A man pushes a cart across the street as a light rail train moves in the background
A state audit shows VTA needs to change how it is governed and improve its transparency with the people it serves. File photo.

Santa Clara County’s main transportation agency needs to change how it is governed and improve its transparency with the people it serves, a recent audit reveals.

The California State Auditor released an audit of VTA earlier this month, requesting the public transit agency improve its existing operations by taking measures such as strengthening planning and oversight of capital projects, finding revenue sources to replace sunsetting sales tax measures and updating its work plan. VTA accepted all recommendations except two — boosting transparency around board members’ appointments and changing their terms — causing some concern from elected officials.

District 23 Assemblymember Marc Berman, who represents Campbell, Palo Alto and Mountain View, spearheaded calls for the audit in 2022, raising concerns about VTA’s governance structure — which he claims has led to a lack of accountability and qualified experience. VTA is governed by an 18-member board of directors, all of whom are elected officials from across the county appointed by their councils, including alternates. Board members serve for a minimum of two years.

Berman said he agrees with the audit’s findings and believes more transparency is needed in board appointments and longer term periods so members can gain experience. He said he’s disappointed by VTA’s refusal of some of the recommendations.

“I’d love to get a better understanding from (VTA) about why the public doesn’t deserve that level of transparency and justification,” he told San José Spotlight. “I mean, I was shocked.”

Greg Richardson, VTA’s chief financial officer and assistant general manager, said the transit agency is not opposed to increased transparency in the appointment process, but is considering accomplishing that through its administrative code rather than legislatively. He added VTA encourages board members to stay for more than two years, but that’s constrained by the differing terms for each elected official.

He said VTA was working on its documentation processes before the audit, some of which will be implemented this year, and said the agency is open to a discussion with Berman.

“I think what we have right now is really doing well for us, not only as an agency, but as a county. So I don’t know if you’re going to see substantial change, but I think we do want to address anything that (came) out of this audit,” he told San José Spotlight.

The report also targeted VTA’s Eastridge to BART Regional Connector project, which board members awarded a $437 million construction contract in March and will add a long-planned light rail extension to East San Jose. The report found VTA did not conduct a cost-benefit analysis for the roughly 2.4-mile, $653 million extension when staff proposed it to the board and received its approval. The project’s cost is roughly $122 million over previous estimates and is expected to increase ridership 1.5% by 2043, according to the report.

VTA officials told the state auditor the agency doesn’t do a cost‑benefit analysis on projects unless required to obtain external funding because it takes “a considerable amount of staff resources to complete.”

The audit comes after Berman walked back his previous proposal to shrink VTA’s board from 18 to 12 members, at least six of whom would be private citizens instead of elected officials under Assembly Bill 2181.

Monica Mallon, a transit advocate and San José Spotlight columnist, has opposed the audit from the beginning. She said it wasn’t necessary because VTA’s board runs smoothly and it listens to residents.

“What I’d really just encourage people to do going forward is, if you’re not happy with the decisions that are made, or if you want something to change, actually get out there and advocate for what you want,” she told San José Spotlight. “Because if you’re not doing that, then you’re just wasting everybody’s time and money.”

VTA Board Vice Chair Sergio Lopez, who is also Campbell’s vice mayor, said the board and agency will continue trying to improve their practices following the audit.

“This is neither the beginning nor the end of our work to continue to improve accountability and transparency,” he told San José Spotlight.

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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