Friday, August 29, 2008

Michael Burns' true priority: shutting down free speech

At a time when one of VTA's union has threatened to strike, VTA General Manager Michael Burns instead chose to spend his time supporting an SVLG operative in frivolous lawsuits against Measure B opponents over ballot arguments.

This isn't the first time for SVLG, back in 2006, an operative unsuccessfully sued Measure A opponents for telling the truth.

This time, the arguments against Measure B are sharper and more to the point, summarizing VTA's misdeeds and deceptions over the last 8 years. Getting alarmed by the facts, Michael Burns collected "evidence" on behalf of SVLG in its cases against the opponents and he was present at all court hearings.

At the hearing earlier today, Judge Kevin Murphy threw out all the SVLG/VTA's allegations except two, which were upheld based on technicalities.

The following were challenged unsuccessfully by SVLG/VTA and were kept on the ballot argument and rebuttal:

- VTA does have the worst performing light rail in the nation

- VTA cut service resulting in lost ridership,

- VTA did cut or delay key projects (in the main argument),

- VTA has delayed key projects (in the rebuttal argument),

- VTA is not delivering on prior commitments of adding new transit service.

- John McLemore, who is a former VTA board member, a former MTC Commissioner and former member of the Santa Clara City Council., was eligible to sign the ballot argument.

The two other allegations (whether VTA would save more money than the 1/8 cent tax by improving efficiency, and whether VTA promised full funding for operation) were upheld based on narrow technical grounds. While SVLG and VTA had 10 days to prepare a case against the main argument and rebuttal, tax opponents only had 5 days to prepare a defense on the main argument and did not have any opportunity to submit evidence to defend their rebuttal.

“We succeeded in documenting their falsehoods and in submitting convincing evidence to the court under enormous time pressure," said Margaret Okuzumi, of BayRail Alliance, "Although we weren’t allowed to file evidence in response to their challenge to the No on B rebuttal, evidence that we have that readily rebuts their claims, we were able to fend off two out of three challenges to our rebuttal arguments.”

Other factors may have contributed to the judge's decision to uphold two of the claims:

-Hearing was scheduled on a Friday before the long Labor Day weekend

-Submission deadline from the registrar's office is September 2, right after the long holiday weekend.

-If opponents were to successfully defeat all claims, the judge will have to hear the countersuit against the SVLG operative on filing frivolous lawsuits.

Although inherently unfair, simply upholding one claim on each case on technical grounds allows the judge to close the cases early with no follow up lawsuits.

Given the absurdity of these lawsuits, it begs the question of what is Burns' true priority. "VTA General Manager Michael Burns should spend his time and taxpayer paid resources to fix the VTA, not to assist with lawsuits to shut down free speech that VTA finds inconvenient." said Greg Perry, a former VTA Board member who signed the main argument against Measure B.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Michael Burns says they are still talking

While there's no word yet on today's vote by the ATU members whether to accept VTA's final offer, Michael Burns told KCBS that both sides are still talking. ATU has announced that it could go on strike after negotiations failed two weeks ago.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A VTA union warns of possible strike

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, which represents the front line employees and mechanics, is warning of a possible strike on September 8. VTA and ATU reached impasse on July 9 and state mediation failed last week. While VTA and ATU will not publicly discuss details of the negotiation, many ATU members were present at the last VTA Board meeting and addressed the board after the end of the closed session. According to the union, wage, health care and pensions are the primary issues.

For now, expect VTA to miss some runs. ATU has asked its members not to work overtime.
On August 27, union members will vote on the VTA's final offer, which was rejected by the union leadership. A no vote by the union members may lead to a strike.

Downtown light rail closure this weekend

This weekend, light rail service will be suspended in downtown San Jose from Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. to facilitate the replacement of old rails at 1st and Devine streets. Construction is expected to end before the start of the Monday morning commute.

During that time, light rail service from Mountain View and Alum Rock will end at Japantown/Ayer Station. Service from Santa Teresa and Winchester will end at Convention Center Station. A free bus bridge will connect with light rail at Civic Center and Convention Center stations, stopping at all stations in between.

Although light rail passengers from the north can stay onboard until Japantown/Ayer, VTA advises anyone requiring a transfer to get off at Civic Center.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ohlone/Chynoweth light rail and more

Last Saturday, all stations served by the Almaden shuttle were reopened.

Although Ohlone/Chynoweth is a transfer station, it has outside platforms. Before the retrofit, the platforms were at the same level as the curb on the opposite side. The new platforms pose a tripping hazard with the one step difference. For now, the only warning are orange poles and construction tapes.

