In 2019, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury did a report on VTA’s board of directors. Since then, governance reform discussions have taken place and multiple governance bills have been introduced and killed. Recently, Assemblymember Marc Berman introduced AB 2181, a placeholder bill for governance reform. So for the fourth year in a row, discussions about VTA governance are taking place.
Back in 2019 when the report came out and the first bill was introduced, I was a strong supporter of governance reform and essentially a VTA critic. At the time, I supported a directly elected board like the AC Transit and BART boards. With an elected board, voters would directly select board members who would be solely focused on VTA. Today, the public transit agency’s board is made up of elected officials from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and local councils.
My views started to shift during the pandemic when I had more time to think and learn about the past. Through reading and conversations with current and former board members and staff, I started to realize my problems with VTA were more about the decisions made in the past and less about governance.
When VTA creates a Valley Transportation Plan—a long-range plan that sets the direction for transportation in Santa Clara County—and passes a revenue measure, the direction of the agency is set for decades. Unfortunately, I was in high school and not involved in transit advocacy when the most recent plan was created. The most recent measure doesn’t have enough funding to increase transit service, which is my biggest priority. Changing who’s on the board won’t fix that.
A common criticism I’ve heard about VTA’s board members is they don’t care about riders. As someone that watches every VTA meeting and talks to board members on a regular basis, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
When we faced the worst transit cuts in history, the board came together and made service restoration a priority. They pushed the agency to prevent transit cuts and advocated to get a fair share of stimulus funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Committee.
Thanks to the board’s work, VTA became the first major bus operator in the Bay Area and the first transit agency to commit to full-service restoration, and they have restored the most service so far. As a rider, their efforts have helped me and it was truly inspiring to see them come together to support commuters.
A major aspect of Berman’s original bill was to ban elected officials from serving on the VTA board. He seems to believe elected officials are incapable of making good decisions for riders.
I completely disagree. The decisions they’ve made during the pandemic have made it possible for me to have access to the service I have today. I also think elected officials are more connected to the community and more accountable than technical experts because they have to run for office.
Ultimately, VTA board members will oppose attempts to remove them and spend time and energy to kill the latest governance reform bill. This will be a distraction from more important issues like getting ridership back to pre-pandemic levels and creating a positive path forward for the agency.
To move forward and create a better future for transit, we need to stop arguing about governance and decisions that were made in the past and start talking about what we want to see in the future.
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.