Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ron Gonzales true legacy: FUBAR, harming effective transit for decades to come

The Mercury News thinks BART could've been a legacy for Ron Gonzales, who later turned out to be a crook due to the garbage deal, but how can you trust a news source that consistently supports special interests like the SVLG and SBLC that prefer more public funds going to their members' coffers and believes that "a condition for greatness is to have a great transportation system. And here that means BART," as quoted by the delusional Steve Glickman of Los Gatos.

The true legacy is that he FUBAR transit in the South Bay and the rail connection to the East Bay was delayed for decades to come. Back in 1999 when Gozales made his first State of the City speech, he said: "Before I leave office, BART will be connected to San Jose." It is a totally achievable goal, if the VTA commuter rail connection from San Jose to Union City has gone foward as planned. However, some in the press and the political circle interpreted his statement to mean a full BART extension. Gonzales, once supported the BART extension in the past, went along with this interpretation.

In March 2000, riding high the dot-com boom, Guardino and Gonzales convinced Governor Gray Davis to use the state surplus and allocate $35 million for the commuter rail/BART rail right of way, and later an additional $725 million to the BART extension. At the same the time, other transportation projects were also funded using the state surplus, including the Caltrain Baby Bullet.

In June 2000, after some conceptual studies and funding promise from the state, Gonzales and Guardino proposed a new sales tax extension, 6 years ahead before the expiration of the then-current 1996 Measure A/B tax. Gonzales and Guardino asked the County Board of Supervisor to place the tax on the November ballot as a general tax and an advisory measure similar to the 1996 tax. After a month long community-based campaign that questioned BART and the lack of benefits, Superviors Blanca Alavarado and Jim Beall defeated to place the general tax on the November ballot in August 2000.

Meanwhile, VTA was proceeding with plans for the commuter rail connection. Some objections were raised in Fremont regarding the rail alignment north of Mission Boulevard. Then mayor of Fremont Gus Morrison objected the rail project in its entireity because it would overlap the planned Warm Springs BART extension between Warms Springs and Union City. Nonetheless, the VTA board approved the purchase of locomotives and rail cars for that service.

The rejection of the tax proposal by the Board of Supervisors was clearly a slap in the face for Ron Gonzales. Next day, the VTA board in which Gonzales also sat on voted to place a special tax on the ballot, which required a 2/3 voter approval. The VTA tax measure was poorly drafted due to the urgency of submitting the measure to the November ballot before the deadline and the mis-guided board discussion that centered on what other projects would be funded besides the full BART extension.

After placing the sales tax on the ballot for BART, it appeared to VTA that a commuter rail connection is a liability rather than an asset. Using the excuse of "public opposition" mainly from Fremont, VTA effectively discontinued the commuter rail program in October and adopted a series of express bus improvements which was never carried out one excuse after another.

Despite the excitement for BART by the VTA board, the VTA general manager Pete Cipolla had warned the board that a new tax may be needed to support all the Measure A programs.

Due to the notion of "free BART" (the campaign argument in support of the Measure clearly stated: NO TAX INCREASE), great economy, and poor campaigning conducted by the opposition, Measure A was approved by 70%. Gonzales got his mandate, but as we all know today, transit has not improved and promises were not kept. The 2000 mandate is now a barrier for superior alternatives such as Caltrain Metro East from implementation.

Gonzales could have a true legacy of establishing a rail transit connection to the East Bay with BART. He got greedy in 2000 with BART and now he is getting neither.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The delusional and the chickened rule VTA

From today's BayRail Alliance Announcement:

1) VTA Board approves BART preliminary engineering contracts

After a somber and extended discussion, in which several of the VTA board members expressed concerns about the BART project and suggested that VTA study alternatives, the board voted 9-2 to approve the preliminary engineering contracts. Councilmember Greg Perry and Supervisor Liz Kniss voted No.

We're disappointed with this outcome. The overwhelming majority of the public testimony they received was against spending more on BART. Margaret Okuzumi was interviewed by both KRON 4 and NBC 11. Please look for her appearance on the 6 o'clock news tonight. She was also interviewed (in English) by Sing Tao Chinese Radio.

Supervisor Kniss repeatedly mentioned the cost overruns of Boston's "Big Dig" -- a project that was originally priced at $4 B and is now priced at $16 Billion -- and expressed concern over the construction risks of tunneling. "I say we're on the wrong track with these precious transit dollars," said Kniss. Among other concerns, she noted BART doesn't yet connect to the county line.

This fight isn't over -- VTA will be putting a measure on the ballot in 2008 to obtain more taxes for the BART project. If that tax is defeated, then the VTA board will be forced to consider superior rail alternatives that don't require a new tax.

Meanwhile, please thank Greg Perry and Supervisor Liz Kniss for their No vote.

The rest who support these contracts fall under two categories: delusional and chickened. Members like Cindy Chavez and Forrest Williams clearly fall under the delusional category, for being beholden to the South Bay Labor Council and the construction unions. Members like Don Gage and Breene Kerr fall under the chickened category. They knew that the BART extension as planned is infeasible and will hurt their constitutents, but they were too chickened to vote no because they were too chickened to be the ones that kill the BART extension. They would prefer someone else to do this tough job.

The 2008 Measure A campaign has begun.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

To Mr. Burns: Please stop destroying transit

In a Mercury News article today, VTA General Manager Michael Burns tries to justify the BART design contracts despite the lack of operating funds:

"We can make the argument that we can build the system,'' Burns said, "but we clearly do not have the money to operate the system. We need to come to a decision point on this over the next 18 months or two years.''

To Mr. Burns: Please stop using coded words that people like Carl Guardino can understand. Fortunately, BayRail Alliance executive director Margaret Okuzumi translate the phase into layperson's term:

Any VTA board member who votes for this is essentially saying they want VTA to put another tax on the ballot in 2008, and is presuming that such a ballot measure will be successful.

Also to Mr. Burns: Bad transit hurts all transit. The BART extension was ill-conceived and underfunded since 2000. Last June, voters clearly rejected to pay more taxes into this transit black-hole. This "stay the course" BART policy will only further erode voter confidence on VTA and all mass transit. Why would voters support transit in the future when the signature VTA project will bankrupt VTA, destroy bus service, and fail to meet ridership projection?

Friday, December 08, 2006

A big Christmas gift for VTA consultants?

For VTA, the quickest way to waste public funds is to spend more money on consultants. On December 14 (9:00am), the VTA board will decide whether to approve a series of contract amendments on the engineering and design work for the BART extension worth over $100 million in total.

Earlier last month, the Transit Planning and Operations committee submitted these items to the board without issuing a recommendation.

VTA's problem is that it cannot afford to build the BART extension with the funds it has. VTA's plan requires a new sales tax, which voters clearly rejected last June. If these contracts were approved without additional taxes to fund construction, the end-product would be just engineering and design materials, unable to carry any passengers anywhere.

Instead, VTA should start a fresh review on all VTA projects, without the negative and idiotic influence from Ron Gonzales, and immediately begin real improvements like a direct express bus line between Fremont and downtown San Jose, which was approved six years ago for not building a commuter rail connection to BART.

If the VTA board doesn't want to place a new tax on the ballot and let the voters decide, the VTA board should not approve these contracts and extort money from taxpayers.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Downtown San Jose businesses: let's screw transit riders

Last week, VTA staff has approved a temporary relocation plan for bus stops on 1st and 2nd streets in preparation for the platform retrofit at the Santa Clara light rail station, according to sources at VTA.

The Santa Clara light rail station is scheduled to be closed on January 2nd and the bus stops will be relocated on the north side of Santa Clara Street to make room for construction. The construction will take approximately five months.

The downtown businesses nearby are lobbying VTA to make these relocations permanent: the bus stops will remain on the north side of Santa Clara Street after the light rail station reopens. The businesses apparently believe the bus stops are a nuisance and attract a "wrong" crowd.

On the other hand, the Santa Clara light rail station is the major transit center in the entire county. If the plan becomes permanent, it will sever the cross platform connection (as originally intended) between light rail and many of the major bus lines. It will also make transfers, made by thousands of riders daily, difficult and confusing.

