State to audit Santa Clara County public transit agency
VTA will undergo a state audit that lawmakers hope will provide direction for meaningful reform. File photo.

Santa Clara County’s largest public transit agency will be audited by the state as one lawmaker looks to change up how it’s run.

A state committee voted Wednesday to have the California State Auditor review the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) related to concerns about the agency’s governance structure, planning and fiscal management. Assemblymember Marc Berman proposed the audit last year after deciding not to push forward with a reform bill, which would have shifted the composition of VTA’s board to include more private citizens rather than elected officials.

“My hope is that this audit will give VTA the objective and professional feedback and direction it needs to undertake substantive governance reform so that the board can provide the high-quality oversight of the agency that riders, VTA staff and Santa Clara County taxpayers deserve,” Berman said in a news release.

VTA’s 18-member board is comprised of elected officials from Santa Clara County and its cities. Berman has argued the leadership structure is the cause of problems such as poor fare recovery and high operating costs.

“Over the last 20 years, three civil grand jury reports, multiple consultants hired by VTA and a 2008 audit by the state auditor have identified the need for change to VTA’s governance structure in order for the board to be best equipped to provide high-quality oversight of the agency,” Berman said. “The state auditor is uniquely equipped to look beyond individual interests and provide a cohesive, apolitical set of recommendations for VTA to use to have the important conversation of governance reform.”

VTA has been criticized for having a dysfunctional work culture across multiple departments, as well as the poor state of its light rail cars. Operations have also been slow to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, with some passengers left stranded by buses that fail to arrive. The agency also faces fiscal uncertainty through 2031, largely due to a decline in revenue during the pandemic.

The public transit agency is extending BART through downtown San Jose to Santa Clara, and recently defended its ridership estimates after the Federal Transit Administration undercut the projected number of riders expected in 2040. The agency has been called out for its handling of the BART extension, including by business owners that will need to close shop to make way for new stations.

A VTA representative said the agency appreciates the support of the state as it examines options for revising the board’s structure.

“We are pleased to know the members of the (California Joint State Audit Committee) understand the excellent work VTA has provided over the years to Santa Clara Valley residents and we look forward to continuously improving upon that good work,” spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight.

Monica Mallon, a local transit advocate and San José Spotlight columnist, said the audit is unlikely to result in meaningful improvements to service.

“I personally used to support governance reform, but over time as I’ve learned more and more about things, I’ve realized the real issue is the lack of funding for transit operations,” Mallon told San José Spotlight. “For a lot of people, it’s the service and it’s the projects, or the lack of projects or the lack of transit lines. That’s the real issue.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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