Silicon Valley transit agency spends millions to prepare for the worst
A VTA light rail train is seen rolling down Second Street in downtown San Jose on Aug. 23, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    A new multi-million contract aimed at beefing up VTA’s emergency preparedness is getting attention among some officials for its large price tag.

    Santa Clara County Supervisor and VTA board member Cindy Chavez said with such a significant dollar amount, the contract’s services should be tracked closely. The VTA board of directors approved the six-year, $8 million contract with Pasadena-based Tetra Tech earlier this month, with an added request from Chavez for a progress update after one year, in part due to the high costs.

    “What I was concerned about was not just the size of the contract, but understanding more concretely what the improvements are going to be relative to safety,” Chavez told San José Spotlight.

    Tetra Tech will provide a series of tools, as well as ongoing training, exercises and assessments to help the agency better manage responses to a range of future potential happenings, such as natural disasters and active shooters, as well as special events like the Super Bowl and World Cup, officials said.

    Chavez said the cost of the contract is what initially caught her eye, and she asked for the progress report to ensure that long-term benefits in leadership and training skills are built into the transit agency.

    At the one-year mark, VTA leaders could choose to continue the contract, end it, pick a new vendor or a series of vendors, she said.

    VTA staff, however, say the contract price is in line with normal ranges, and the award for Tetra Tech followed a competitive bid process and independent cost estimate.

    “We do our due diligence to make sure we are good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and I think the value we get in return is going to prove that this is a worthwhile investment,” Aston T. Greene, VTA’s chief of system safety and security, told San José Spotlight.

    Nine VTA workers were killed at the agency’s rail yard in downtown San Jose on May 26, 2021 during a mass shooting by a disgruntled VTA technician. The month prior, the agency fended off a cyber threat in which attackers threatened to release personal employee data.

    “Given VTA’s history with an active shooter, with a cyber threat, with COVID, there was a trifecta of these things that hit the agency,” Greene said. “Now it’s become even more important because of that experience to really make sure we are prepared going forward for decades to come. And this contract is foundational to that endeavor.”

    The contract will include a threat vulnerability analysis. Greene told San José Spotlight the analysis will tell VTA “what could potentially harm us, how do we prepare for that and how do we train to recover from those things should we ever experience them.”

    Part of the reason for the high contract cost, in addition to the size of VTA and the number of years of services, is because it includes things the prior contract did not, such as the threat vulnerability analysis, Greene said.

    The new contract will eventually include a “full scale exercise” as a dry run for a variety of emergencies, a large action that is considered a best practice, Greene said.

    VTA’s previous emergency preparedness contractor, the Mineta Transportation Institute, had a six-year contract that ended in 2021.

    Frances Edwards, deputy director of Mineta’s National Transportation Security Center, co-led the prior training for VTA. While she noted the contract did not have a full scale exercise, she said it did include a threat analysis, along with several other similar trainings, classes and workshops listed in the Tetra Tech outline.

    She noted, however, there is a large cost disparity between the last contract and the new one.

    The Mineta contract from mid-2015 through 2021 cost VTA about $316,000, according to contract documents. Tetra Tech will be guaranteed $1 million in the first year of its contract, staff reports said.

    “$1 million seems like a lot of money for one year,” Edwards told San José Spotlight. Mineta Transportation Institute did not bid on the new contract.

    Greene, from VTA, said he feels the two contracts have different scopes.

    “The previous contract was extremely limited,” Greene said. “For me, there is no equivalency between the two because of the levels of efforts, the standards.”

    The full contract with Tetra Tech has not been made public, as it was not included in the agenda packet for the VTA board to review during the Aug. 3 meeting, though Greene made a slide deck presentation summarizing it. VTA declined to immediately share the contract with San José Spotlight.

    John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265 that represents the majority of VTA workers, said bus drivers and light rail operators are still being harassed, spit on, or assaulted by some riders.

    “They’re missing the boat on a lot of opportunities to protect front line workers, these resources are being pushed toward these bigger projects that are going to satisfy government entities so they can check a box and get funding,” Courtney told San José Spotlight. “$8 million is an awful lot of money to be spending on something when they can’t even keep front line workers safe.”

    Greene said the contract shows the transit agency is taking a proactive “all hazards approach” to preparedness.

    “Disaster never sleeps,” Greene said. “We should be overachievers in this space. I’d rather be more prepared than less prepared.”

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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