The downtown businesses aren't interested in having a sustainable and socially just VTA, and they don't mind screwing everyday transit riders.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A new day

With the election of Chuck Reed as the mayor of San Jose, let's hope that it is the end of Gonzales-style backroom politics and last-minute memos at VTA.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Pay to play at VTA with Chair and SJ mayoral candidate Cindy Chavez

From SV411 blog, and published in San Jose Metro:

"Why did Connecticut developer Republic Holdings Corporation drop $50,000 into the Democratic party’s coffers on September 5?..." (which that committee supports Chavez's bid for mayor)

"Those generous individuals at Republic also contributed $5500 directly to Chavez’s mayoral campaign. A half-dozen nicely synchronized checks showed up at the end of April..."

"Documents show that Cindy Chavez met with a developer a day before the Valley Transit Authority committee she chairs approved its project and seven weeks before the firm donated $50,000 to the Democratic Central Committee’s United Democratic Campaign..."

On July 20, a VTA Board Committee of the Whole approved the proposal from the Republic/Green Valley to redevelop the West San Carlos site, a site used for storage during the construction of the Vasona Light Rail extension. On August 3, the VTA board formally approved the proposal. Cindy Chavez is the Chair of the VTA board and has presided at both meetings.

The Gonzales style pay to play culture has occurred under Cindy Chavez's watch as the chair of VTA. What more could happen if she becomes the mayor of San Jose, which controls five votes on the VTA board?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Transit hypocrite SVLG tries to keep the BART extension on life support

Since the failure of Measure A BART sales tax on June 6, the SVLG continues to ignore reality and lobbies local political candidates to support the BART extension. Many political candidates in San Jose, have at least paid lip service to SVLG. Mayoral candidates Chuck Reed and Cindy Chavez said that they support the BART extension through downtown San Jose, as SVLG continues to press the issue in many of the candidate debates.

For most candidates with much more issues in the city at stake, the BART extension is a minor issue. They don't want to appear as a slightly weaker candidate by opposing a project sponsored by SVLG that would supposedly bring civic pride to San Jose.

However, many of them have not personally reviewed the budget, details of the project, and plans that would build a more efficient and effective transit system than the BART extension. Only until after the November election will reality set in.

With the loud and clear message from voters against more taxes for more of the same, there is no effective solution to backfill the capital and operating funding shortfall that amounts to billions. Prop 1b, if the voters approve, would only provide a fraction of what VTA needs, with most of the funding going to highways and transit projects elsewhere in the state. Private financing isn't enough to support subway construction when building heights, along with other factors, discourage urban development similar to downtown San Francisco. In addition, SVLG has opposed to any non-sales taxes that would force its member businesses in transit hostile areas to pay for BART, which SVLG claims they need. If SVLG could have its way, its members won't have to pay any sales tax for BART either.

SVLG should not be allowed to greenwash itself through their support of the deceptive San Jose BART extension. SVLG has done more harm to all transit by their support of the BART extension and other highway projects.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

VTA Watch grades local transit

In light of the APTA convention in San Jose this week, VTA Watch would like to grade our local transit like Carl Guardino, John McLemore, Stuart Cohen, and Eugene Bradley that have appeared on Gary Richard's column.

After years of fare increases and service reductions, VTA should review and streamline the bus system to increase speed and convenience, while maintaining essential service to low-income communities. To be a sustainable agency, VTA should focus on making a system that is rider-oriented. VTA can't simply build more poorly planned rail lines that would attract riders far lower than advertised. VTA therefore deserves a C.

Caltrain on the other hand, has invented itself in the last two years with relatively little resources. For most part, Caltrain has been politically neglected. Many politicians, as well as groups like SVLG, believe that more funding should be diverted to building more BART than improving Caltrain. However, despite over a billion dollars have been spent on extending BART from Colma to Millbrae, the BART SFO extension has seen a 0.2% increase in ridership in August from last year, while Caltrain has seen a 13.4% increase.

Caltrain has many challenges. Caltrain can become a more efficient service with a more modern rolling stock. Caltrain needs to be more accessible for passengers in wheelchairs and in bicycles. Caltrain also should not continue to rely on diesel fuel, due to fluctuating fuel prices and pollution. Caltrain therefore deserves a B+.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

VTA and the City of San Jose need more cooperation

Recently, bus reroute brochures have appeared on many buses traveling through downtown San Jose. These brochures describe the temporary rerouting for the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Downtown San Jose on October 8. The event requires the temporary closure of The Alameda and Santa Clara Street, among others.

Unlike the rerouting information provided for the San Jose Grand Prix. These rerouting brochures only contain the reroute descriptions in text, with no maps and graphics, and are photocopied rather than printed.

It was reported that the VTA had no prior knowledge of this event until sometime early last week when one of the VTA staffers visited the Marathon's web site. The VTA staff quickly drafted a rerouting plan and made it available to the public.

Although VTA's quick action has prevented a possible transit meltdown on the morning of October 8, it also highlights that the City of San Jose, which hosts the event, needs to work with VTA to plan around special events and to help market transit to participants. The Rock and Roll Marathon's web site contains no information on VTA, despite the fact that the light rail and some of the bus routes start operating early on Sundays, well before the 7:55am start of the race. The Bay to Breakers, on the other hand, provides extensive information on access by public transit online.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Why is having SOV hybrids on HOV lanes a bad idea

For a lot of people, their reason for supporting SOV hybrid cars on HOV lanes is simple: HOV lane is not crowded, hybrid cars are good for the environment and use less gas, then awarding the use of HOV lane provides an incentive to purchase more hybrid cars.

The reality is that allowing SOV hybrid on carpool lanes, not only defeating the purpose of carpool lanes, but is also a very regressive way to promote sustainable transportation.

Caltrans recently reported that the HOV lanes in the state are more crowded since last year, when DMV began distributing HOV access stickers to hybrid cars. Although other reasons, like higher employment rate, may have also contributed to the crowded lanes, the impacts from SOV hybrids can be significant and cannot be overlooked. Carpool lanes in Virginia are also clogged as a result of allowing SOV hybrids into HOV lanes.

When the carpool lane is clogged, the travel time savings by carpooling or taking express buses diminish and commuters are more likely to drive alone. The HOV lanes will then fail to meet their goal: deliver a higher people throughput than SOV lanes.

Many people that have purchased a hybrid recently cited access to HOV lanes is one of the reasons for buying one. Basically for an $8 registration fee to the DMV, they will get an unlimited use HOV "pass." Unlike those who take the time and effort to form a carpool, hybrid drivers don't have to change any commuting behaviors. All they have to do is to go to a Toyota or a Honda dealer and get on the waiting list to buy a car.

Obviously there is an economic value for the buyer to drive on HOV lanes without having to carpool. Whatever that economic value is, the state isn't getting any of it with a nominal $8 registration fee. On the other hand, hybrid car makers/dealers are selling these vehicles at a premium without having to spend their money to promote them. The car makers/dealers are profiting at the public's expense.

Allowing SOV hybrids on HOV lanes is also regressive and makes these lanes the ultimate "Lexus lanes." Unlike high occupancy toll (HOT) lane system that allows everyone to pay a much lower one time fee to use the lanes, drivers must make a high upfront payment to either purchase or finance a hybrid car in order to receive unlimited access on HOV lanes. Such an high upfront cost to obtain a hybrid is simply too expensive for low income folks who could only afford a used non-hybrid car.

Unfortunately, once this perk is given away, it is hard to take it back with a growing "constituency" of hybrid owners. The VTA General Manager Michael Burns is one of them. He reportedly drives a VTA-issued Toyota Prius with HOV stickers.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Clear cut fraudulent BART ridership projection (part 2)

Richard Mlynarik has provided a great analysis with the new ridership projection from VTA for the BART extension. You can enjoy a quick aerial photo tour of the proposed BART stations in the South Bay with actual stations in San Francisco and Berkeley, and see how out of touch VTA is.

