VTA’s priorities were dramatically shaken following a mass shooting in May, but the transit agency continues to lobby for its bread-and-butter projects.
In the first two quarters of 2021, VTA paid $86,000 to its state lobbyist, California Advisors LLC. VTA paid $80,000 to its federal lobbyist Van Scoyoc Associates for the first half of 2021. Neither returned requests for comment.
Based on lobbying reports, VTA pursued federal funds to support the expansion of the BART line to downtown San Jose and bus electrification. Like other transit agencies, VTA is under a state mandate to convert its entire fleet to zero emissions vehicles by 2040.
At the state level, VTA’s lobbyists pressed for funds for transit projects and targeted a proposal that would have dramatically changed the public transit agency’s governance structure. Jim Lawson, chief of external affairs, declined to speak with San José Spotlight, noting that information on the agency’s lobbying can be found in its government affairs report.
‘A bit of progress’
VTA’s lobbying activities in 2021 are fairly standard, according to transit advocates who follow the agency. They stand in contrast to the massive changes that followed the May 26 mass shooting at its light rail yard in downtown San Jose.
The agency shifted it priorities to assisting traumatized workers, covering workers’ compensation payments, setting up temporary bus lines while the rail lines were down and securing funds to repair damaged equipment. Amidst these immediate issues, VTA is trying to spread out more than $180 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds over the next decade to cover net losses it faces that could endanger operations.
In the latest report from Sept. 2, VTA expressed support for the restoration of $10 billion in funding for public transit and high-speed rail in a massive federal government reconciliation bill covering infrastructure spending. The bill is pending.
The federal government’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes $477 billion for various projects, including $8 billion for large infrastructure projects such as the second phase of BART’s extension to Silicon Valley. It also provides $5.6 billion for the federal Low-and-Zero-Emission Bus Program.
Transit advocate Eugene Bradley told San José Spotlight it’s a significant issue for VTA, which is still in the process of converting its fleet. A 2019 report shows the agency had 469 buses—five of which were electric.
“They’ve made a little bit of progress,” he said, noting that the agency appears to be rolling out electric buses at a steady pace. “They’re due to buy some more, which they’ll have to do anyway to fulfill the state mandate.”
Jayme Ackemann, director of Community Bridges and former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, said meeting this goal is difficult because electric technology hasn’t caught up with current needs. As an example, she said there isn’t an electric option for the Highway 17 bus because the technology isn’t powerful enough to get it over the mountains near Santa Cruz.
“There’s limited funding for all transit agencies in our state to divide up,” Ackemann told San José Spotlight. “So it makes sense to ask those bus purchases be funded in part through the reauthorization bill.”
Controversy stalks state funding
One of the most controversial state bills affecting VTA was AB 1091, which proposed restructuring the agency’s governance structure following a scathing Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report.
The bill, introduced by regional Assemblymember Marc Berman, drew strong opposition from San Jose officials because it would have reduced city representation on the board. Berman ordered the bill “inactive”as of May, stalling any further action. It may be readdressed in 2022. It’s unclear if VTA lobbied against the bill, as there’s no details in the lobbying report. VTA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Transit advocates support changing VTA’s governance structure, which currently doesn’t give the public much of a say in who sits on the board. Several city and county leaders chair VTA’s board, including Supervisor Cindy Chavez and San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez.
“I don’t think the system is very fair right now. But I don’t think the proposal was going to make things better,” said Monica Mallon, transit advocate and founder of Turnout4Transit, noting that Berman didn’t do sufficient outreach to VTA board members. “People were understandably very upset and wanted to take action to oppose that.”
Mallon said VTA’s lobbying priorities haven’t shifted much at the state or federal level.
“They lobbied for stimulus funding for transit, that was something that wouldn’t be really a conversation in other years,” she said. “Really, a lot of focus has been on (the Metropolitan Transportation Commission)… they seem to be a lot more engaged on that and advocating for themselves to get more money—they’ve started to become more aggressive there.”
The commission recommends and distributes funds to transit operators facing hardships. According to the governance report from last month, VTA received $55 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars. The commission identified the mass shooting in May and the months-long shut down of the light rail system as potential reasons for VTA to be given more funds.