizing service to south county (i.e. San Jose), and optimizing connections to BART are among VTA's stated goals for bus and light rail service, and they are pursuing these goals even amid COVID-19, with the idea that their budget woes must be balanced by cutting bus service, but never salaries, employees, capital projects, or BART construction.

No matter how expensive building BART is, VTA always goes the extra mile to find funding for it. If VTA pursued funding sources for buses as zealously and aggressively as it pursues funding sources for BART, we'd have a much better public transportation system.

For years, VTA has continuously said they have budget woes and need to cut bus service to compensate. Yet they've passed multiple taxes during this time, and always prioritize the money to go to BART. When I e-mail VTA asking them not to cut service I depend on, they write back and tell me they have to cut this service. Yet they literally opened BART to San Jose in the initial surge of the coronavirus pandemic, and now are suggesting prioritizing even more money to BART even while suggesting more reductions in bus service to deal with budget woes.


Bill Hough
Registered user
Los Altos
on Dec 19, 2020 at 8:30 am
Bill Hough, Los Altos
Registered user
on Dec 19, 2020 at 8:30 am
1 person likes this

There is enough money for BART: the 2016 Measure B was the third sales tax passed since 2000 to pay for transportation in Santa Clara County. In November 2000, the voters approved Measure A, a 30-year half cent sales tax devoted to specified public transit capital improvement projects and operations including BART. 2008 Measure B was a 1/8-cent, 30-year sales tax to pay BART for operations, maintenance and improvements.

VTA should consider "value engineering" by canceling the unnecessary part of the BART line from San Jose to Santa Clara that duplicates existing Caltrain and 22/522 bus service. VTA should also use less expensive tunneling alternatives under Santa Clara Street. If additional money is necessary, raise taxes on the rich tech companies that will directly benefit from BART service.


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