Op-ed: Support change in VTA governance
A VTA light rail train is pictured in this file photo.

Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Los Altos) has proposed much needed changes to the VTA board that support the recommendations of the 2018-19 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury (CGJ).

Berman’s proposed AB 1091 would significantly reshape the makeup of the board, as recommended in the CGJ report “Inquiry Into Governance of the Valley Transportation Authority.” The assemblymember withdrew the bill this past year with plans to reintroduce it in 2022.

The report’s recommendations follow the CGJ’s interviews of 37 VTA staff and board members and research into 17 other transit agencies. The CGJ exposed a few primary areas of concern: Continually deteriorating performance, inadequate oversight by the VTA board, its financial deficit and unwillingness to reconsider outdated projects of significant financial impact to the agency.

The report identified several examples of problematic endeavors: An increased light rail capacity without a corresponding demand for its product, resulting in higher operating costs, such as the Eastridge light rail extension; unresolved cost sharing agreements for the BART extension and continuing with the technically outmoded and increasingly expensive light rail system.

The CGJ found other transit authorities with boards that balanced elected officials with members of the public who had 10 years or more experience in fields such as transportation, law, finance and business. An example is Austin, Texas which previously had 100% elected officials, but moved to include non-politicians.

The VTA board now consists of two members of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, five San Jose City Council representatives and five councilmembers from VTA’s other member cities. The CGJ report determined, “A root cause of VTA’s poor performance was the governance structure of the VTA board which was too large, too political, too dependent on staff, too inexperienced in some cases, and too removed from the financial and operational performance of VTA.”

Berman proposes reducing the board from 12 to nine members and excluding elected officials from the board.

Instead of elected officials, he proposes the board be comprised of one resident selected from each of the five supervisorial districts, two residents of San Jose and two residents from among VTA’s other cities. Each would serve four-year terms—versus the current two—and be appointed by their respective nominating county Board of Supervisors or City Council. The nominating authorities shall ensure that expertise, experience or knowledge relative to the fields of transportation, infrastructure or project management, accounting or finance and executive management are represented on the board.

The CGJ report states: “Year after year, VTA operates one of the most expensive and least efficient transit systems in the country.” Yet, as elected officials, VTA board members have pressing duties in their primary role as city or county officials and, with only two-year terms, often fail to gain sufficient understanding of the complicated issues facing the VTA, the report notes.

The report, issued in June 2019, recommended VTA and its constituent cities study changes to the existing governance structure. VTA did commission a study and implemented some minor governance changes, few of which addressed the concerns of the CGJ.

The CGJ’s report—the product of eight months of intense research by a non-partisan group of 19 county citizens—articulated the need for such changes after studying the board structures of several California and non-California transit authorities. It states: “Despite the serious ongoing structural financial deficit, the VTA board has been unwilling to review and reconsider decisions made years or even decades ago regarding large capital projects (and their attendant operating costs) that are no longer technologically sound or financially viable, based on their costs and projected ridership.”

Along with the demands of governing a large enterprise such as VTA with part-time board members, the current board makeup often results in parochial decisions. The current ranking process that sets priorities for congestion management highway project funding is one example.

Robin Roemer’s op-ed in San José Spotlight discusses how VTA staff and a committee made up of representatives of four cities ignored the board-approved grading system that would establish project priority, instead giving priority to projects within those four cities.

May’s mass shooting at a VTA rail yard, resulting in 10 deaths, made 2021 the darkest year in the organization’s history. As VTA rebuilds from that tragedy, now might be the best time to consider structural changes.

As shown by the CGJ report, we as taxpayers must support the governance changes initiated by Berman. It is time a dedicated and professional board takes control and rethinks the current state of transit in Santa Clara County. AB 1091 can begin to address long-standing inefficiencies in VTA operations, as well as its financial future.

Dean Duffy, John Klobe, Michael Krey and Harry Oberhelman are members of the Santa Clara County Chapter of the California Grand Jurors’ Association.

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