Santa Clara County supervisors came out in formal opposition Tuesday to a recently unveiled plan to pour sales tax money into extending BART at the expense of other transportation projects over the next decade.
The unanimous vote by supervisors comes amid sharp criticism from elected officials throughout Santa Clara County, who bristled at a 10-year funding plan by the Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) proposing that the vast majority of the 2016 Measure B sales tax go toward extending BART further into San Jose. The plan left a pittance of funding remaining for all other transportation priorities through 2030.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who led the effort, called VTA's plan an "unacceptable" attempt to dump funding into BART — which has soaked up close to four-fifths of sales tax revenue for decades — while abandoning many of the important transportation projects that would benefit residents elsewhere in the county. Caltrain improvements and grade separations, Highway 85 transit lanes, county expressways and highway interchanges were not given any allocations, VTA documents show.
All told, six categories of transportation projects were given a "TBD (to be determined)" label on funding through 2030, yet BART's early budget was estimated at more than $1.9 billion.
"People are very clear that this was essentially an attempt to zero out — or damn near — six of the nine categories for the next 10 years in order to fully frontload the BART program," Simitian said.
Measure B, a 30-year half-cent sales tax, passed in 2016 with broad support from a coalition of city and county elected officials, but not before serious commitments were made to control spending on BART. A coalition of 11 cities demanded a cap on funding for the transit line, and a commitment to other critical transportation infrastructure.
In the north county in particular, funding for county expressways and Caltrain grade separation were among the top priorities. Measure B earmarks at least $700 million for both priorities.
It was these carve-outs for projects unrelated to BART that got so many elected officials to sign on, said Supervisor Mike Wasserman, yet now it appears everything is being deprioritized in favor of BART.
"They were never told this money wouldn't be coming for 12 years," Wasserman said. "They were told that 75% of the tax dollars they were endorsing would be going towards those things."
Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said it's clear that VTA needs to reach a compromise, and try to find some way to complete the BART extension into San Jose without alienating 14 other cities in the process.
Saratoga City Council member Howard Miller, who helped formulate the 2016 ballot language, said it was supposed to be a "smorgasbord" of transportation priorities that offered something for everyone, particularly projects to improve local streets and roads. The 10-year spending plan leaves little left for anything other than BART for the next decade — something Miller called a major oversight.
"It is going to be a challenging situation to fund BART, but from Saratoga's perspective it should not be funded on the backs of local streets and roads," Miller said.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who chaired VTA's board of directors at the time the 10-year funding plan was released, said the board did not have a chance to review or comment on the plan before it was made public. She said the document has led to some confusion, and that other priorities have and will continue to receive funding. Investments have already been made into multiple highway projects, county expressway paving and bike and pedestrian projects.
What's more, BART is a particularly challenging project to plan for, Chavez said. The size of the program and the high cost of underground tunneling means the BART extension needs greater predictability for funding from start to finish, she said.
But any semblance of balance would completely vanish under the 10-year spending plan. Assuming BART is fully funded under the proposal, there would be barely enough money to cover improvements to local streets and roads, and nothing left for Caltrain upgrades, transit operations, county expressways or highway improvements, according to county staff.
In the lead-up to the vote by county supervisors, a grand total of nine cities — including Mountain View and Palo Alto — have come out in opposition to VTA's spending plan.
Simitian said he believes there's been an effort over the last month to "explain away" the 10-year funding plan, with VTA officials describing it as a preliminary document and the start of a conversation. But he said it deserves scrutiny, and undeniably tries to yank funding out of promised transportation projects.
"There is no explaining away full funding for BART to San Jose and zeros on six of nine program areas," Simitian said.