News

VTA board members support shake-up after scathing grand jury report

Admitting problems, committee wants higher standards for transit agency's governing board

If VTA board members can agree on one thing, it's that something needs to change.

A new VTA subcommittee began discussions on potential tweaks to the governing board that would improve effectiveness at the beleaguered agency at a meeting last Friday.

Overshadowing these talks was a scathing grand jury report released in June that called out VTA as one of the most inefficient transit agencies in the U.S. That report noted that operating costs had skyrocketed while ridership was dwindling, yet the board seemed intent on expansion.

In particular, the report took aim at the county's light rail system, which it proposed dismantling entirely.

Much of the blame for these cost overruns was placed on the 12-member VTA board of directors. Among the problems, the grand jury members found the transit agency's board suffered from a lack of training, time and experience. The VTA board consists entirely of appointed elected leaders from city or county governments in Santa Clara County.

On Aug. 9, a recently appointed VTA Board Enhancement Committee took up the grand jury report, and members discussed how to respond to the grand jury's conclusions. VTA board Chairwoman Teresa O'Neill proposed some kind of screening process before someone can join the VTA board. Appointees should know in advance what kind of commitment it would take, she said.

"We should be asking people 'Do you have the bandwidth?" she said. "Can you spend 10 hours a month related to this board assignment?"

San Jose City Councilman Chappie Jones suggested VTA staff needed to make it easier to digest complicated board packets, which routinely exceed 300 pages. Other committee members proposed some kind of boot camp orientation to bring new members up to speed.

It was clear that committee members had some specific individuals in mind when they discussed board members who lacked training or interest in VTA business, although they made it a point not to call out anyone by name. When he was a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, Ken Yeager missed five of VTA's monthly board meetings just in 2018, according to the meeting minutes. County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, Morgan Hill Councilman Larry Carr and San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis each skipped at least three board meetings over the last two years. Most VTA board seats have a designated alternate member to fill in if the regular appointee can't make a meeting, but this substitute is typically less familiar with the agency's operations.

But just looking at meeting attendance doesn't really convey the scope of the problem, said Mountain View Councilman John McAlister, who chairs the VTA Board Enhancement Committee. A subset of VTA members will routinely leave meetings early, barely participate in discussions and basically phone it in, he said.

"Some board members just sit there, and you can't tell if they're participating or not," he said. "VTA is only as good as the people who get appointed to its board."

O'Neill described it as a twin-headed problem. Professional politicians appointed to the VTA board from the county and San Jose have greater institutional knowledge and experience, but they are juggling a wide range of priorities, she said. Meanwhile, representatives from smaller cities are constantly being swapped out, making them less effective in the long run. For the most part, committee members agreed with the grand jury's findings that politics were at the core of VTA's dysfunction.

To fix this problem, the grand jury report proposed restructuring the agency's governance by having VTA board members directly elected by voters. VTA officials are already planning to commission an independent study to evaluate its governing system and how it compares to other transit agencies.

In contrast to the proposed governance changes, VTA officials were more defensive toward their management of light rail service and its future expansion. The grand jury report implied that transit should operate like a business, and that was misleading, said Jim Lawson, VTA chief of external affairs. He blamed conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute for spreading the idea that transit was too reliant on subsidies. By its very nature, mass transit requires public money and would never break even financially, he said.

"If you won't support transit because it costs taxpayers money, then you'll never do it," Lawson said. "It ain't easy to do without subsidies. The cost is a deliberate decision that taxpayers made."

His argument touched on the tight corner that the VTA board finds itself in when it comes to light rail. During the 2000 election, voters approved a sales tax to pay for expanding light-rail service to East San Jose, San Jose International Airport and other areas.

Nearly 20 years later, VTA is almost ready to begin construction on a $450 million line to the East San Jose even though ridership projections are pretty dismal. To the grand jury's criticism of East San Jose expansion, committee members kept their response concise: It was a voter-approved project, they noted.

Yet VTA officials say they are also on the hunt for new transit technologies that could be used to upgrade the aging light rail system. In particular, the transit agency is pinning its hopes that it can find what might be called a holy grail for transit: a cutting-edge system that can be built above roadways for a low cost. The agency's staff say they are currently preparing a request for proposals that should be ready by next month.

The full VTA board of director is expected to approve a final response to the county grand jury report by early September.

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Comments

13 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2019 at 3:28 pm

VTA is a mess. Not only the most inefficient system, but we need regional transport which VTA does not provide.

Where are the efficient bus routes to airports, to the coast, crossing the Bay? Why are services limited and snaking around neighborhoods? Why don't we have park & drive lots with efficient shuttles to Caltrain and business areas? And why does VTA only consider San Jose rather than the whole county?

The reason they get so few riders is because their services are pathetic, slow, expensive particularly if you need more than one bus, and dirty. We need fast, efficient, clean, comfortable buses with wifi to get workers from where they live (south county, the coast,) to places of employment.

VTA just can't do the sorts of job Google buses, Facebook buses, Apple buses, etc. do for their employees. We need some of their people to show VTA and the rest how to do it right.


8 people like this
Posted by Schmedly
a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2019 at 4:35 pm

"…the grand jury report proposed restructuring the agency's governance by having VTA board members directly elected by voters..."

I somehow don't think that will solve anything. The average voter isn't going to know who is good or not.

A big issue is lack of publicly published measurable objectives and holding the BoD accountable to meeting those objectives. Have the public vote on the objectives and make the BoD accountable for achieving them.


