Environmental activists urge VTA to shift funds from highway projects to mass transit
Photo courtesy of Monica Mallon.

Dozens of young environmental activists implored the Valley Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors to declare a climate crisis during its last meeting of the year this week.

The group — including many local high school students — asked the board to commit to a zero carbon emission bus fleet, forswear future cuts to bus service and to use money currently pegged for highway expansions for better mass transit options instead. The board is expected to address the issue at its January meeting.

Chloe Wang, a senior at Milpitas High School, said she watches the clock at the end of every school day.

“As soon as that bell rings, I’m out of the door, not because I don’t like my sixth period class but because I want to catch the next 66 bus that stops at Milpitas High,” Wang said. “Students commute all the time — on school days, during the weekends furthering their passions — doing the things that really matter to them.”

Jamie Minden, 16, co-founded the Silicon Valley Youth Climate Strikes — which organized a large student protest in San Jose in September — and said more needs to be done.

“Public transportation is important to kids and not just because we need a ride,” Minden said Thursday. “I’m here representing 3,000 local youth, educators and passionate citizens who marched with me on Sept. 20, because they don’t believe our government is doing enough to tackle the climate crisis.”

“We are fighting because we are terrified,” Minden continued. “Kids my age know that if we don’t act with urgency now, we will live to see the apocalypse in my lifetime.”

The young activists got a boost from Congressman Ro Khanna, whose district includes much of Silicon Valley.

“Santa Clara County expects continued population growth that cannot be matched by just expanding roadways,” the congressman wrote in a letter. “Shifting bus lines from overall coverage to ridership corridors can have negative impacts on those with low incomes, persons with disabilities, the student population and the elderly population. Reversing VTA’s recent reductions and increasing bus service will benefit riders and decrease the severe congestion on San José roadways.”

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese on Thursday directed VTA staff to put a resolution on the agenda for January.

“I would like to add to the next regular agenda a resolution declaring a climate emergency that demands immediate action to halt, reverse, restore and address the consequences and causes of global warming,” Cortese said.

Director Rob Rennie, a Los Gatos Town councilman, said the resolution should substantively affect how the board and VTA staff approach public transit.

“I’d like to see something substantial,” he said. “I don’t like just passing resolutions. I’d like to figure out what we are actually going to do because of it.”

Earlier in the meeting, the students received support from the South Bay chapter of Mothers Out Front Mobilizing for a Livable Climate.

“San Jose is expected to grow its population to 1.3 million,” coordinator Martina Keim said. “We are already experiencing a high density of traffic. And it is crucial for all of us to make this change now. It will help to reduce congestion, improve air quality and public health and go toward San Jose’s goal to be carbon free, since vehicle traffic is the leading source of carbon emissions.”

Longtime transit advocate Eugene Bradley, who founded Silicon Valley Transit Users in 2000, chastised the board for slowly cutting bus service over the last two decades. Bradley pointed out that the VTA is the only public transit agency in America that is also responsible for highway and freeway expansion projects.

”Declare a climate emergency,” Bradley said. “And don’t just talk about it, back it up with actions like reallocating money from highways to bus service.”

VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress told San José Spotlight in previous interviews that the transit agency has consistently improved and enhanced public transit in Silicon Valley over the years.

Public safety at new VTA transit stations

Also on Thursday, VTA Board members approved a three-month extension of a longtime contract with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office to provide public safety services at VTA facilities — including two unopened transit centers in Milpitas and the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose. The $4.2 million extension, which runs through March 2020, was approved as a part of the board’s consent agenda.

The Milpitas and Berryessa BART stations were expected to open in 2016, but last month officials announced another delay until 2020.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies are jockeying for a contract to oversee policing at the stations when they open.

BART has its own police that will have jurisdiction on its trains and platforms, but the Milpitas and San Jose Police Departments have both submitted bids to the VTA board to police the stations in their jurisdictions and the Sheriff’s Office has renewed its bid to provide public safety services throughout the entire system. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told San José Spotlight his city’s police department will push for control of the Berryessa station.

The board will consider awarding new public safety contract(s) in 2020, VTA officials said.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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