Santa Clara County VTA service review long overdue
A rider exits the light rail train at the Metro/Airport station in San Jose in this file photo.

    A state oversight agency required to conduct service reviews of VTA hasn’t done one in nearly a decade—and it could be years more before it does.

    The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a California watchdog with offices in every county, is required by state law to review special districts like VTA every five years, as necessary. Though the clause “as necessary” allows some legal leeway, Santa Clara County LAFCO hasn’t performed a review of VTA since 2013. A LAFCO representative said the next review is unlikely to happen before 2025.

    Service reviews typically focus on special district budgets, boundaries and governance. The reviews involve intensive data collection and analysis and can take a year to complete, a LAFCO representative said. Some transit advocates believe the VTA review needs to happen sooner.

    VTA is one of 27 special districts in the county, which include Valley Water, several fire protection districts, the El Camino Healthcare District and several sanitation districts.

    “Even if the law is ‘as needed,’ how can you go so long, with so many catastrophes that have happened, and not say the agency needs to be accountable?” local transit advocate Marcia Cohen Zakai told San José Spotlight. “There’s just way too many red flags.”

    The county’s LAFCO is comprised of seven commissioners and three staff members.

    Zakai referred to past service cuts at VTA, several recent controversies and the May 2021 mass shooting at the rail yard in downtown San Jose—which led to San José Spotlight revealing a toxic work culture at the public transit agency—as evidence VTA needs as much oversight as possible.

    A 2019 civil grand jury found VTA was too large and political to make good financial decisions, causing an ongoing structural and budget deficit. OSHA fined the agency $16,200 for violating work safety regulations after two employees died of COVID-19 in 2020. Last summer, Santa Clara County officials requested a state audit of the agency’s governance structure, fiscal management and project planning.

    VTA representatives declined to comment.

    Zakai has alerted LAFCO to some of these issues, which she sees as evidence that the agency needs a service review as soon as possible. But LAFCO Executive Officer Neelima Palacherla said many of those problems relate to staffing and working conditions at VTA, which do not fall under her agency’s purview. Instead, LAFCO forwarded Zakai’s concerns to the transit agency.

    “I don’t think LAFCO would get into the nitty gritty of how VTA would provide service,” Palacherla told San José Spotlight. “We don’t have the expertise to do that. That’s not the level of analysis we get to.”

    But one aspect of VTA that LAFCO may have some say in is whether the public transit agency is delivering the services it promises to provide, Palacherla said. When the agency does get around to performing its next VTA review, that is one aspect it may make recommendations on.

    “If those are the kinds of issues that are related to service provision, those are certainly the kinds of things that a service review would cover,” she said.

    Staffing shortages have made it difficult for LAFCO to conduct service reviews as the agency grapples with its bread and butter: a near-endless influx of boundary and service change applications it must approve. The county requires cities and districts to complete these applications in some circumstances, such as when a city wants to annex land. The agency also needs to complete its review of the countywide fire district—which has been plagued with delays—and its review of the county’s water and wastewater districts before it can concentrate on VTA, Palacherla said.  

    Palacherla said LAFCO’s current work plan could be reordered, and the VTA review moved higher on the priority list, if more residents raise issues about VTA with her agency.

    “We are going by what we know so far,” she said. “If there is something else we need to know what those are, then we can take it to LAFCO.”

    John Courtney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, VTA’s largest union, said the transit agency has cut service to several bus lines over the last decade. He said service cuts are evidence VTA isn’t delivering on its promises.

    “How do you prove your worth when you’re continuously cutting bus lines?” Courtney told San José Spotlight.

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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