Silicon Valley transit agency unsure of when it will ban problem riders
A VTA light rail train on Second Street in downtown San Jose on Aug. 23, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Beginning next year, VTA will have the ability under state law to ban troublesome passengers who attack frontline transit employees.

    But there’s a catch—the transit agency won’t actually be able to wield that authority until it completes a series of critical steps. These include creating an advisory committee to define why someone could be prohibited from VTA’s system and figuring out who will enforce the bans, among other mandates.

    Timeline details are vague, but agency officials say it would be “ridiculous” to think it could all happen by Jan. 1, 2024 when the law takes effect.

    The union that represents most of the agency’s 2,100 workers says VTA is yet again dragging its feet, despite knowing the governor’s signature on the bill was coming mid-July. VTA isn’t prioritizing safety of frontline workers who are routinely verbally attacked or spit on by unruly riders, they say.

    “We have to hold them accountable. We pressed for this bill, we used our political connections to get this bill and they’re just doing the bare minimum,” John Pospishek, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, told San José Spotlight.

    The union’s former president, John Courtney, wrote a letter to VTA General Manager Carolyn Gonot on July 17, four days after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill. In it, Courtney stressed the “importance and urgency” of beginning work on forming an advisory committee and other required steps, and asked for expected timelines on several of them.

    But he said he heard nothing back for more than a month, and sent another letter in late August. Gonot eventually replied in mid-September, with a list of “key actions” the agency would take to ensure the program’s success.

    “I share your passion to get this implemented as quickly as possible,” Gonot wrote on Sept. 15. “We are looking forward to working with ATU and our other labor partners to ensure all elements of this program are solidly in place prior to the effective date of January 1, 2024.”

    Pospishek and Raj Singh, the union’s recording financial secretary, said they took Gonot’s launch date of Jan. 1, 2024 to heart, and were happy to see a commitment to the program.

    However, VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler-Ross said the letter from Gonot was aimed at reassuring the union that the agency is working as quickly as possible, but was not about setting deadlines.

    “Two months from when we were officially given the green light, so to speak, is not a lot of time to get a major initiative like this in place,” Hendler-Ross told San José Spotlight.

    Aston T. Greene, VTA’s chief of system safety and security, told San José Spotlight other transit agencies, like BART, have taken up to two years to implement these kinds of programs when given similar authority.

    BART also had advantages including having its own police force, which VTA does not.

    The required steps before the agency can begin banning people—such as coordinating with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office about prosecution and developing an appeals process for citations—cannot be done too hastily, Greene said. Many steps will require action from the VTA board of directors.

    “I do not think those things are all going to happen by Jan. 1,” Greene said. “That would be impossible and frankly ridiculous for anyone to suggest it could happen on Jan. 1.”

    Greene said Jan. 1 gives VTA “the launchpad to begin working toward the maturation of this program,” and he is already putting together the framework for an implementation plan.

    Given the response time from VTA on the letters, and the comments from Greene, Singh said it seems unlikely the program will be ready to go anytime soon.

    “They’re just trying to save face at this point, I don’t believe the agency is really serious on tackling the operator safety issue,” Singh told San José Spotlight.

    Singh recalled a recent incident that occurred after a bus driver tried to verbally wake a man who had fallen asleep at the end of the line. The man and the driver got into an altercation, and the driver needed to be evaluated at the hospital afterward, Singh said.

    Pospishek said if someone verbally assaults or spits on a driver or operator today, that person might be barred from the system for 24 hours, but can then come right back.

    “It’s a cycle. And we are trying to stop the cycle. I want my mother and my kids to be able to ride safely on transit,” Pospishek said. “It’s about protecting the public and protecting the operators to create a safe transit system, and that will increase ridership.”

    Greene said he understands the union’s opinion and urgency, but noted that things need to be done in a “smart and effective” way, or the agency could risk losing the authority it will be granted.

    “No one has a monopoly on caring for our employees. I certainly care for them, it’s my whole life’s work at this point,” Greene said. “This is the top of VTA’s priority and we are committed to implementing this as soon as possible.”

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