Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 26, 2007

Oppose SB 264, tailor-made for VTA

Many thanks to fellow columnist Dina Campeau for alerting me to a bill making its way through the California Statehouse: SB 264, sponsored by State Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose).

(An aside: Illustrating the joys of gerrymandering under which we lucky Californians live – thanks to the failure of voters and leaders to enact redistricting reform – Alquist’s 13th district includes, according to her Web site, “San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Mountain View, and Gilroy.” Notice how her district skips right over Morgan Hill and San Martin?)

If enacted, SB 264, entitled “Transactions and use taxes: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority,” would permit VTA – no other agency, mind you – to place sales tax measures of 1/8-cent increments on the ballot. Currently, the smallest sales tax increase increment that cities, counties and agencies can place before voters is 1/4 cent.

I dislike this bill for a number of reasons.

First, I dislike bills that are written for one agency or one person. Why should VTA be permitted to place smaller-increment sales tax measures than any other city, county or agency in California?

It reminds of me of the bad bill passed by the U.S. Congress in March 2005 that applied to exactly one person: Terri Schiavo. Whether they sided with Schiavo’s husband or her parents, polls show that most American understood that Congress had no business interfering. The bill perverted the separation of powers carefully crafted by the founding fathers.

Just as the Schiavo bill was bad legislation, so too is SB 264. If 1/8-cent increments are appropriate for VTA, they ought to be appropriate for every city, county and agency in California.

That’s enough reason to oppose SB 264, but I have more.

VTA has been repeatedly and emphatically told to get its fiscal house in order. The Santa Clara County civil grand jury studied VTA in 2005 and issued a scathing report on its deficiencies.

The grand jury chided VTA because it “has not reacted to the present budget problems with diligence.”

Two years later, the Hay Group’s audit released earlier this year echoed those concerns. Staff writer Tony Burchyns reported that the Hay Group found that “VTA’s financial capacity and future are uncertain and unstable.”

Those financial woes are compounded by the agency’s stubborn insistence on pursuing expanding BART from Fremont to San Jose.

Never mind that VTA cannot afford to build or operate the $5-billion, 16.3-mile line.

Never mind that the grand jury advised VTA to abandon the project, saying, “Spending limited resources on BART could squander an opportunity to build, maintain and operate a far larger network of transit options throughout the county,” and rebuking VTA for its failure to consider cheaper options.

Never mind that the BART extension project is so unwise that federal transportation officials have refused to recommend any further federal funding for it. And this was during the tenure of former San Jose mayor Norm Mineta as Secretary of Transportation.

Never mind that the BART extension from San Francisco to SFO exceeded construction estimates, failed to meet rosy ridership estimates and has been a financial and litigious drain on BART and SamTrans.

But VTA’s problems aren’t just fiscal, they’re also political.

All VTA directors are appointed by member cities. One VTA board seat rotates between the Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Milpitas. Of course, South County’s interests and Milpitas’ interests are often quite different. It’s a ridiculous scheme with no accountability, and the BART-to-San Jose extension fiasco highlights that.

The grand jury criticized VTA’s board structure for being “too large, too political, too dependent on staff, too inexperienced in some cases and too removed from the financial and operational performance of VTA.” It reprimanded VTA directors because they rarely have “frank and open discussions on important matters of policy.”

The grand jury recommended a smaller board of directly elected representatives.

The Hay Group’s audit also addressed this issue, as Burchyns reported, concluding that “VTA governance does not operate as designed.”

Fixing VTA’s board structure requires state legislation – now that’s a bill Alquist ought to be sponsoring.

VTA needs a smaller, directly elected board of directors that equitably represents all parts of the region it serves. That’s a bill I could support.

But as for SB 264, I’m writing my representatives and urging them to vote no. I hope you will too. Visit smartvoter.org/gtg to find your representatives’ contact information.

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