I’m Monica Mallon, a new transportation columnist for San José Spotlight who will contribute columns on first Thursday every other month.
For my first column, I’d like to tell you about Santa Clara County transportation from the perspective of a rider.
I’m a lifelong transit rider and advocate with professional experience in transportation demand management. I started getting involved in transit advocacy and working in transit as a San Jose State student when some of our bus lines were on the chopping block. I later founded the advocacy group, Turnout4Transit, during the COVID-19 pandemic when VTA faced severe cuts.
It’s impossible to discuss transportation in the county without talking about VTA. In recent years, the agency has been criticized for its decisions, governance and declining farebox recovery and ridership. However, few residents understand the full story.
In the 1900s, before we had public transit in Santa Clara County, private railroads and bus companies helped people travel. However, as time passed and cars became more popular, roads replaced the rails and the bus companies started to struggle financially. At the time, the Board of Supervisors believed Santa Clara County needed mass transit to thrive, and decided to buy out the bus companies and start a transit agency.
In 1969, the governor signed the Santa Clara County Transit District Act, and from there the Board of Supervisors went to voters to start the district. They failed twice before finally succeeding in 1972, after doing more outreach to get the cities and voters on board.
The Santa Clara County Transit District took over operations of the private bus companies and began running the service, replacing and upgrading the fleet and planning for the future public transit system. In 1976, county voters approved a permanent 1/2 cent sales tax to fund the transit agency. This tax is still being collected today and VTA primarily relies on sales tax to fund transit operations.
In 1995, the transit district merged with the congestion management agency to form the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority—VTA for short.
The agency expanded rapidly in the early days. It purchased buses and worked to grow service as fast as it could. By 1980, it was the fastest-growing major bus system in the country. According to old testimonies and conversations I’ve had with elected officials around at the time, there was so much growth in transit that the agency wasn’t able to keep up.
In one congressional testimony from 1980, Rod Diridon Sr. even complained about there being 100 buses per hour at the intersection of Santa Clara and First streets in downtown San Jose. This problem was solved when the transit mall was built, but it shows how different the problems were back then. Many advocates today would be happy to deal with those old problems.
Over the next few decades, the agency continued to grow and reached a peak of 47 million annual riders in 2000. During the peak, service throughout the valley was longer and more frequent than it is today. Some routes even ran 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, the dot-com crash in 2000 led to a steep decline in sales tax revenue. At first, VTA was able to prevent cuts by selling land and bonding, but eventually the cuts started—and have continued since.
Because VTA is so reliant on sales tax to fund operations and the local share for capital projects, economic downturns prevent the transit agency from completing ambitious plans.
For example, in 2000 the agency had plans for major expansion, including expanded bus service and new light rail lines. That never happened because sales tax receipts were billions of dollars below projections. For the 2016 1/2 cent sales tax measure, VTA used conservative projections that continue to be accurate despite the COVID-19 pandemic, so they will most likely be able to fully fund projects related to highways. But we are still far from the transit system many people think we need.
Some people argue that public transit will never work in Santa Clara County, but if there’s anything that can be learned from the past, it’s that we can overcome tough challenges and create a thriving transit agency once again.
San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County, and founder of Turnout4Transit. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on Twitter.