From VTA Presentation Slide 13:

2025 projection:
Montague/Capitol 19247
Berryessa 6537
Alum Rock 9115
Civic Plaza/SJSU 6236
Market Street 17866
Diridon/Arena 9667
Santa Clara 14919
Total (7 stations) 83587

2030 projection (25% increase):
Montague/Capitol 31067
Berryessa 7931
Alum Rock 10639
Downtown San Jose [combined stop] 23439
Diridon/Arena 11209
Santa Clara 19842
Total (6 stations) 104127

Current exits in Downtown San Francisco:
Montgomery 31276
Embarcadero 31584
Powell 23272
Civic Center 18463

Now VTA is not only applying the ridership numbers from Downtown San Francisco to Downtown San Jose, but in Milpitas as well. So far, Milpitas isn't planning to become another Downtown San Francisco. Is VTA expecting a huge percentage of that ridership to transfer to and from light rail on their way to the Golden Triangle? If that is the case, shouldn't VTA be supporting ACE/Caltrain Metro East instead since it will serve the Golden Triangle directly without having to transfer?

For a more apples to apples like comparison, the ridership projection for Milpitas, Diridon, and Santa Clara stations should not be too different than Balboa Park, Richmond, and Millbrae. They are all non-downtown stations but with rail connections. We also shouldn't forget that Muni Fast Pass holders get to ride BART free within San Francisco, where Balboa Park is the City's southern most station.

Balboa Park 12251
Richmond 3251
Millbrae 3349

As expected, the projected ridership numbers are clearly meant to deceive.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The real Top 10 Questions for the BART project

Click on the images for larger size

Instead of making another deceptive memo at the taxpayers' expense, VTA should be outright honest about the status of the BART project. If VTA's staff cannot do it right, VTA Watch will do it right for the sake of our taxpayers.

How does the recent defeat of Santa Clara County's proposed 1/2 cent sales tax increase impact the BART to "Silicon Valley" project?

VTA, along with SVLG and others, were counting on the 2006 Measure A to provide more funding to VTA. Instead of admitting the reality of voters' rejection of VTA's policy by denying more taxes to VTA, VTA is pretending nothing has happened with the hope that voters will pass another tax increase someday in the future. As the way it goes, VTA will continue to withhold a no-new-tax alternative as a way to pressure the voters to pass another tax; basically increase the tax for a lousy plan or increase the tax for a lousy plan.

Why is BART the "best solution" for this corridor?

BART is not the best solution for the corridor. The so call "full evaluation" was performed in 2001 with the full and clear bias for BART in a specific alignment and against any other modes and alignments. All VTA had to do was to somehow make up the ridership numbers and cost to make the pre-determined politically-driven plan to work.

Best access to jobs? It doesn't go to the job rich area bounded by 237, 101, and 880, the so called the "Golden Triangle." Sure, no transfers to the BART system, but not a transfer-less trip to where the jobs are. What about a direct Tri-Valley and possibly Altamont Pass connection, where it is rated as one of the most congested corridors in the Bay Area? Forget about it! Should this much taxpayer's money be spent on the BART extension that, for many Santa Clara County residents, means faster trips on transit to A's baseball games in Oakland?

Why not upgrade the existing commuter rail lines such as the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) to the Caltrain line?

According to the 2000 Measure A, ACE upgrade is clearly listed as one of the projects eligible to receive Measure A funding. At that time, despite criticisms, Measure A supporters claimed there was enough funding that the BART extension would not be impacting the upgrade of the ACE line. Today, VTA, following the pre-June 6 SVLG talking points and outdated/misguided poll numbers, is saying that the 2000 Measure A is all about BART and nothing about ACE and everything else.

Due to the increasing slower freight train traffic, what ACE needs is a dedicated right of way to enhance speed and reliability. What VTA has is a dedicated right of way between Fremont and San Jose. Instead of giving ACE the use of a publicly owned right of way to improve reliability and increase ridership, VTA plans to leave it empty until the day when BART, which its tracks are 100% incompatible to ACE, is built.

The rail mode with no direct connection to the Tri-Valley and no connection over the Altamont Pass gets everything, and the one with direct connection to the Tri-Valley and the Altamont Pass gets nothing. Is it fair? Does VTA care?

Is BART to "Silicon Valley" really going to happen?

If you're one of the contractors and consultants working on the project and would receive millions of dollars of payment from it, you will want to believe it will happen. The federal government, which VTA will require approval from before receiving any federal funding for final design and construction, is questioning this project. Even if VTA has a new tax, it will not be a slam dunk.

Why did VTA temporarily withdraw the project from preliminary engineering in the federal New Starts process?

VTA withdrew the process knowing that the project will face certain rejection from the federal government, as this project would be evaluated along with other rail and bus expansion projects throughout the nation. Rather than facing a rejection, VTA was hoping to get back to the process next year if the 2006 Measure A is passed, which didn't happen. Even with a new tax, there is no guarantee that the federal government will approve it. VTA's financial plan and ridership projection for BART are as flawed whether there's a new tax or not.

How many people will ride BART to "Silicon Valley"?

VTA is projecting 111,500 daily riders, but it is a questionable projection. To put it into perspective, what VTA is projecting is about 1/3 of the total BART ridership today, which half of it is transbay ridership, a corridor that has limited highway competition (one toll bridge). In addition, VTA projection is the nearly the same as the Red Line subway in Los Angeles, a system with twice as many station and lower fares, and a city with the population many more times than in Santa Clara County. Finally, VTA's projection for the BART line is more than the entire VTA bus ridership today! In comparison, the bus system in Los Angeles carries 10 times more riders than the Red Line.

It is not the first time a BART extension uses questionable projection. The latest extension to SFO was built using phony projections and now SamTrans, who carries the responsibility of paying the operating subsidy, is now suffering from low BART ridership.

The projected ridership numbers are great, but how can you be sure that people will ride BART?

The statement "more people choose to ride BART than other modes" is balony beyond reason. People choose to ride transit because it goes where people want to go in a reasonble time and at a reasonable cost, regardless of how the train looks like or who operates it. Caltrain was able to increase its ridership by over 20% by offering express service. The ridership on the Orange Line (Bus rapid transit) in Los Angeles has grown beyond projection. Caltrain and Orange Line are not BART, but they're transit successes.

What made BART a success today is the high density urban growth in San Francisco, and the limited highway competition on the Bay Bridge. Neither case is true in Santa Clara County, but VTA expects the same number of boardings at a downtown San Francisco station to apply in downtown San Jose. As we all know, the airport's landing path is limiting the building heights in downtown San Jose.

Will the project solve our traffic problem?

According to MTC, the second and third most congested spots last year were on the I-580 in the Tri-Valley area. The BART extension, unlike ACE, will not provide any alternative to this growing corridor.

How much will the project cost and who's paying for it?

What VTA stated omits the financing cost. When that, and other costs, are accounted for, the cost will be in the range of $6 to 7 billion. The construction timing and method proposed by VTA for the BART projects require a large cash flow that VTA doesn't have without bonding. What is also not included is the 100%+ cost overruns that other BART extensions have experienced.

The BART extension simply is a new Bay Bridge East Span in the making, except that the politicians themselves cannot pass new taxes on you like bridge tolls. However, voters should not be pressured to pass a new tax if VTA runs out of money in the midst of digging a subway in downtown San Jose.

How does funding for the BART Extension relate to other VTA transit service and projects?

VTA has passed an expenditure plan, but it requires a new tax to be effective. Even so, the expenditure plan provides no guarantees and protection to the other projects. Over the years, VTA has consistently used inflated tax revenue projections to make false claims that all projects are funded, and VTA has consistently refused to consider other scenarios where no new taxes are needed and projects that can fulfill all of the 2000 Measure A goals and beyond. As long as BART is in VTA's plan, all other non-BART projects are essentially screwed.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Spare the Air free transit experiment

The free transit experiment, probably the largest in this country, is now over, after the first six days of Spare the Air days ended on July 21.

Some of the press reviews of the free transit days are critical. After all, the transit ridership went up by about 10%, and some regular transit riders complained about the crowding. Most of all it carries a heavy price tag of about $14 million.

To some of the transit supporters who advocates for free transit: there's the result.

The problem of providing free transit as a smog-reducing measure is that free transit has to be offered to everybody, not just commuters who regularly drive and take transit on Spare the Air days. Regular transit riders Spare the Air all the time and they pay a share of the transit operating cost. Giving regular transit riders free rides, while it could be justified in other ways, won't spare more air.