5 people like this
Posted by Michael Brownrigg
a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2019 at 6:53 pm

We definitely need better regional transit, that is for certain, up and down the Peninsula. What I find surprising about this report and response is the strong sense that the Board is the problem. What about management? They are supposed to be the experts. In the private sector for 20 years and public service for 30, I cannot think of a lot of enterprises or agencies that were well run by committees. Boards should help a CEO/ED course correct, provide a sounding board, help promote the business and, if the CEO fails or comes up short, replace him/her. I would be more interested to learn how VTA plans to improve management talent than Board talent, to be honest.


Like this comment
Posted by SRB
a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Aug 17, 2019 at 9:18 am

SRB is a registered user.

I hope that the VTA Board will also consider moving to a directly elected board. That would insure commitment and dedication to the position. This might also restore some geographic and political balance (right now San Jose has nearly full control of that regional agency).

A more immediate step could be to change the way PA/MV/LA/LAH rotate their representation (each city gets a turn, 2 year term every eight years). At a minimum get LA and LAH to share their turn, maybe even drop LA/LAH from the rotation (these cities have very little transit and staff to support a VTA representative).


11 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Aug 17, 2019 at 12:51 pm

Gary is a registered user.

Is the VTA so inefficient and disoriented just because some or all of its part-time Board members do not even read the agenda packets for monthy meetings? I have not observed a VTA Board meeting for some time. The meetings are streamed online nowadays. I was there a few years ago when some mostly Hispanic merchants were seeking some minimal compensation for not being able to operate amid a long-delay in street reconstruction east of downtown San Jose. The VTA was adding BUS-Only Lanes and new bus stops - something it planned and pushed for all of EL CAMINO REAL and STEVENS CREEK. The VTA Board discussed at length how generous the VTA was being to these unfortunate merchants - setting up a process to dole out tens of thousands of dollars. As I recall, the VTA was seeking a new contractor to finish the job. The next item was a unexplained cost overrun for some project totaling $17 million. I had signed up to ask about it. But the chair forgot to take public input. All in favor? Yes - Unanimous. No questions asked. Point of order, I said (which really is only available to members of the legislative body). The chair (then a councilmember from Morgan Hill) said he forgot to call me - go ahead. I then pointed out that the VTA bureaucracy and Board had just spent a half hour discussing a couple of dollars for Hispanic merchants - making sure they knew their claims would be under penalty of perjury - but then had approved a $17 million cost overrun for some corporate construction company - no real explanation provided (in the agenda packet) and no questions asked. Mountain View Councilmember John McAlister was not then a member of the VTA Board. But he has been a member for some time. Maybe he will write a guest column on what he has tried to do to repair the VTA or its Board during his tenure. Just blaming other part-time VTA Board members for not reading agenda packets is not quite enough.


22 people like this
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of another community
on Aug 17, 2019 at 2:21 pm

The grand jury was critical of the just-approved VTA light rail extension to Eastridge, but for some reason is silent about the wasteful BART extension from San Jose to Santa Clara. This wasteful line duplicates Caltrain and VTA 22 and 522 service. Stopping the BART extension at the Santa Jose Caltrain would save VTA about a billion dollars for something else.

And VTA often has to needlessly reinvent the wheel. For example, although BART has a logical parking policy where "If you arrive after 3pm and leave before 4am, (or all day on weekends) parking is free." Stupid VTA has decided to reinvent the wheel at Milpitas and Berryessa and charge for parking 24/7. That will just result in people either driving to a station with the more reasonable policy or driving all the way.

Good job, people.








7 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Aug 17, 2019 at 3:50 pm

Gary is a registered user.

I trust that at least North County's representative on the VTA Board of Directors, City Councilmember John McAlister, has done all he could to stop such wasteful spending by the VTA. Councilmember McAlister should chime in right here on this thread and then supply that guest column for the Mountain View Voice (and other newspapers) I suggested above.


Like this comment
Posted by Soul Brother
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2019 at 8:50 am

Just wait till the county makes car travel nearly impossible, they will call it a “road diet” just like Palo Alto does, They will turn lanes into Bus Express routes. They will force you onto VTA wether you like it or not, in the name of ridership increases


5 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Aug 18, 2019 at 11:14 am

Gary is a registered user.

Yes. That is one way to increase ridership. Prohibit the driving of cars and trucks in some or all lanes - and/or create toll lanes. Some rich people love toll lanes. Years ago, there were carnivals with donkey rides. The donkeys would walk in a circle. The riders did not get anywhere. And so I suggested, in response to the plan for bus-only lanes on El Camino, that if the VTA operated a fleet of donkeys, the VTA would likely be proposing DONKEY-ONLY LANES. Maybe the VTA will also buy some elephants - just to appear bipartisan. The VTA might support anything that increases its income and secures its future. The movie THE BLOB comes to mind.


4 people like this
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Aug 19, 2019 at 8:07 am

Another community newspaper is reporting that Palo Alto wants its own representative on the VTA board. There is also discussion of creating yet another bureaucracy to distribute transportation money to cities. Just what we need, another bureaucracy.


Like this comment
Posted by Rob Means
a resident of another community
on Aug 19, 2019 at 6:26 pm

While I agree that the VTA Board has done a poor job of managing the VTA General Manager and top staff, and that problem mostly results from the way the Board members are selected and serve. However, I can't figure out why neither the Board nor VTA management has entertained the concept of replacing the $5B BART Burrow extension with modern transit? The area between Berryessa and Diridon could get a network of 100 miles of elevated guideway and 100 small stations providing far better 24/7 service for just $1.5B. Who would not want that deal? Here's the short story:
Web Link


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