Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What have we got after 8 years?

After 8 years, driving alone is still the dominant transportation mode in the Valley. In the Bay Area, Santa Clara County ranks the highest on percentage of commuters who drive alone, and among the lowest on the percentage of commuters using transit.

Today, Carl Guardino continues to claim that he's a transit advocate, and that he knows the "missing puzzle piece" that would somehow magically make transit work in the Valley.

A look back in history shows that Guardino and VTA have actively make transit less viable in the county:

In 2000, Carl Guardino and Ron Gonzales conceived a new sales tax to build the BART project. Riding on a bubble economy, they insisted that the sales tax couldn't be delayed and that Measure A would provide "traffic relief now," even though it was clear that BART was at least 10 years away. In the process to rush the tax on the ballot, many stakeholders were left out of the planning process. However, some were appeased when VTA and SVLG included some funding for their pet projects in Measure A, such as a study of a BART extension from Santa Clara to Palo Alto. Even so, VTA General Manager Pete Cipolla warned the board that Measure A wouldn't provide enough money to operate all Measure A projects through the life of the tax.

Later in October, in the middle of the 2000 Measure A campaign, VTA suddenly came out with a new sales tax revenue projection that claimed it has all the money needed to operate all the Measure A expansions.

In the meantime, VTA successfully sabotaged a fully funded Caltrain connection between San Jose and BART in Union City. VTA claimed it dropped the project because of opposition from Fremont, but the reality is that VTA could not afford to have a viable rail alternative in place while pursuing this overpriced "missing puzzle piece."

After the passage of Measure A, VTA began to reduce bus and light rail service. Initially VTA claimed shortage of drivers and light rail construction as reasons for cut backs, but those excuses gave way to actual tax revenue downturn as the bubble economy bursted.

Worried about the revenue downturn would impact that "missing puzzle piece," SVLG led a "business review team" that recommended huge fare increases and service cuts to seniors and the disabled in 2002:

"Under the current proposals, seniors and disabled riders will see the largest fare increases across-the-board - with costs for rides and passes doubling in some cases - as well as some reduced service.

"But those changes would come off the top of historically 'deep, deep' discounts and enhanced levels of paratransit service that are above Americans With Disabilities Act mandates, said VTA spokeswoman Lupe Solis."

These recommendations caused riders to leave VTA and did not significantly improve VTA's farebox recovery rates.

As the tax revenue declined further in 2003, VTA threatened a 21% transit cut. After months of protests by transit riders and workers, VTA reluctantly accepted a proposal to bond against the 2000 Measure A tax revenue to fill the revenue shortfall. If that 21% transit cut were implemented, line 180 would only operate between Fremont and light rail in north San Jose. Riders heading to and from downtown San Jose would have to transfer to light rail. VTA would like everyone to believe it was all because of the economy,but it was really more than that:

"By November 2002, the economic nosedive combined with skyrocketing costs for the BART extension had combined to create a $6 billion operating shortfall during VTA’s 25 year planning horizon.

"On November 8, 2002, a majority of VTA board members directed staff to develop a few balanced, or “live within your means,” budgets. VTA staff responded the next month with three scenarios for balancing the agency’s budget. The first scenario was still not balanced, with expenses exceeding revenues so greatly as to ultimately lead the agency to bankruptcy. The third scenario was simply infeasible. The only long-term balanced scenario required cutting 70% of VTA’s bus services and abandoning all planned expansions except two: BART to San Jose and East Valley Light Rail."

Responding to the funding shortfall, VTA convened an ad-hoc Financial Stability Committee to explore additional options to address the problem. One of the committee findings is that VTA was too reliant on sales tax revenue, which was considered to be too volatile. Some committee members suggested a new 1% payroll tax like the one in San Francisco. Because a payroll tax would hit squarely on the employers, Carl Guardino quickly rejected it:

"Carl Guardino said a 1 percent payroll tax would average roughly $1,000 per employee annually - a heavy burden on struggling companies."

As always, he prefers sales taxes, which are regressive and hit people who don't earn an income. SVLG has also advocated bills to exempt high tech companies (its member companies) from paying sales taxes on certain taxable purchases.

Meanwhile in 2003, because of the widening of 101 between San Jose and Morgan Hill (lobbied by SVLG in 1996 as a part of the 1996 sales tax plan) along with a fare increase recommended by VTA, Caltrain ridership south of San Jose dropped dramatically. The ridership continued to decline years after the freeway widening, even as the rest of the Caltrain system experienced ridership increases because of the Baby Bullet.

Three years later in 2006, because SVLG worried that a county general sales tax increase would render another VTA sales tax unwinnable, SVLG made backroom deals resulted in the 2006 Measure A. Even though that sales tax could not legally specify any projects, VTA pursued a parallel process in drafting an expediture plan that would use half of the county's new tax revenue. Fortunately voters saw through the backroom deals and rejected it.

Undeterred, soon after the defeat of the 2006 tax, VTA approved an unbalaced and unworkable expenditure plan and kept continue to waste funds on that "missing puzzle piece." It was clear that VTA would pursue another tax in the next two years. Last year, VTA and SVLG lobbied Sacramento to pass a law permitting VTA to put 1/8 cent sales tax increases on the ballot, which resulted in Measure B.

To this day, VTA is still unwilling to produce a balanced spending plan to finance that so-called "missing puzzle piece." Nonetheless, as much as they try to ignore it, we already know a lot about Measure B: Is Measure B the only tax needed to build BART? Absolutely not! Is Measure B be enough for BART's ongoing costs? Absolutely not! Will Measure B threaten other VTA priorities like Downtown East Valley and Caltrain? Absolutely!

To make transit work in this Valley, what we need is not the "missing puzzle piece." What we need is a changed VTA with new priorities. Instead of focusing on contractors, consultants, and downtown delusionals looking for financial benefits, VTA should focus on riders first, who have already suffered from years of service cuts and fare increases. Over the years, Carl Guardino has been nothing but a negative influence on VTA by lobbying for policies that were against riders' interest. VTA, including the General Manager Michael Burns, has also failed to serve riders' interest by continuing to justify and support flawed policies.

Measure B is a summation and a continuation of the past failed policies of the last 8 years. No wonder why Santa Clara County has made little if any progress in getting more people out of their cars all this time. Only a rejection of Measure B, C, and D will send a clear message to the VTA. Like the rest of the Bay Area, transit priorities ought to be planned openly by the entire community, not by Carl Guardino with his secret polls. We cannot continue to allow SVLG to be the political wing of VTA.


Thomas said...

The reason buses are struggling is because the layout of the area does not readily admit public transit. The Bay Area did not have transit service until the 1970's in response to the oil crisis. By that time, private vehicles have dominated for so long that it became difficult to find suitable bus routes. SkyTran by Unimodal is being examined as an alternative.
The bus is essentially a late 19th century mode of transportation, although the vehicles in use are much newer. Buses and streetcars (precursor to light rail), serve late 19th-early 20th century lifestyles well because the areas they serve have clearly defined corridors, well-defined residential and work areas, and work schedules were more predictable. When the Ford Model T became popular, there was little need to accommodate public transit. Businesses and residences became scattered with little thought.

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