Another problem of free transit is that public transit is no longer only a transportation option, rather it becomes a public lounge space used by the homeless and others who have nowhere else to go, which drive away legitimate transit riders. Reports of alleged criminals using free transit is also disturbing.

The 10% increase in ridership can also highlight the relative inelasticity in transit demand in terms of fares as supposed to other factors like transit service improvements. In contrast, during the last two years, Caltrain was able to increase ridership by implementing the Baby Bullet service, despite having two fare increases.

However, regionwide free transit is a great marketing tool, especially in light of the very fragmented fare media in the Bay Area without Translink. Free fare removes the complexity of figuring out the fare, speed up bus service as passengers don't have to slowly feed dollar bills into the fare boxes, and allows low income riders to use more expensive rail service like BART and Caltrain for faster trips instead of local buses. Most importantly, free transit is like a trial offer as a way to increase the number of regular fare-paying transit riders who Spare the Air everyday rather than just on Spare the Air days. BART has reportedly seen an increase in fare paying riders after the free transit days.

Free transit has its values and its downsides. A free transit program should be designed in a way to encourage new transit rides that would translate into more fare paying riders after the program ends, and discourage free transit abuses.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Light rail station reopened for Grand Prix

VTA reopened the Paseo de San Antonio light rail station yesterday in time for the Grand Prix. A small ceremony was held next to the Repertory Theatre to cerebrate the reopening. After speeches made by the VTA Chair Cindy Chavez, as well as representatives from the VTA Committee for Transit Accessibility, San Jose Downtown Association, and San Jose State University, a special light rail train arrived at the platform on 2nd Street, and passengers with a baby stroller, bicycle, and unicycle, along with passengers in wheelchairs, exited the vehicle and the station with having to navigate any steps.

Unlike all other stations, the new platform is actually consisted of three smaller platforms matching the door locations of each car. The Downtown Association strongly advocated this design as a way to maintain pedestrian access in the area. In constrast to the original design of a large platform, there is enough space between the small platforms where the bus stops can be placed back near their original locations, thus the cross-platform access between the bus and the light rail is maintained.

Although the station was reopened early, the station is not yet completed. Granite pavers and benches were installed only on two of the three small platforms at each location. The third small platforms instead have plywood coverings to support three car trains for the anticipated Grand Prix crowd. Also, there was no shelter or any type of overhead covering installed.

Friday, July 07, 2006

San Jose Grand Prix and Light Rail

With the Grand Prix race track crossing the VTA light rail tracks in two different locations, the VTA light rail system will be split in more than two pieces during the Grand Prix weekend.

On Friday, July 28, the lines from Alum Rock and Mountain View both end in downtown San Jose, and the line from Santa Teresa will have through routing to Winchester. Like last year, a bus bridge will connect the two light rail segments in downtown San Jose.

The fun part begins on Saturday, July 29, through Sunday. The line from Mountain View will end at Baypointe, and passengers will have to transfer light rail from Alum Rock to downtown San Jose. Like last year, the line from Santa Teresa will only be partially rerouted to the new Vasona line and end at San Jose Diridon station. Service from Winchester will end at Race station, one stop south of San Jose Diridon. Passengers from the Winchester line will have to transfer to a bus to downtown San Jose and connect with other light rail lines.

Normally a system with two main lines through downtown San Jose will be cut into four pieces and the plan will add a great deal of confusion among all light rail riders. For those from Los Gatos and Campbell, this means that they won't be able to take light rail directly to the race track on the Grand Prix weekend.

In its publicity materials, VTA didn't specify any reason to cut the Mountain View line back to Baypointe or cut the service from Winchester away from downtown San Jose, and VTA also did not explain whether additional light rail service would be provided on the Grand Prix weekend.

According to the plan, it is speculated that three car trains will be used throughout on the Santa Teresa line on the weekend. Along the new Vasona extension, only San Fernando and Diridon stations can accomodate three car trains. All platforms south of the Diridon station are one car length shorter than other stations. By ending the service from Winchester to the Race station, it seems that VTA is planning to isolate the less frequent one/two car-service with the more frequent three-car mainline service from Santa Teresa.

In addition, VTA has indicated in its documents that the Paseo de San Antonio station will be in service for the Grand Prix. When VTA closed the station for construction in February, VTA planned to reopen in October. Due to the criticisms and pressures from local businesses and San Jose State, VTA internally accelerated the construction schedule.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Gonzales' culture of corruption may well extend beyond the City Hall

Like anyone being arrested, a fair question comes up whether the person has violated the law for the first time, or has violated many times but did not get caught. In the case of the San Jose Mayor, his style of backroom deals that contributed to his arrest yesterday certainly raises concerns about the possibility of other secretive deals inside and outside of the City Hall, such as at the VTA, where he has a strong influence and a flawed agenda.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Sales tax extortion scheme

VTA remains defiant despite the failure of Measure A. This Thursday, the VTA board will decide whether to adopt a spending plan that assumes a new 1/4 cent sales tax or equivalent.

Since the BART extension has been withdrawn from the federal new-starts process last December, the failure of Measure A last week indicates that the BART project will likely to remain off the new-starts process to avoid the guaranteed rejection from the federal government. However, it also allows VTA to spend as much as it wants on studies and engineering efforts that may not translate into completion of the project.

The BART extension has many similarities to the Bay Bridge East Span fiasco, where politicians shut-off discussion about cost effective alternatives early in the process in favor of a costly design that does not provide any functional improvements. Last year, when the construction bid for the single tower structure came out much higher than originally estimated, the politicians determined that it was too late to redesign the bridge and provide significant cost savings. Instead, without having to go to the voters, politicians approved a bailout package that will increase the bridge tolls effective next year.

It appears that Guardino and Gonzales are going through the same route by spending more local tax dollars on studies and design until when choosing another alternative would be seen as unfavorable. However, Guardino and Gonzales cannot raise sales taxes without the approval of voters.

VTA is on the path to extort taxpayers' money, by spending more money on things that cannot happen until voters approve another tax increase. VTA does not have to be on this path if it chooses to pursue real studies and live within its means.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The high price of working with Carl Guardino

The 2000 Measure A Project Advisory Committee held its last meeting yesterday in Mountain View.

VTA's general manager Michael Burns argued that the committee should pass the revised expenditure scenario with the assumption of a new 1/4 cent tax, and said that VTA still have the option of placing a sales tax in November or in 2008. The committee approved the revised scenario, which prioritized some of the non-BART projects ahead of the BART extension. Despite the approval, the sales tax scenario is unworkable because voters rejected the 2006 Measure A.

During the meeting, two of the county supervisors (Kniss and Gage) on the committee, as reported by some in the audience, looked "mad," given their support for the 2006 Measure A and its defeat on Tuesday.

The county supervisors had a chance to place a 1/4 cent general sales tax only for county services, without diverting funds to VTA. Instead of listening to the transit advocates, the Supervisors chose to listen to Carl Guardino and place a dual sales tax instead.

In an email sent on January 25, Guardino wrote: "The county would need a very well funded campaign, and would need a very poorly funded and poorly organized opposition campaign, in order to be successful," and Guardino concluded, "Interestingly, if the county and the transportation advocates worked together - even though the total (a combined half-cent) would be the same as two competing quarter-cent measures - the chances of winning are very strong."

After outspending the opposition by nearly 100 to 1, voters resoundingly rejected Measure A, defying Guardino's expectation. With the restriction from Prop. 218, the next time the county could place a general tax is June 2008, or in November this year if the county declares a fiscal emergency.

It is unfortunate that the county services may be impacted by the failure of Measure A. The supervisors will be paying a high price for listening to Carl Guardino.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Sore loser Gonzales tries to re-interpret reality

The message voters sent on June 6 was loud and clear: they demand a fiscally responsible transportation plan without new taxes. After six years of declining ridership and transit cut-backs, they finally rejected Measure A, along with the false promises made by BART supporters.
For some, such as the lame-duck San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, simply cannot understand reality. He still opposes any other alternative to building the entire BART extension to the Santa Clara rail yard in one phase. Since now he can no longer lie to the voters about the fraudulent tax revenue and BART ridership projections, he can only tell you that he doesn't care about everything else: bus service, paratransit, light rail, Caltrain... can all be sacrificed as long as engineering and construction contracts for the downtown BART subway can be awarded. VTA Watch, as well as many others, knew his intention all along, and now everyone gets to see where Gonzales' only priority is.

