Update: San Jose approves response to VTA board grand jury findings

During a San Jose City Council meeting Tuesday, city lawmakers unanimously approved a response to a grand jury investigation that found problems with the Valley Transportation Authority’s governance, including a lack of knowledge and experience from board members who represent cities across the county.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, who is on the VTA Board of Directors, underscored his own feelings about the grand jury’s investigation into VTA’s governance structure.

“I appreciate the response. I think it was all fair and accurate, I might just add my own two cents, which is San Jose’s representation on the board,” Liccardo said. “If anything is insufficient to align with modern notions of proportionate representation, I think we said before was 53% of the county’s residents. I think we’re probably a bit higher but, you know, (we have) much larger share of transit users, particularly transit dependent residents in our city.”

Liccardo highlighted the uselessness of creating a rail system without considering land use near station stops.

“I think what is often overlooked, not just by this grand jury, but I think by many observers is the historic context in which the light rail system was, frankly, (put) into a valley that was not built for transit, but built for cars,” the mayor added. “And running a light rail system past a bunch of empty lots of one story buildings is never going to be a successful way to build the transit system. Doesn’t matter how well they run it, it will always lose a lot of money. And until we get the land use right… it will never be a successful system.”

San Jose officials wrote in a report that they disagreed with some of the grand jury’s findings, including that the VTA board lacked experience, continuity and leadership, and that those on the board were too distracted by their other elected positions to fully focus on the region’s transit issues.

The VTA board is made up of elected officials from across Santa Clara County, with 5 directors from San Jose, 1 from Los Altos (Hills)/Mountain View/Palo Alto, 1 from Campbell/Cupertino/Los Gatos/Monte Sereno/Saratoga, 1 from Gilroy/Morgan Hill, 2 from Milpitas/Santa Clara/Sunnyvale and 2 from Santa Clara County. The Board of Directors is not elected, but rather appointed by cities and towns in their groups.

The city’s response points to VTA’s complex role planning traffic mitigation, highway construction, pedestrian needs and long-range planning as a reason why the governance structure might need to be more complex.

San Jose officials said simply judging the effectiveness of transit management “is a narrow view of the immense roles and responsibilities VTA has, and the stewardship required by board members.” By this token, officials say having directors from across the region who know their individual constituencies is a strength instead of a weakness.

San Jose also takes umbrage at the claim that the city is overrepresented on the VTA board, stating that “it is natural that a plurality of seats at VTA are elected officials whose jurisdictions include San Jose.”

City leaders also applauded VTA’s recent plans to roll out studies to “determine the technologies that are best suited to supplement or replace its current transit services,” and praised cost-cutting efforts taken to control already-approved projects like the Eastridge Light Rail extension.

“(The ongoing efforts of VTA) could improve service and reduce capital costs associated with maintenance and construction for needed projects, including a grade separated transit connection from Alum Rock Light Rail Station to the Eastridge Transit Center, which as been a priority for voters and residents,” the draft response from San Jose’s Director of Transportation John Ristow states.

Although many of the grand jury findings were unsurprising to those who have watched the VTA board over the years, some defensiveness on the part of involved agencies may be warranted.

“(The grand jury) cites right-wing think tanks such Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Hudson Institute that have long been pessimistic about public transportation, making a fallacious argument that traditional public transit is obsolete compared to new Silicon Valley models,” local transit advocate Adina Levin, of Friends of Caltrain and Seamless Bay Area, told San José Spotlight.

Contact Brendan Nystedt at brendannystedt@outlook.com or follow @bnystedt on Twitter

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