Grand jury report blasts VTA for inefficiencies, poor oversight

Report: 'A case can be made for dismantling or phasing out the light rail system altogether'

The taxpayer-funded agency in charge of offering transit solutions to Santa Clara County's traffic jams is currently embroiled in a mess of its own.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the multi-billion dollar agency that plans and operates the county's road and transit network, has been called out as one of the most inefficient organizations of its kind.

A new county Civil Grand Jury report released last month found that VTA is spending more and accomplishing less than nearly every other comparable transit agency in the United States.

Just over the last decade, the cost of running VTA's buses and light rail system has nearly doubled, mainly due to labor costs. Meanwhile, fewer riders appear to be using VTA transit services than they have in the last 30 years. Ridership on bus and light rail has dropped nearly 20% just over the last decade. Taken altogether, this means VTA is losing about $9.30 per rider, according to the report.

The grand jury report lays much of the responsibility for this dysfunction on the VTA Board of Directors. The 12-member governing board consists entirely of political appointees who must be currently serving as city council members or on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Often, board members face a steep learning curve, and it doesn't help that they often lack any experience in transportation, finance or management of an agency of this size, the report says.

What results is that VTA board members quickly become overwhelmed with their duties, which include reading through board packets hundreds of pages long. It becomes too difficult to govern the transit agency in addition to the communities they were elected to serve, so VTA board members tend to focus their attention on their own communities instead of VTA. VTA reports generally go unread, and board members tend to make decisions to benefit their own constituents, that are not in the interests of the county as a whole, the report maintains.

After reading the grand jury report, Mountain View Councilman John McAlister described it as "all true, and it's long overdue." For about two years, McAlister has represented Mountain View, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills on the VTA board. In that time, he says he has been disappointed by the lack of interest and engagement by some of his colleagues. There doesn't seem to be any political will to correct the problems, he said.

"Some board members are there because their mayor planted them, or they're there to pad their resume," he said. "There's no true continuity on the board, and then there's no feeling of responsibility because you have this continual change of characters."

The grand jury report echoes a common complaint from North County city leaders who say that San Jose exerts outsized influence on the VTA board. San Jose is allocated five board seats, while another five are split between the other 14 cities in the county. The county Board of Supervisors receives two seats.

In part, the report blames this dominance by San Jose political interests for the problems with the county's underperforming light rail system. The light rail line extends more than 42 miles, running from Mountain View south through much of San Jose, yet it has failed to link to many obvious destinations such as jobs centers, shopping districts or the San Jose International Airport. Taken on its own, the light rail costs taxpayers about $11 in subsidies for each passenger who uses it, costing about three times more than bus transit.

"A case can be made for dismantling or phasing out the light rail system altogether," the grand jury report noted. "A large reduction in the taxpayer subsidy of VTA operations could be achieved by focusing future investment in transit solutions other than light rail."

However, the VTA board actually seems to favor doubling down on light rail and expanding the service. The transit agency is currently considering a pair of light rail extensions to bring it to the Eastridge shopping center in San Jose and near the Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos. The 2.4-mile Eastridge extension will cost $453 million to complete ($146 million has already been spent). If built, it is expected to generate a net total of 611 new riders.

At a meeting on June 6, the VTA board voted unanimously to approve the final environmental impact report for the Eastridge extension, one of the last steps before the project moves forward. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who sits on the VTA board, acknowledged the project doesn't make sense unless its usage wildly exceeds its projections.

"It's not because of the ridership today, because the ridership today doesn't support this kind of investment," Liccardo said. "But what we see happening in the city in terms of opportunity is an incredibly vibrant corridor. If we can get this right, this transit system will be at the core of that."

According to the grand jury report, the case for expanding light rail is weak and is based entirely on political pressure. The authors of the report say they found "virtually no support" for the Eastridge expansion among VTA staff, and the project seemed to be happening solely to satisfy goals in Measure A on the 2000 ballot.

The best way to fix VTA administration would be to change its governance, the report concluded. Having fewer members, but giving them longer office terms would give the board more expertise and institutional knowledge. The report also recommends directly electing board members to their seats, rather than having them appointed.