It is good to know that he is on his way out of the City Hall with no political future in sight, all due to his own fault.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Silicon Valley Losers Group

This is what SVLG should stand for after spending $650,000 on a campaign for more-of-the-same failed transportation policies and projects. After six years, voters finally saw through the false promises of the 2000 Measure A and BART, and certainly disapproved the backroom deal that created the 2006 Measure A.

Congratulations to the No on Measure A committee for conducting a low budget, truth-based campaign.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Is the 2000 Measure A becoming a lost cause?

A quick read over the minutes of the 2000 Measure A Project Advisory Committee meeting on 5/11 reveals a sad future for VTA. The 2000 Measure A is slowly losing its purpose of transporting people and becoming just a list of pork barrel projects for the consultants and the construction industry.

Alum Rock-Santa Clara light rail - VTA is "exploring a modified version of the light rail alternative, which would operate on the eastern side of the corridor on Alum Rock Avenue between Five Wounds Church (Near U.S. 101) and Capitol Avenue/Capitol Expressway with Eastridge as the final destination."

If this alternatives goes through, it would render this light rail project useless for transportation. Currently, two bus routes (64 and 522) operate the entire length of Alum Rock-Santa Clara corridor between Capitol Avenue and Downtown San Jose. This alternative would make transit inferior by either duplicating light rail service with existing bus service, or force passengers to transfer from light rail to bus (or BART) at Five Wounds Church on their way to Downtown San Jose.

The logic for advocating a shortened light rail is clear: The politicians want light rail on the Alum Rock-Santa Clara corridor, but the project is facing diffculty given the restricted street width and the duplication with the BART subway between the Five Wounds Church and Downtown San Jose. VTA and the politicians may want East Valley passengers to transfer from light rail to BART to get to downtown, but with less than two miles from downtown, this idea (along with BART itself) only wastes tax money and creates inconvenience.

San Jose Airport People Mover - VTA is proposing a three-station people-mover system connecting the Santa Clara Caltrain station (proposed BART station), the airport, and the Light Rail station on 1st Street). VTA plans to build it under the airport's runway and would use automated vehicles operating every 3 minutes.

While on the surface it seems like a good idea and it has support from the Airport commission, the details later revealed demostrate the nonviability of the project.

The Airport and VTA are considering a single station at the airport for the people mover. The people mover will not connect the terminals, and it will not connect with the long term parking lots as well as the rental car center.

The 2000 Measure A would only fund the portion between the Santa Clara Caltrain station and the airport. The connection between the airport and the light rail would be funded by the City of San Jose, but the city has yet to commit any funds.

VTA assumes only the capital cost of the people mover project. VTA General Manager Michael Burns stated that "from VTA’s perspective that VTA would not have responsibility for the operations or maintenance costs."

As it is, the proposed airport people mover is an independent subway system from two transit stations with an airport station in between. It will be funded by all airport users and will have no purpose other than getting transit riders to the airport.

While the airport people mover may create jobs for the engineers and planners, this project is simply not viable. The projected ridership (11,500 per day according to VTA) is insufficient to support a rail system. Also, without it to serve other airport facilities like long-term parking and rental car center, the airport would not be able to achieve cost effieciencies (by not having to run buses to these locations) and instead create a huge financial drain. In order to build and operate this, the airport would have to ask the struggling airlines and their passengers to pay for a service that most users would not use.

While these projects would be a windfall for the engineering consultants and the construction industry, the losers will be the everyday transit riders.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Soap opera drama between SamTrans and BART

Since the opening of the BART extension to Millbrae in 2003, BART and SamTrans, instead of getting into a "marriage," it is more like getting a "divorce." Essentially BART is the parent that has the custody of the BART extension, and SamTrans is the other parent that has to pay "child support."

The marriage between BART and SamTrans actually happened years before that, when both agencies were pursuing regional and federal funds to construct the project. That was when BART and SamTrans agreed on a over-estimated ridership projection, as well as building unnecessary subways and extra station platforms which drove the cost up.

Under the agreement between both agencies, BART bills SamTrans for the operating costs based on car-miles. Therefore SamTrans has an incentive to reduce its operating subsidies by asking BART to run fewer and shorter trains. Since 2003, the service along the BART extension south of Daly City has changed a few times in order to reduce SamTrans' operating subsidies.

The current cost disputes surrounds a recent decision made by BART earlier this year to expand train length on the Dublin/Pleasanton line, which serves the SFO extension. SamTrans did not request the increase of train length, but is asked to pay for it.

Although according to the Matier and Ross article on SF Chronicle that the SFO has out-performed other stations, it is in no way meeting the original, or even revised, ridership projection made before the extension opened. In fact, the ridership was drop by 3.2% in March from last year.

Could this happen at VTA?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Another example of tweaking budget projections

It appears that VTA is teaching the Santa Clara County the fine art of tweaking budget projections to justify a new sales tax.

Over the last six years, VTA has nearly perfected the fine art of tweaking tax revenue projections to sell sales taxes. Fortuately for the last few months, politicians in the north and south county rejected a new upwardly revised tax revenue projection for a proposed VTA sales tax. However with Measure A this June, the county government appears to forgo its more prudent financial planning and adopting VTA's approach of issuing new budget projection to demostrate its funding "needs."

Instead of over-projecting tax revenue, the county is over-projecting its budget deficit by adding in projected deficit of the county's hospital system to its general funds deficit, which the county did not back in February. According to the Mercury News, the new projected deficit for 2008 is now nearly matches the projected tax revenue from Measure A.

Could it be a motive to try to increase support for Measure A, or could it be a first sign of the anticipated food fight between the county and SVLG over spending priorities if Measure A passes? The fact that the county revealed its new projection in less than a month from election, instead of in February, should raise a red flag. Either way, this is another reason why we should vote no on Measure A.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Merc and SVLG have no choice but to dis-inform

The Mercury News and the SVLG are conducting a massive dis-information campaign about Measure A. Three editorials published today on the Mercury News supporting Measure A as the only way to save the BART project, that they're expecting that half of the Measure A tax revenue to be spent on transportation, especially BART, although that is not guaranteed, and that Measure A would support county's services.

At the same time, some voters in Sunnyvale have reported receiving a mailer from the Yes on Measure A campaign showing a Caltrain photograph. It seems clear that SVLG is deliberately misinform voters by sending mailers showing Caltrain to voters in north and south county, and mailers showing BART or highway to voters in San Jose and Milpitas, despite the fact that the language of Measure A does not mention BART or Caltrain, and that SVLG has no intention to fulfill whatever empty Caltrain promises to voters in north and south county.

The Mercury News and SVLG may have a legitimate interest in the BART project, although much of what their arguments in support of BART are mostly fraudulent. It still leaves a question why are they pushing a general sales tax and dis-inform voters instead of taking the high road and go for a specific tax. Simply, the support for BART has dropped significantly from 2000 and won't meet the 2/3 voter approval requirement, and that the region could not agree on a fair and responsible transportation tax plan to sell to the voters. In one form or another, SVLG must tell lies to the north and south county voters in order to divert their tax dollars to the subway in downtown San Jose. These lies include support for non-BART transportation projects like Caltrain, underestimation of the true cost of BART, and over projection of BART ridership.

SVLG is making fake promises to voters now and, if Measure A were to be approved, a food fight is expected at the Board of Supervisors to try to divert as much funds to BART, at the expense of other transit projects in the county as well as at the expense of county services.

Measure A is another reflection of the Silicon Valley's culture of bad government and corruption, with SVLG being at the core. Only a NO vote on Measure A can force the politicians in this county to be more honest.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No matter what the bill number is, tax hypocrites are still tax hypocrites

In recent days, SVLG and State Senator Elaine Alquist launched a counter-attack defending SB1291, a bill that would exempt corporations from state sales taxes, as well as Measure A this June. Patrick Moore offered an analysis of SB1291 and how the corporations would benefit from this bill.

