Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | December 16, 2008

VTA to voter-approved projects: Shove over

What really surprised me was the speed; after all, government agencies aren’t known for their quick reaction times.

Nevertheless, it happened less than a month after BART backers popped champagne corks to celebrate passage of the 1/8-cent sales tax that will only partially fund operation of the BART-to-San Jose extension. It happened just eight days after Santa Clara County election officials certified the election results.

What happened with uncharacteristic bureaucratic speed? The rush at VTA to shove aside voter-approved public transit projects in favor of the BART extension. Last week, VTA directors held a workshop at which it was clear that they will fund the BART-to-San Jose extension no matter what that means for other projects that voters approved in 2000 along with a 1/2-cent sales tax.

Here’s what VTA General Manager Michael Burns said recently about the agency’s spending priorities: “It’s clear we can’t see the BART project getting [$750 million in federal] money if we’re spending our local money on other projects. That just doesn’t add up.”

If the lack of sensible sums held any sway, the VTA would have dropped the BART-to-San Jose extension long ago. Clearly, common and fiscal sense aren’t the driving factors. Instead, lots of political capital has been spent advocating for the BART extension, and egos and agendas are too big to admit judgment errors even if it means, as VTA officials acknowledge, that other voter-approved projects will wait or never happen.

Some of the delayed or dead projects? More express bus routes, Caltrain electrification, light rail expansion, and a people mover to the San Jose airport. I expect that list to expand when VTA officials announce a new construction estimate for the extension in February.

I wasn’t surprised by the priority shift; I’ve predicting it for years:

• “Extending BART to San Jose is a boondoggle that will harm public transportation in South County.” (October 2008)

• “The 16-mile BART extension costs more than all of the other projects on the VTA’s list combined.” (April 2008)

• “Due in part to rosy construction cost and funding projections, the VTA cannot afford to build the BART-to-San Jose extension. If VTA does build the BART extension, it will do so at the expense of regional transportation services, including services to South County. Due in part to rosy ridership projections, if VTA does build the BART extension, it cannot afford to operate it.” (March 2007)

• “We cannot afford to build or operate BART. If the VTA Board of Directors would drop the ill-fated extension from its list of projects, it would have billions to fund better, cheaper and more geographically equitable public transportation solutions. If the VTA goes ahead with the BART extension, I predict that cost overruns, low ridership and disappointing sales tax revenues will mean that many, if not all, promises for South County projects will be broken.” (January 2006)

• “I don’t mind subsidizing public transportation to some degree, but not to the degree that BART will require. Federal transportation policy wonks think the BART extension is a bad investment. … Not only that, the BART to SFO extension has woefully underperformed compared to its projected ridership numbers. Why should we believe that BART from Fremont to San Jose will do any better?” (October 2005)

BART is not the most efficient or cost-effective way to link public transit in the Bay Area. For example, the Bay Rail Alliance touts less expensive, more efficient alternatives.

In addition, building and operating BART, a system that has been plagued with construction and operating cost overruns, will drain funds from other local public transit projects.

Now that they’ve passed the 1/8-cent sales tax, even VTA officials admit that’s what will happen, and that’s using the extension’s current, very-likely-to-rise $6.1 billion price tag. The situation will worsen when that number increases, and worsen again when operation begins and operating costs exceed predictions and ridership fails to meet predictions.

Here in South County, the region’s poor stepsister of transit services, the effect will be magnified.

Unless the feds refuse to fund the BART extension, it looks like Santa Clara County residents will be stuck with a boondoggle that will help a few at a very steep price to many.

I’m hoping that the federal transportation policy wonks won’t be beguiled by the VTA’s overly optimistic ridership and construction cost predictions. However, those predictions worked on two-thirds of county voters, so I’m not holding my breath.

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