Mallon: Why is it so hard to increase transit service in Santa Clara County? 
A woman gets off the 522 bus near SAP Center. File photo.

    A common complaint about transit in Santa Clara County is there’s not enough service. The service isn’t frequent enough, the hours aren’t long enough and there aren’t enough routes.

    Residents want more service, but how can we make that a reality and why is it so challenging to even maintain service?

    The answer is complicated, but a major factor is it’s easier to get state and federal funding to build transit projects—and even get new buses—than it is to get funding to increase service on existing lines. For decades, the federal government has only provided local transit agencies with funding for infrastructure and maintenance. As a result, most transit agencies, including VTA, are forced to almost exclusively rely on local funding sources to run service.

    In our case, funding to run VTA transit service comes almost exclusively from Santa Clara County sales tax. In the most recent VTA budget, sales tax proceeds from multiple sources comprise over 85% of the agency’s operating revenues. Since the sales tax receipts are driven by the economy, revenue to run service can fluctuate, which makes it challenging for VTA and other transit agencies to increase service.

    Essentially, if we want more service we need new revenue. VTA has recently approved policies around land lease and transit oriented-development and naming rights to get new sources of stable revenue from existing assets. However, these options will take time and will not be immediate fixes.

    The biggest tool VTA has in getting significant new revenue quickly is through a sales tax measure. However, with the current state of the economy, it’s unlikely a measure would pass anytime soon.

    If we can’t pass a sales tax measure soon, what are we supposed to do? Other than waiting, the state or federal government could step up and create a new program to fund transit operations.

    This was briefly explored last year when Rep. Hank Johnson introduced the Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act, which would provide $20 billion annually for transit operations—enough to fund a significant increase in transit service throughout the country. While the bill failed to get enough support, it’s an idea worth exploring again in the future.

    So where does this leave us? While it’s impossible to know if a sales tax will be viable in the near term and other social and economic conditions, what I do know is we’ll be in the best place possible if we come together around a positive vision for the future.

    VTA is often characterized as not caring about transit service, but we aren’t in the situation we’re in because the agency doesn’t care about transit service—it does care. We’re here because getting funding to run transit service is one of the hardest things to do.

    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.

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