John Ambroseo, speaking on behalf of SVLG, argued that supporting SB1291 and Measure A is not hypocritical because they are "somewhat separate issues." Supporters of SB1291, which also supported SB552, claims that SB1291 is not a tax shift because local sales taxes would not be exempted. A close look shows otherwise.

One of the arguments used by the Measure A proponents is that the county needs extra funds due to the reduction of subsidy from the state and federal government. In the county's presentation to the Board of Supervisors, the county claims that "State support for local services, specifically, health and human services has dropped by 16.5% over the past 4 years."

Currently, over a quarter of the state general fund supports local health and human services, with most of that funding transferred to local counties to implement various social programs. If SB1291 passes, the state government would lose $2.1 billion annually, and therefore would reduce its ability to support services provided by the county, and increase the need for local counties to identify other funding source to support its programs. In addition, SB1291 would reduce the state's ability to fund for K-12 along with higher education, which more than half of the state general fund goes to.

Although Alquist and SVLG can claim their move from supporting SB552 to SB1291 as a pragmatic move not to reduce local tax revenues, both SB1291 and Measure A would still mean a shift of the tax burden from corporations to small businesses and families. No matter what the bill number is, tax hypocrites are still tax hypocrites.

Monday, April 24, 2006

VTA helps to tank Gilroy Caltrain ridership

With all the recent mumbling from Don Gage's office about double tracking the Caltrain line from San Jose to Gilroy, we should realize that Caltrain is only carrying a fraction of riders in the South County than it was six years ago.

Gilroy extension ridership:
2001 - 1,555 riders per day
2002 - 1,143
2003 - 987
2004 - 667
2005 - 636
2006 - 471
(source: Caltrain February 2006 passenger counts. Passenger count provided to VTA showed 364 South County riders)

Why has the Gilroy extension ridership gone down all these years, especially during the last two years when the overall Caltrain ridership increased by over 25% due to the introduction of the Baby Bullet service?

Although the economic decline during and after 2001 is a major factor for the drop in ridership, VTA also took actions that essentially chased passengers away from the trains. In Spring 2003, VTA completed the widening of Highway 101 between South San Jose and Morgan Hill. While the original project called for expanding one lane in each direction, VTA built two lanes instead, thus doubled the width of the freeway.

Later in September 2003 at VTA's support, Caltrain increased the train fares south of the Tamien station as a part of the fare structure modification. Prior to that, Caltrain had a total of nine fare zones, of which the two are located south of Tamien. The fare structure change reduced the number of fare zones north of Tamien and increased the fares traveling between the zones, but kept the same number of fare zones south of Tamien. The modification resulted in a 40% fare increase for trips between San Jose and Gilroy. VTA reportedly requested the fare increase as a way to reduce its Caltrain subsidy. Within a year, Caltrain ridership south of San Jose dropped by 1/3 as passengers chose not to pay high fares and opt for a wider, less congested freeway.

Last year, Caltrain released new operating plans to reduce operating costs and increase fare revenues. In accordance to the plan, Caltrain reduced one roundtrip to and from Gilroy, and scheduled one of the remaining Gilroy round trip to skip most stops in Santa Clara County. This service reduction again eroded ridership by another 25%.

Since the passage of Measure A in 2000, VTA has failed to keep its promise to support Caltrain and transit in the south county. The largely completed double tracking project in South San Jose, which was funded by VTA, will not result in any immediate service improvement or ridership increase.

VTA and Don Gage can plan for more double tracking south of San Jose, but unless comprehensive transportation planning takes place, along with providing sufficient operating funds, realistic transit improvements will not happen. This is something to think about as Don Gage and SVLG lie about their support for Caltrain in their promotions for Measure A this June.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Guardino chickened out on Measure A debate

"I'm not the campaign spokesperson, I'm running the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. That is a full-time job. I'm volunteering with this when I can." Carl Guardino stated for the San Jose Metro on Wednesday as his excuse for not participating in a debate on Measure A scheduled for April 25.

Despite being one of the master planners behind the flawed and dishonest Measure A, Guardino has kept himself behind the scene. On the day when the Supervisors voted to place Measure A on the ballot, Guardino was absent at that meeting. His transportation aide, Laura Stuchinsky, spoke on behalf of SVLG in support of Measure A instead. Recently Stuchinsky temporarily resigned from the VTA's Citizens Advisory Committee to focus on the Measure A campaign.

Back in 2000, while still having a "full-time" job running the SVLG, Carl Guardino was the chief campaign spokesperson for the 2000 Measure A. Why is Guardino refuse to publicly campaign and debate in support of Measure A this time around? Is he afraid to show that he has inconsistent and unfair positions on sales taxes: supporting sales tax exemptions for corporations and sales tax increases for everyone else? Or is he afraid to state his intention of transferring a large portion of the revenue from the sales tax increase to VTA, despite its record of inefficiency and dishonesty, as well as VTA's selection to build wasteful projects like BART at the expense of cost effective Caltrain and local transit improvements?

What else do Carl and SVLG have to hide?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

VTA proposes to bring shuttle operations in-house

As a new add-on item to the agenda for the VTA board meeting this Thursday, the board will decide whether to amend the labor contract to include a new classification of shuttle bus drivers and mechanics. Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents VTA's drivers and mechanics, have approved the agreement last week.

Under this agreement, new employee classifications would be created to operate and maintain a fleet of smaller shuttle buses with fewer than 28 seats. These shuttle drivers and mechanics would be paid at a lower wage than the drivers and mechanics of larger buses.

VTA would operate these shuttle buses as a part of the community bus program, to primarily serve outlaying communities and provide connections to mainline bus or light rail service. Currently, VTA runs two community bus routes (48 and 49) in Los Gatos under contract with Parking Company of America, which was ruled last year in violation of the labor agreement with the ATU. If this agreement is approved, VTA is expected to convert these lines into in house operations in the next few months.

In addition, the agreement would also bring light rail shuttle operations in house, including the Great America shuttle, River Oaks shuttle, and the Downtown Area Shuttle. These shuttles are currently contracted to New Century Transportation.

ACE shuttles and shuttles contracted by Caltrain will not be affected.

With the approval of this agreement, VTA would be able to hire 100 to 120 shuttle bus operators. VTA plans to replace standard buses with small buses on low ridership routes, which may include 76, 13, 44, and other feeder routes in the south county. VTA expects a reduction in cost on direct labor as well as fuel, due to the lower fuel consumption of smaller buses.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Mercury News still doesn't get it

The Mercury News published an editorial today promoting Measure A this June because of the "success" of the 1996 Measure A program, and the fact that the 1996 Measure was passed with 51.8% voter approval.

Essentially, the Mercury News is asserting that the 2/3 voter approval is almost impossible to obtain and therefore the sleazy tactic of selling specific projects as a general tax is justifed.

If we look beyond Santa Clara County, there are good reasons why we should reject this assertion.
  • In November 2003, San Francsico voters approved Proposition K, a 1/2 cent sales tax for transportation, by nearly 75%.
  • In November 2004, San Mateo County voters approved Measure A, a 1/2 cent sales tax for transportation, by just over 75%.
  • Also in November 2004, Marin County voters passed Measure A, a 1/2 cent salex tax for transportation, by 71%

So the 70% voter approval of the 2000 Measure A in Santa Clara County, during the peak of the high-tech bubble, isn't that quite spectacular or is it?

The major difference between these taxes passed by voters in other counties and ours is that other counties tend to have honest and inclusive discussions about the funding needs and spending priorities. San Mateo County, for instance, held weekend transportation planning workshops around the county to solicit community input. Also, all of these proposals did not include any "marquee" BART extensions that are supposedly poll well (according to SVLG) but would bankrupt the counties.

Santa Clara County, once again, chose a path that limits honest discussions and public participation. Ron Gonzales, Carl Guardino, and Rod Diridon cannot accept themselves being challenged in public on questionable policies. If SVLG and other politicians believe that the county voters will support the idea of the San Jose BART extension be funded at the expense of Caltrain and local transit services, and diverting sales tax revenue from the north and south county to downtown San Jose, Santa Clara County should have taken the "high road." Santa Clara County does not have to create a smokescreen by blurring specific projects with a general tax and create confusion among voters, as a way to get around the 2/3 voter approval requirement.

