Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has a new leader at its helm.
After months of deliberation, the transit agency’s board has unanimously selected VTA veteran Carolyn Gonot to become its new CEO and general manager.
The VTA Board of Directors approved an employment agreement with Gonot during a special meeting Friday. Gonot previously worked for the transit company for more than 20 years.
Gonot said Friday she’s aware of the many challenges VTA faces and wants to make sure VTA’s ridership comes back.
“COVID knocked many of the transit agencies down, but it did not knock us out,” she said. “I look forward to renewing our commitment and building back even better as we come out of the restrictions we’ve been living under for the past 14 months.”
At VTA, Gonot served as chief engineering and program delivery officer, responsible for managing light rail and systems engineering projects, as well as delivering the $2.4 billion, 10-mile Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Silicon Valley Berryessa Extension.
As VTA’s interim chief officer, Gonot helped plan VTA’s transportation improvements following the passage of the county’s 2016 Measure B half-cent sales tax. The 30-year revenue source, projected to raise $6.5 billion, was then held up in court for almost two years.
Gonot became the Utah Transit Authority’s first female executive director in August 2019. She managed a district covering six counties with an operating budget of $336 million and a capital budget of $255 million.
Gonot said she built rider confidence in Utah Transit Authority, which had waned during the previous five years.
Transit advocate Monica Mallon said Gonot’s experience makes her a reliable choice to head VTA.
“She’ll be able to hit the ground running,” Mallon said, “and won’t have that transitional phase of struggling to get adjusted that someone who’s completely new to VTA would have. What the GM does really does matter because they help set the tone for the entire agency and are its public face. People look to them for leadership, especially during a time like this.”
Mallon said ridership is one of VTA’s main challenges and something Gonot will need to focus on. She said the transit agency needs to assure the public it is a safe and reliable option.
“We need some kind of positive vision for transit in the county,” Mallon added. “I hope she’ll help move things forward. It’s going to take work. I don’t think everyone will automatically come back. There’s going to need to be some kind of plan and incentives.”
Not everyone is happy with VTA’s pick.
Transit advocate Eugene Bradley said Gonot’s appointment is a “status quo hire.”
“You look at how long she’s been at VTA,” Bradley said, adding that Gonot was part of the Alum Park Bus Rapid Transit project that was the first in VTA’s history to be late and over budget.
Gonot is replacing VTA General Counsel Evelynn Tran, who was tapped on Jan. 19 to serve as interim general manager and CEO in January after Nuria Fernandez was chosen to serve in the Biden administration as acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration.
Officials had a tough time filling Fernandez’s role due to national competition across the country for transit leaders after she stepped down from her seven-year tenure. While heading VTA, she managed a $7 billion extension of BART, as well as rail and bus services in Silicon Valley.
VTA has faced numerous challenges from a budget deficit to service cuts, COVID cases among bus drivers and an Assembly bill to reform its governance. VTA faced a projected deficit of up to $80.7 million in 2021 due to a 75% decrease in ridership during the coronavirus pandemic. Although drastic cuts of up to 30% were considered, community protest resulted in VTA increasing service on critical bus routes instead.
Gonot will be responsible for VTA’s projects and transit services, including bus, light rail and paratransit, starting on July 12.
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]