The VTA board is starting to investigate this possibility. McAlister is leading a new board enhancement committee tasked with restructuring VTA governance. The committee has only convened one meeting so far, but it eventually will deliver some kind of recommendations back to the full board.

"My gut preferences would be to make VTA an independent board not made up of elected officials," McAlister said. "But I don't want to rush it. It's like the Mueller report. I want to take the time to get it right."

The VTA board has not yet commented on the findings in the civil grand jury report, but it is required by law to issue a formal response within 90 days. In a blog entry, VTA board chairwoman Teresa O'Neill, a councilwoman from Santa Clara, could only say that the report's recommendations would be investigated.

"We intend to carefully review the report provided by the Civil Grand Jury," she wrote. "The report will help to inform the work we are currently performing."

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20 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 2, 2019 at 11:50 am

This is important. We can't get away from the fact that VTA does not serve the north county well and is not functioning well as an agency.

The LightRail should be world class, other cities are improving and extending similar systems worldwide. Why is this one failing. Is it because the original routing was poorly designed? It would make a lot of sense to me to have it continue from Moffett all along the Bay, serving Google, serving Facebook and terminating at RWC harbor to align with ferry services, for example. The rail could also be used by pods or similar in the future. Where is the investment and why aren't Google and Facebook looking into these common sense methods of getting their employees to work.

Why aren't public transport taking us to airports?

Why aren't public transport routes to Morgan Hill and Gilroy using highways to airports and Google/Facebook? We have the beginnings of a system, but unless it is improved giving commuters several choices with service 3 times an hour?

Why isn't pricing encouraging offpeak times? Why do some routes end at 6.00pm to prevent later travel into the evenings?

Why isn't public transit being discussed rather than just housing. Housing will bring more traffic and parking issues. Public transit that works will help reduce traffic. FAANG companies are using corporate bus travel, VTA should be learning from them so that others can use efficient, affordable alternatives to solo driving.

22 people like this
Posted by VTA self-serving
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 2, 2019 at 12:02 pm

It is natural for a bureaucracy to seek to benefit itself. VTA employees and private contractors working on projects mainly want to pad their own pockets and pension plans. That is why an agency is seldom more effective than its oversight board. And what does this area's rep to the VTA Board say: yeah, I saw the problem and said nothing about it.

23 people like this
Posted by Jimbo
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 2, 2019 at 1:45 pm

The VTA light rail is not being used because it is too slow for most routes. Mountain View Transit Center to Levi's Stadium is 40 min by light rail (direct route, no transfer), 15 minutes by car.

34 people like this
Posted by Jake O.
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Jul 2, 2019 at 2:41 pm

Don't forget MV city council was in favor of a dedicated bus lane on El Camino. I'm glad that that's not going thru. VTA gets you no where

9 people like this
Posted by Jeff Grafton
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2019 at 2:58 pm

Jeff Grafton is a registered user.

@Jake O.

The 522 and 22 are VTA's busiest routes - they carry 1/5 of all bus riders in Santa Clara County. Implementing true BRT on El Camino via dedicated bus lanes was and still is a good idea.

33 people like this
Posted by Useful?
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Jul 2, 2019 at 3:27 pm

Anyone who still thinks taking two lanes from El Camino exclusively for the VTA busses, must work for the VTA. That was resoundingly opposed - and for good reason. As I remember, the only person who spoke in favor of this fiasco, was exposed as a VTA employee!
The VTA has massive double busses that run empty because they are impractical. When I go out, I stop several times: perhaps grocery store, hardware store and pet store in one trip, for example. How does anyone haul around several items from several stores and find busses to take you these places and make the connection to various directions? The bus does not take me where I want to go and is only good for single destinations. That is 19th century travel in a 21st century world.
Perhaps if they used 14 passenger vans and ran more often, they could get a slight increase, but it still doesn't work for anyone making more than one stop.
Cramming El Camino auto traffic into four lanes instead of six - simply to pacify the poorly run VTA - would be laughable, if it wasn't so ridiculous. The article points out the many fatal flaws in this system. The worst in the nation.