Friday, March 24, 2006

SVLG operative fails to knock down tax exemption language in the ballot argument

According to the Press Release from the No on Measure A Campaign:

Press Release.

From: Citizens for Sensible Transportation (Committee against Measure A)

Topic: Pro-tax lawsuit fails to silence argument.


At 6:10 PM last night, proponents of an additional sales tax filed a lawsuit to strike several sections from the ballot argument against Measure A. The most important of these was an attempt to remove all mention of a tax exemption for the tax proponents.

The findings and proposed deletions were not approved by the court, which did allow some technical revisions, such as updating a bill number.

The authors agree that the correct bill number is SB1291. SB552 was a bill
in last year’s session with largely identical wording. Both grant a giant sales tax exemption to manufacturers, and whole pages are word for word the same between the two bills.

The important argument still stands: The Leadership Group is pushing a bill through the legislature to exempt their members from state sales tax, at the same time they are promoting a sales tax increase in Measure A. The net effect would be that average citizens pay 8.75% sales tax, while manufacturers and big business pay only 2.75%.

These bills, sponsored by Elaine Alquist, contain numerous special interest provisions, such as whole paragraphs that provide a million dollar tax cut for Calpine’s new power plant.

Greg Perry

On behalf of Citizens for Sensible Transportation, the grass roots campaign against measure A.

SVLG operative files suit to hide its SB552 involvement

Click on the image for larger size

Yesterday, a petition was filed against the authors of the ballot argument against Measure A, which include Greg Perry, in an attempt to try to change or delete sections of the ballot argument. The petitioner, Rick Callender, who is the Government Relations Manager for the Santa Clara Valley Water District and also the head of the Silicon Valley NAACP, filed the law suit as an individual. Callender is claiming that the No on A argument contain five "false or misleading statements of fact." However, most, if not all the complaints against the No on A arguments, are baseless.

The first three so called misleading facts cited by Callender is related to the SVLG's support for SB552 and other sales tax exemption bills through the state legislature. Although SB552 have not granted a hearing since April 2005, supporters of SB552 have continued to lobby for the bill in September, as evidenced by SF Chronicle.

The other tax exemption bills listed by Callender, AB2218 and SB1291, as introduced, would not provide exemption on a local sales taxes. However these bills were presented in late February at about the same time as the county sales tax was being considered. Whether local taxes are exempted or not, SB552, AB2218, and SB2191 would lower the sales tax rate for companies with or without Measure A (less than the current rate of 8.25%), while everyone else would face a higher sales tax burden if Measure A passes (more than 8.25%).

Callender also claims that it is misleading to state that "Santa Clara County will have the highest tax rate in California." Currently, Alameda County, and cities of Alvalon and Richmond have the highest tax rate in the state of 8.75%. If Measure A passes, Santa Clara County will join these jurisdictions of having the highest sales tax rate in California. There is nothing misleading about this statement. If 8.75% is not the highest rate in the state, then what is?

This move to try to mess with the No on A ballot argument is also a sleazy counter-attack to the lawsuit filed on Tuesday by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Assoication against the county, over the timing of the election. HJTA is arguing that the June election doesn't fit the legal definition of the general election, therefore Measure A, a "general" sales tax, cannot appear on this ballot according to Prop. 218.

Gonzales insists that BART will always be his pet project

Despite the censure from the San Jose City Council and his removal from the VTA Board of Directors, SJ Mayor Gonzales presented at the BART extension Policy Advisory Board and participated as one of the PAB members, although his name did not appear on the membership roster.

No one knew why he was there, or knew which government or agency was Gonzales exactly representing.

It will be up to the San Jose City Council to determine whether or not he should be a member of that PAB, but his unexpected move to participate at that meeting is a clear indication that he still sees the BART extension as his pet projects, and wants to be in an influential position for the project as well.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Flip-flop alert: SVLG wants sales tax exemption for its own members, but wants you to pay more

For many years, despite its preference for backroom deals akin to the Norcal scandal and reluctance to public participation, SVLG has publicly expressed pride for consistently supporting local sales tax increases, including the Measure A this June. On the other hand, SVLG is also sponsoring legislations in Sacramento that would grant sales tax exemptions to corporations, which financially support SVLG.

Senate Bill 552 is one of the few bills supported by SVLG that would provide a permanent sales tax exemption to companies on purchases of certain types of equipment and supplies. The bill would exempt all sales taxes in California, statewide and local. The Senate analysis of the bill states that the local governments across the California would lose $1.1 billion annually, and the state government would lose another $2.1 billion. SVLG claims that SB 552 would make California more competitive for businesses and would keep more jobs in the state.

Whether you agree providing tax exemptions to corporations is a good public policy or not, you should agree that SVLG ought to be consistent with its positions on taxes. Is it okay that large companies don't have to pay sales taxes, while individuals and small businesses face a greater sales tax burden?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Chavez's first Gonzales-style last minute memo on the proposed VTA expenditure scenario

Click on the images for larger size

At the VTA board meeting on March 2, VTA Chair and San Jose Vice Mayor Cindy Chavez and Dean Chu from Sunnyvale presented a memo to reject the 1/4 cent tax scenario and establish a Measure A sub-commitee to start a "public" process to determine expenditure priorities. The sub-committee would complete its tasks and formulate recommendations to the VTA board no later than August, before the deadline to submit a ballot measure for the November election.

During the discussion, Supervisor Liz Kniss expressed appreciation for the memo and asked to hold the sub-committee meetings in different parts of the county. Supervisor Jim Beall, who is a candidate for the State Assembly, requested to hold one of the meetings in his district as well.

However, Forest Williams from San Jose complained that why he had to wait a few more months to make a decision after spending the last several months discussing the expenditure scenario. He seemed that he wanted to go ahead and immediately vote on the expediture plan despite the disagreements between the cities.

Greg Perry of Mountain View asked why the proposed sub-committee was not charged to study different tax revenue projections and why the members of that sub-committee were designated on the memo rather than letting the city groups to decide.

Dennis Kennedy of Morgan Hill suggested that the sub-committee should recommend an advisory measure at the end of its term in August and submit it for the November ballot.

Despite all the good intentions about public participation and creating a countywide consensus, it was obvious that this memo was produced to avoid a guaranteed divided vote on the 1/4 cent tax scenario, as well as linking the VTA expenditure plan with the June county tax, which could violate Prop. 218. Perhaps what Kennedy was not aware is that he unveiled the plan of Carl Guardino, which is having a general sales tax in June and a following advisory measure in November. It is basically a 1996 A/B sales tax measure without both appearing on the ballot at the same time. Both the general sales tax measure and the advisory measure require 50% voter approval.

While there's a potential that the committee would recommend something different than the expenditure plan that the VTA board rejected, the prospect of an advisory vote in November have damaged the process before it begins. It is clear that the SVLG is determined to deceive voters and circumvent the 2/3 voter requirement, which other counties in the Bay Area have no problems in meeting that requirement.

The board approved the recommendation outlined in the memo with Perry dissenting.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Serving mystery sales tax in the county building

Remember the last time being served mystery meat? This time the county is serving something that tastes just like mystery meat: mystery sales tax. This mystery sales tax has a simple recipe:

Shall a sales tax of one-half of 1 percent be enacted for general county purposes such as:
The county hospital and clinics;
Trauma and emergency services;
Affordable homes for families and seniors;
Health insurance for uninsured children;
Prevention programs for at-risk youth, families and seniors;
Transportation improvements approved in city and countywide transportation plans;
Services for abused and neglected children;
with a Citizens Oversight Committee to ensure fiscal accountability by reviewing the Annual Audit?

From the list above, can you answer these questions:

  1. Is there any guideline or assurance that any program mentioned would get the necessary funding?
  2. Is there any assurance for the county that it won't use the sales tax revenue for other unstated purposes?
  3. Is there any measure to protect social and geographical equity of the tax?

