VTA faces a sea of change, tough recruitment process following Fernandez’s departure
A VTA bus makes it rounds in San Jose. File photo.

Transit experts say it could be months before Valley Transportation Authority selects a permanent leader to replace former CEO and general manager Nuria Fernandez — who recently left her post to join the Biden administration.

Following Fernandez’s Jan. 19 resignation, local leaders foresee an uncertain future for VTA and possible changes in transit initiatives across the region. Meanwhile, VTA is preparing for a lengthy recruitment process.

Jayme Ackemann, former spokesperson for the San Mateo County Transit District, Caltrain and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, said Fernandez’s departure has big implications not just for Santa Clara County, but for the greater Bay Area.

“In the short term, VTA riders should be confident that her departure won’t impact their services,” said Ackemann, who writes a transportation column for San José Spotlight. The bigger concern, she added, is how VTA will ensure it has the right person to move forward with major initiatives such as BART to San Jose.

Fernandez previously ensured the completion of the BART extension to Milpitas and Berryessa.

Ackemann said the VTA CEO plays a pivotal role in partnering with BART and Caltrain — both of which are going through their own transitions. BART is expanding while Caltrain is looking for a new CEO.

She said the fact that both Caltrain CEO Jim Hartnett and Fernandez are leaving may present an interesting opportunity to create a brand new organization. VTA board members, including Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, have been interested in severing ties between Caltrain and SamTrans to make Caltrain a standalone agency, which VTA would help staff.

“It’s an unusual time in Bay Area transportation when you have the CEOs of two of the three largest providers in Silicon Valley on their way out the door,” Ackemann said. “It’s a major sea change regionally. In terms of what it means for the community, it’s a little hard to know — it depends on the direction that the board decides to go in in terms of a replacement.”

VTA board members met during a special meeting Jan. 22 to discuss the recruitment process for a new CEO and general manager.

A ‘tough’ recruitment process ahead

VTA will conduct a nationwide search using a firm to shortlist potential replacements for Fernandez.

A committee made up of four board members, including the board chair, vice chair and two other chair-selected board members, will recommend one to two candidates to the VTA board. The board will interview finalists and make a selection.

While VTA scouts new leadership, the board unanimously named VTA General Counsel Evelynn Tran interim general manager and CEO at a special meeting Friday. Deputy General Counsel Carlos Orellana will carry out the daily duties of general counsel.

VTA’s chief administrative officer, Sylvester Fadal, said recruiting a new general manager could take five to six months.  He said competition in the transportation industry is steep.

“This is going to be a very tough recruitment process,” Fadal warned on Friday. “It’s important to recognize that this position is highly competitive and, typically, the timeline is driven by the competition in the market.”

Fadal said there are more than 16 general manager positions open for transit agencies nationwide. Those hiring include large organizations such as Caltrain, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, TriMet in Portland, Paratransit Services in Washington, Honolulu’s transit agency and Connect Transit in Bloomington, Illinois.

Many of these positions offer comparable pay and benefits to VTA, Fadal said, but Silicon Valley is one of the most expensive places to live, which could deter qualified applicants.

A hard act to follow

VTA chair Glenn Hendricks told San José Spotlight in a previous interview that he’s confident in the senior staff’s ability to effectively lead the organization through this transition.

But transit advocate Monica Mallon said Silicon Valley will suffer a “great loss” in Fernandez’s absence.

“I’ve really seen her correct a lot of the mistakes that have been made in the past,” Mallon said.

She praised Fernandez for creating a conservative budget, which has become all the more necessary during the pandemic. Mallon worries about how a new VTA leader might lead the organization through the crisis.

VTA is currently facing a projected budget deficit of up to $80.7 million in 2021. Ridership is down by 75% since April. The agency had considered deep cuts of up to 30% to patch up the shortfall, but instead increased services on seven critical bus routes following community outcry.

Eugene Bradley, founder and CEO of Silicon Valley Transit Users, a local transit advocacy organization, also said Fernandez is leaving behind a hard-to-follow legacy.

“She was the best general manager that I’ve ever worked with — really just a step up from past general managers in terms of public transit knowledge,” Bradley said Friday. “VTA will be very hard pressed to just find a proper replacement.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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