23 people like this
Posted by Robyn
a resident of another community
on Jul 2, 2019 at 3:28 pm

It is an expensive failure.
Every workday morning and afternoon, forty to fifty cars sit stopped at a rail crossing and watch a train with five people aboard pass. It is a wasteful failure.
How do these board members justify themselves? What have they accomplished?

17 people like this
Posted by New Adage
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 2, 2019 at 5:01 pm

The wonderful viewpoint shared by Useful? and Robyn can be summed up in this new adage: Never try to get between a Boomer and their car.

10 people like this
Posted by New Adage
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 2, 2019 at 5:13 pm

Also, Useful?, don't sign your posts.

8 people like this
Posted by Commentary For Real
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2019 at 2:41 am

The snarking above is ill advised. Cursing these baby boomers for their support of cars is out of place. It wasn't baby boomers who created Uber and Lyft and all the extra miles put on cars by using these services. The VTA system is distinguished in its mediocrity and in its inefficiency. They spend too much money for too little benefit. If you read the report, you'll see it called out that the big drain on the VTA budget will be from BART. It's an open tab they have created, with a great price still to be determined. VTA is run by idiots who make decisions based on cliche. The cliche that BART is a modern system with a lot to offer was a false basis to decide to spend a fortune to operate BART in San Jose. The idea from the SVLG was that the workers they need in Santa Clara County can live in the East Bay and commute to work in San Jose. What a crock!

The BRT idea on El Camino Real was similarly flawed. The reason VTA sees so much of its riders on that main route is because all the others are barely used. They don't need to up the capacity on 22/522. There is still a lot of room and the demand won't increase no matter what they do. The fact is that the only thing that let Mountain View house its workers in San Jose was that San Jose put up with it. San Jose isn't doing this any more. Mountain View will need to build housing for all of its own jobs, or at least way more than at present. How the heck is anyone in Mountain View at home supposed to get up to Google HQ using El Camino Real????

Just read the grand jury report. They detail the problems with VTA which mainly come from a bloated system of governance that places decisions in uninformed board members, which means some really bad things get done...

10 people like this
Posted by William
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 3, 2019 at 6:53 am

I once contemplated suicide taking VTA from the convention center to Mountain View, such a slow agonizing journey shared initially with a few free-loading bums in San Jose, and then left alone at night for the last two thirds going through the middle of nowhere... . It was bleak. It was depressing. I will never get that hour and fifteen minutes back.

12 people like this
Posted by Dan Waylonis
a resident of Jackson Park
on Jul 3, 2019 at 8:53 am

Dan Waylonis is a registered user.

An independent analysis came to the conclusion that money would be better spent by shutting it down. There’s no debate here. It should be shut down.

13 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 3, 2019 at 10:46 am

I agree with Robyn regarding the light rail as I commute on Central. Compared to Caltrain's crossings on intersecting streets, the light rail crossing has the barriers down longer and traffic stopped longer. I can only assume the light rail is moving much slower than designed.

I'm not a boomer, but I drive. Why do I drive? I considered Caltrain. When I did the comparison, taking Caltrain, with a monthly pass, my commute would cost more. It would take longer. It would give me less flexibility to run errands. What's not to love? I'm originally from NYC. If there were decent mass transit in Santa Clara County, I'd use it.

7 people like this
Posted by Sun Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2019 at 7:20 pm

I think it would better the system if light rail did go by more shopping centers, and the airport. Also going further south in our county. Morgan hill and Giroy are growing like weeds and commuting on the freeway is a nightmare. I have been here for a little over 20 years and heard that the light rail was supposed to go by the airport. who or what was it that messed that up? SFO has the BART going to an entry area that is really convenient for anyone!. I love it here but in order to get from one place to another most of the time it is at least one to two transfers and 2-5 blocks of walking. It just doesn't seem like the routing is very sensible. there are so many "blank areas in the county where there is not a bus to be found. The reason, no one rides the bus to make it worth the effort. Well if you really wanted to get people change their way of traveling, you have to give them good reason. The ideas for public transit the way it is now, why take the bus as it takes two + hours to get anywhere? fix the system and give people a good reason to take public transit. On another note... Because of the way the world is right now, there needs to be more security not only for light, but the buses as well. periodically there should be random checks on every bus line and plain clothes security as well so if there may be a problem, that problem can be removed and all of us will feel and enjoy or travel time :)

4 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 4, 2019 at 10:23 am

Bart is having problems with security. Bart users are often critical of the safety aspect. A stabbing on a Bart platform, killing one young lady and seriously injuring her sister was big news. A couple of days ago, a shooting in San Bruno were two gunmen were assumed to have escaped by Bart and have not been found.

