Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 20, 2005

VTA doesn’t deserve another red cent

Look out, the Valley Transportation Authority, described by Mountain View City Councilman Greg Perry as “the least efficient transportation agency in California,” wants some more of your money. They’re looking for $82 million to $301 million per year, taken in quarter-cent increments.

According to reporter Matt King’s recent article, the VTA has decided to put a quarter-cent sales tax measure on the ballot next year that might last for 30 years, or might last forever. This sales tax measure, if approved by two-thirds of voters, would be “on top of the half-cent tax increase that was approved in 2000 and takes effect in 2006,” according to Saturday’s Dispatch.

Why does the VTA need more money when it hasn’t even started collecting the money voters approved in 2000? Because the VTA, led by San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales and heavily influenced by Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group head Carl Guardino, won’t give up on its bankrupting plan to extend BART from Fremont to San Jose. The VTA needs an additional sales tax to keep the promises of Measure A, like increasing Caltrain service to South County, improving the Caltrain lines, purchasing buses, and implementing North County light rail projects, and to build the $5 billion BART extension.

I read with interest fellow columnist Dina Campeau’s take on extending BART to San Jose. I hold her opinion on this issue in particular in high esteem, because I know her work gives her a sharp understanding of many issues affecting the poor and working poor in our community. Along with the elderly and disabled, the poor and working poor rely heavily on public transportation systems.

She listed several priority shifts, which, if the VTA made, might allow her to support the BART quarter-cent sales tax measure. I like most of Campeau’s suggestions for rearranging the VTA’s priorities, but I don’t have much hope that they’ll happen. I wholeheartedly agree with Campeau that the VTA needs to regionally about public transit, but sadly, VTA directors can’t seem to think outside of San Jose’s borders. The agency’s inexplicable obsession with extending BART from Fremont to San Jose at seemingly any cost is a prime example of that.

But unlike Campeau, I don’t believe I can support the BART extension, even if all of her criteria are met. Even if the VTA puts BART at the bottom of its funding and project priority lists, which Campeau suggests, extending BART remains a prescription for financial disaster for the VTA. We simply cannot afford to build a BART line to San Jose. We also cannot afford to operate it. There are many more cost-effective ways to improve public transportation in the South Bay.

Lack of transportation, as the failure to evacuate thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims who didn’t have access to cars demonstrated, can having devastating effects in extraordinary circumstances. It can also make day-to-day life, doing things like getting to jobs, doctor appointments, the grocery store, the post office and the like grindingly difficult, as Campeau’s column described.

South County lacks adequate public transportation services right now. Extending BART to San Jose will not change that. Extending BART to San Jose will create a financial drain on the VTA that will likely result in reduced public transportation services for South County.

Why the gloomy prediction? Take a look at the disappointing results of the BART extension to the San Francisco Airport.

Ridership has been dramatically below projections since the line opened. The San Francisco Examiner reported in March that officials resorted to sending 122,000 free BART passes to San Mateo County residents to get them to use the new stations.

The San Mateo County Times reported in August that the BART board of directors hiked Peninsula fares by $1.14 and dramatically cut the number of trains on the Peninsula, “the fourth service tweak since the line opened two years ago.” These moves were made in an attempt to avoid closing some Peninsula BART stations on weekends, which had been proposed and seriously considered.

The woefully low ridership has sparked legal battles between BART and SamTrans officials over the unexpected, multimillion-dollar operating cost shortfall.

If BART to SFO is such a disappointment, why should anyone believe that extending BART from Fremont to San Jose would be a roaring success?

Whether it’s for 30 years or forever, I’ll be voting no on any measure that spends any money on bringing BART to San Jose.

As Perry put it, the VTA doesn’t “deserve another red cent.”

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