Silicon Valley climate activists are urging the VTA to declare a climate emergency and reallocate funds from a 2016 half-cent sales tax to public transit projects in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But the San Jose City Council on Tuesday, which has five directors on the VTA board that includes Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco, Lan Diep, Chappie Jones and Raul Peralez, struck down the move in a 7- 2- 2 vote, calling on their regional partners to keep their “commitment” to voters in a letter by preserving the sales tax’s revenue for pre-approved projects.
Peralez and Councilmember Sergio Jimenez were the dissenting votes, while Carrasco and Councilmember Sylvia Arenas were absent.
“We’re making a statement of principle that we want to honor the will and direction of the voters,” Jones said. “When we go out and ask voters to support a ballot measure as elected officials, we’re asking those voters to trust us. If we make changes in any of these measures so soon after they’ve been voted on and approved, that’s going to damage our credibility.”
Councilmember Johnny Khamis, who first spearheaded the effort to keep the funding as is in a Dec.10 letter to VTA co-signed by Davis, Jones and Councilmember Pam Foley, called the shifting of funds “dishonest,” agreeing that the move undermined the will of the voters.
“Not only do I think that it’s dishonest, it’s dangerous and it’s not what we told the public that we would do,” Khamis told San José Spotlight.
Four years ago, nearly 72 percent of voters passed Measure B, a half-cent sales tax dedicated to funding transportation improvements with the promise that the tax’s revenue would go toward repairing potholes and city streets, improving bicycle and pedestrian safety, easing highway congestion and finishing the San Jose BART expansion.
“If we don’t have an infrastructure that’s going to rapidly move people on public transport as well as in their cars, then we’re going to have additional damage to our environment,” Jones added.
But climate and transportation activists have been rallying support to divert the sales tax’s funds — estimated to produce more than $6.3 billion over the next 30 years — away from these projects, instead focusing on financing upgrades, expansions and improvements to the region’s light rail and bus lines.
Last month, dozens of activists stormed a VTA board meeting in support of Santa Clara County Supervisor and VTA chair Cindy Chavez’s referral to improve service lines through a Measure B reallocation. Dozens more showed up Tuesday to derail the City Council from sending Khamis’ co-authored letter.
“It’s important to recognize the relationship between transportation and the climate crisis,” transit advocate Monica Mallon said during Tuesday’s meeting. “63 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in San Jose come from the transportation sector and yet we continue to prioritize cars over people.”
But city officials said Measure B’s funds were already in line with the city’s transportation goals and VTA’s policies, adding that VTA can look at other revenue sources such as the potential FASTER Bay Area measure — a $100 billion tax measure for transit investment — for funding additional public transit projects. Currently, Measure B allocates more than $1 billion for Caltrain improvements, $1.5 billion for BART’s expansion and $500 million for transit operations.
Liccardo was sympathetic to the activists’ concerns Tuesday but said he could not support going against the will of the voters just weeks before they head back to the ballot box in March to decide on Measure E, another crucial tax city leaders say will go toward funding affordable housing.
Measure E received backlash from critics who said the tax revenue can be spent however the City Council sees fit, despite a promise to use it for affordable housing, because the money streams into the city’s general fund. At Tuesday’s meeting, Liccardo said he worried voters will not support future initiatives, such as Measure E, if their elected leaders don’t keep their promises.
“Leading these measures is whether or not (voters) trust that we’re actually going to do with the money what we tell them that we’re going to do,” Liccardo said. “That will determine everything about whether that measure passes, and whether any other measure passes at a time when we critically need more resources.”
Still, Peralez and Jimenez disagreed with their colleagues, as the language in the measure allows the authority to make substantive changes to how the tax’s revenue is used. While Peralez said he opposes shifting funding, he believes the decision should be left up to the VTA board and not the City Council.
“I am not eager either to make any changes to these dollars… but at the same time, it was certainly thought of and put into the measure for the VTA board to take up discussions like this,” Peralez said. “I’m not interested in preempting some discussions that should be had at the VTA board.”
VTA can only reallocate funding if a three-quarters majority of the board approves making the changes. That means that at least three out of the five members on the City Council who also serve on the VTA board would need to approve the shift in funding.
The VTA Board of Directors will discuss options and proposals for reallocating funds at its Feb. 6 meeting before casting a final vote in April.