Bart ridership is down. In a time where traffic is getting worse and more people are living here and commuting to their jobs, why is Bart ridership down. Could it be due to safety and security issues?

Saying that, VTA is not increasing ridership either. Once again, with more people living and moving to the area and commuting times so high, why are we not seeing more people riding VTA? Could it be due to the fact that VTA is not providing a good service. It needs to up its game and provide efficient service to be a good alternative. They are supposed to be serving us. That is not being done.

Bottom line, improve service and do a better job of providing safe service. People will use a service that gets them where they want to go faster than they can drive and without parking problems.


1 person likes this
Posted by DC
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jul 5, 2019 at 11:18 am

Mtn View want to put in bike lanes instead of the VTA bus now on El Camino R....

19 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of another community
on Jul 5, 2019 at 8:09 pm

I think that the discussion on the way the directors are chosen sort of misses the point. I don’t think it matters that much how the directors are chosen. Change my mind.

However, the grand jury is onto something when it writes “Despite the serious ongoing structural financial deficit, the VTA Board has been unwilling to review and reconsider decisions made years or even decades ago regarding large capital projects (and their attendant operating costs) that are no longer technologically sound or financially viable, based on their costs and projected ridership.”

Based on current ridership projections, the Eastridge extension is questionable. This is especially true if you consider that it duplicates the existing Rapid 522 service.

An even bigger waste of money, which the grand jury ignored is the extension of the multi-billion dollar BART line from the San Jose to the Santa Clara Caltrain stations. This would duplicate existing Caltrain service and the 22/522 buses from San Jose to Santa Clara. This just reinforces the common impression that big ticket transit projects are a waste of money.

10 people like this
Posted by Jay Ess
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2019 at 2:06 pm

I see huge buses on El Camino going by empty. Why don't they run small vans in the mid day? We need more routes into residential areas and coordinated transfers. like they meet at the same time so you don't arrive at the transfer place just after you next ride has left.
I once took a trip from Los Altos to San Jose with Girl Scouts. It took over an hour. The driver had to stop and get out to smoke.
Same trip 20 minutes by car, I.Never took a bus again.

19 people like this
Posted by Stated Here Years ago
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2019 at 2:48 pm

When the VTA proposed their middle lane grab of RECR, it was the beginning of the end. Many MANY people here stated that it was an over bloated org with too many mid-level mgrs. I'm glad the grand jury also saw this. It sucks to be right in this case if you're a tax payer.

13 people like this
Posted by Really??
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 9, 2019 at 10:13 am

Is this a surprise to anyone? VTA's long been a punchline among transportation professionals, of which, by the way, that transit agency has precious few.

We all could laugh out loud at VTA's woeful inefficiencies, lofty but far-from-realized ridership projections and general managerial incompetence -- were it not for the fact that its OUR tax dollars paying their bloated salaries and misguided, if not just plain wasted, "improvement" expenditures.

The VTA board chairwoman said "We intend to carefully review the report provided by the Civil Grand Jury." Uh-huh. Expect them then to promptly dispatch the report to the nearest shredder, after which they'll resume business as usual.

Councilman McAlister, your board enhancement committee is a good start, but PLEASE put some teeth into its recommendations -- along with some solid, your-jobs-are-on-the-line directives for VTA management, because that agency truly needs to have its feet held to the fire!

7 people like this
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2019 at 9:28 am

And speaking of auditors, what about BART?
Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 13, 2019 at 12:54 pm

The lane closure on 101 for their flood project was the most devastating, neverending, mismanaged fiasco I've ever seen. I think it had a worse impact on people, the economy, lives, and basic functioning of anyone who commuted between Palo Alto and Redwood City than the *just-in-case* flood construction could ever make up for.

However... it's not solely the fault of VTA! I think they're using it as a scapegoat. It's the zealous anti-car ideology that's at fault.

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