Carl Guardino was reportedly threatened the supervisors with opposing the 1/4 cent sales tax unless the county supports a 1/2 cent tax, along with a gentleman's agreement that half of the tax goes to Guardino's pet project: BART. Guardino and the county are refusing to admit this hidden agreement in order to sell this specific tax, which requires 2/3 voter approval, as a general fund tax, which requires 1/2 voter approval.

VTA Watch has earlier reported about the possibility of the county supporting transportation projects. With Guardino's recent influence, the currently proposed ballot measure could result in a worst case scenario, where the more than half of the new sales tax would go to the BART project without further input from voters.

While the county supervisors today may not want to spend the entire 1/4 cent, or a penny at all on BART, there will be turnovers on the board in the future that may change its spending priorities. Also, VTA could ask the county to pay for bus service with the county's new tax and then spend all the VTA's bus funding on BART. Unfortunately this proposal, which would make the sales tax in Santa Clara County highest in the state, offers no guideline nor protection against wasteful spending.

Friday, February 17, 2006

VTA basic PR screwup

VTA once again failed to timely notify a major construction project that would affect thousands of passengers.

The downtown station platform retrofit has been planned for the last five years, even appeared with a wooden mock up, after the passage of the 2000 Measure A and VTA's subsequent purchase of additional low floor vehicles to replace the high floor fleet. Despite years of planning, the public was told in less than two weeks to prepare for the temporary closure of two downtown stations as long as 10 months. As of Friday night, VTA still hasn't post anything on its website regarding the station closures.

One of the two light rail stations to be closed serves the San Jose State University. Thousands of students take light rail to avoid high parking fees and the shortage of parking spaces on campus. Despite what some of students suggest in the Mercury article, many more students may decide not to take light rail and drive instead.

A related issue that the Mercury article did not discuss is whether this project is necessary. With a mini-high platform, VTA's light rail is currently in full compliance with American with Disabilities Act and offers level boarding for wheelchair passengers without operator assistance. The only quantifiable benefit is the saving in dwell time, however small it appears to be, of cutting one step for all other passengers. Does it worth 8 to 10 months of constructions and millions of dollars in costs, along with impacts to the downtown community and the students at San Jose State? It looks like another collateral damage from the 2000 Measure A.


Bonus: The other permanent damage caused by the downtown platform retrofit is that the transfers between light rail and buses would be made less convenient. Due to ADA and other reasons, the high platform would be extended almost to the street curb where the bus stops are now. Because these high platforms would not allow buses to make safe boarding and to use the wheelchair lift or ramp, the bus stops would have to be relocated away further from the light rail stop. Way to go to increase transit ridership at VTA!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Carl Guardino's war against Caltrain

Recently posted in the VTA Riders' Union mailing list is an email from Carl Guardino regarding SVLG's private poll on the proposed sales tax. It will be posted in its entirety in the comment section.

Similar to the other "polls" done by SVLG, it is claiming that the BART extension is still the top priority. It is also claiming that Caltrain "service and station improvements," new light rail lines, and people mover to the airport have similar ratings, meanwhile singling out Caltrain electrification as the lowest priority. In its previous "poll," SVLG claimed that both the light rail extensions and Caltrain electrification are rated the lowest.

SVLG's earlier poll, which the initial tax proposal was based on, received criticisms from the San Jose City Hall in which the councilmembers believed that their city deserves all the countywide transportation tax revenue. Unsurprisingly this "poll" reflects the City Hall's beliefs.

SVLG claimed that the respondents maintain their priorities when given with project costs and ridership figures. What SVLG probably did not reveal to the respondents is that the ridership projections, especially for the BART project, is over-estimated beyond proportions.

SVLG also took a stab at the County poll regarding its proposed 1/4 cent general sales tax for county services. The group is suggesting that the "likelihood of passage of a quarter-cent general purpose tax in a contested campaign is on the bubble." The County poll says that there's 60% voter support for either a 1/2 or a 1/4 cent general sales tax, which requires 50% voter approval.

What Guardino did not report is how much voter support is out there for a sales tax.

. . .

By singling out Caltrain electrification and suggesting it as the lowest-priority project, SVLG has clearly declared a war on transit advocates that include Sierra Club and BayRail Alliance, which strongly supported Caltrain electrification and related improvements.

Two months ago, Laura Stuchinsky, SVLG's transportation aide, wrote to a Sunnyvale neighborhood mailing list that Caltrain electrification doesn't have to be funded by VTA because the funding would be provided by the California High Speed Rail project. In the meantime, SVLG was also spearheading a "coalition" for supporting a southern alignment for HSR that would use the entire Caltrain alignment from San Jose to Gilroy.

SVLG's concept for electrification would work, just like the BART project, under a lot of assumptions. The issue currently at stake in Sacramento is whether HSR will happen at all. With all the debates between the San Jose folks and the Train Riders Association of California over the HSR alignments between the Central Valley and the Bay Area, HSR is not on most politicians' radar in the capital. The massive infrastructure (highway) bond proposed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did not include any funding for the HSR project. Also, some Democratic legislators are also recommending to cancel the HSR bond vote scheduled this November and be replaced by a compromised version of the infrastructure bond which includes little of no funding for HSR.

If SVLG's coalition really supports HSR and Caltrain electrification, where are they in Sacramento to lobby for this? Why aren't the legislators who signed on to this "coalition" speak out in support of more funding to HSR? Or is SVLG just using the HSR as a smokescreen to take local tax funding away from Caltrain and spend it on the BART project?

Monday, January 23, 2006

VTA tax vote to be delayed?

On Friday, VTA board chair Cindy Chavez and general manager Michael Burns issued a memo recommending to delay the vote to place the 1/4 cent sales tax to March. Originally the tax vote was scheduled to be held in its February meeting. The staff cited insufficient time between the presentations to various groups and the originally scheduled vote in February 2nd to "to analyze and thoroughly consider all of the feedback and comments."

Although the new chairperson Cindy Chavez brings to the VTA board a less hostile leadership style than Ron Gonzales, there's isn't much room left to make a bad sales tax plan a good one.

The County Board of Supervisors, scheduled to meet Tuesday, January 24, will discuss and vote whether to support the VTA sales tax proposal. A staff memo was prepared showing that the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy has over-estimated the sales tax revenue growth for the 1996 Measure A/B 1/2 sales tax program, which is scheduled to expire this April. This is the same firm that VTA cited for predicting a higher revenue projection for its sales taxes in an attempt to deceive the voters.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Becoming an early lame duck

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, scheduled to become a lame duck in November following the next mayoral election due to the term limit, has removed himself from key committees, including the VTA board. He was censured by the City Council last month for his actions in regards to the garbage collection contract with Norcal Waste Systems.

Before the revelation of the garbage scandal and the subsequent censure, Gonzales was considered on track for a state office. With his reputation tarnished, his resignation from the VTA board could be a move to try to save the BART project by dis-associating his pet project from himself. Since 1999, he has pushed the BART project through years of political bullying, including the endorsement of over-projected ridership and tax revenue.

A transit project shouldn't be controversial, but BART itself has been controversial due to its extreme high cost in contrast to the area density, abnormal incompatibility to other rail systems, and a paper trail of cost-overruns and failure of meeting ridership projections. Is BART one of no-so-smart political decisions that Gonzales made just like the garbage scandal? Does he cares about our tax dollars just like the garbage scandal? Does removing himself from the VTA board make the BART extension, which requires another sales tax increase, no longer his pet project?

Becoming a lame duck or not, we shouldn't live with the legacy of having an over-priced and under-performed rail line that will be a drain on our tax dollars for decades to come.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Same old 2000 Measure A trick (VTA document)

This is the link to the VTA general manager's memo to the board of directors regarding the increase in sales tax projection. This online copy can be found at the Board of Supervisors' web site. The Board of Supervisors will be discussing the tax proposal on January 10 at 10:00am.

One of the troubling issues in the new projection is that VTA only anticipates increased revenue until 2015. These are supposedly the critical years of BART construction. If the actual revenue misses the projection anytime during those years, the projection will be way off and VTA will not be able to keep its promises. It seems apparent that VTA is making its revenue projections up to make the BART extension work, at the expense of other transit projects.