Perhaps VTA should have built a center platform at this station. The current configuration requires passengers to run across two tracks to make a tight connection from the Almaden shuttle.

Below is Almaden station.

Blossom Hill and Cottle closure

These two stations will be closed tomorrow for about two months to retrofit the platforms. In the meantime, a bus bridge will run between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Santa Teresa stations, serving all stations in between.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Three ill-conceived VTA measures to defeat

This November, the ballot will be very crowded with various state and local propositions. Also on the same ballot will be three ill conceived VTA measures (B, C and D). All deserve to be defeated.

Besides the 1/8 cent sales tax, which titled Measure B to please Carl Guardino, the others are related to an old legal mandate that required VTA to submit a transportation plan to be approved by voters every six years. The first measure (C) asks voters to approve VTP 2035, which has yet to be finalized and wouldn't be approved by the VTA Board until after the election. The second measure asks voters to end the legal mandate and instead direct the "2000 Measure A Watchdog Committee" (i.e. VTA Citizens Advisory Committee) to review VTA's plan every six years.

It is strange for VTA to ask voters to approve a plan that is still in the works. It is even stranger for VTA to ask voters to give up their right to weight in on VTA's plan. Basically, it is all part of the same deal driven by SVLG delusionals to spend billions more of our tax dollars with less public oversight, esepecially when the board is appointed and not directly elected.

In order to fix VTA and the dysfunctional board, all these measures need to go down in flames this November.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Light rail station reopening and Jazz Festival

Tomorrow, the Almaden light rail shuttle will resume service as Almaden, Oakridge and Ohlone/Chynoweth stations reopen. A week later on August 16, Blossom Hill and Cottle stations will be closed for platform retrofit. Bus bridge will be provided at both stations to connect with light rail at other stations. At Blossom Hill station, the entrance at Velasco Drive will be closed.

Once the construction completes at Blossom Hill and Cottle, Snell will be the last station to be closed for retrofit. Santa Teresa station will remain open through the construction period.

Also this weekend, due to the San Jose Jazz Festival. All buses that operate on San Fernando Street west of 1st in Downtown San Jose will be rerouted to San Carlos Street. Routes 22 and 23 that normally operate on San Fernando during late Friday and Saturday nights will remain on Santa Clara Street.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

VTA approves placing 1/8 cent sales tax increase on the ballot

With David Casas,Yoriko Kishimoto and Don Gage dissenting, the rest of the VTA board approved the proposal to place the 1/8 sales tax increase on the ballot to pay for the BART extension.

This is a great sample of how dysfunctional the VTA Board is and how most of the board members, already deeply delusional, forget their fiduciary responsibility.

On Monday, VTA General Manager Michael Burns sent a last-minute memo to the boardmembers stating that the proposed 1/8 cent sales tax not only would completely cover the cost of running the BART extension but would produce a surplus. This was a 100% flip-flop over his earlier statement to the press that the 1/8 cent tax would not cover the entire cost.

The memo appeared convincing at the first glance, but BayRail Alliance issued a counter-memo at the meeting showing that Burn's memo left out key details and that the 1/8 tax will only cover about 80% of the cost running the extension.

The key details left out of the Burn's memo are:

  • VTA is obligated to pay BART in advance at $48 million per year (in 2001 dollars) and adjusted quarterly thereafter to the growth rate of the sales tax revenue. In other words, BART gets a percentage cut of the sales tax revenue from VTA. That percentage cut happens to be larger than the 1/8 cent sales tax. As a result, the 1/8 cent tax will never completely cover VTA's financial obligation to BART.

  • According to the agreement between BART and VTA, VTA's maximum payment on the capital reserve is 30% of the operating and maintenance cost along with the allocated overhead cost. Burn's memo claimed that VTA is obligated to the maximum of the 20% of the operating cost, which, according to the agreement, is actually the minimum payment after 15 years of operation. Unless the advance payment from VTA and fare revenue can completely cover the operating cost plus a 30% capital reserve, BART will not return any funds back to VTA. Calculations by BayRail show that the maximum BART subsidy, which includes a 30% capital reserve, will exceed the $48 million annual advance payment from VTA. Therefore, surplus is not possible.

When Kishimoto pressed Burns about the advance payment, Burns said that VTA is not committed to the $48 million but rather the operating cost, a concept that violates the agreement between BART and VTA.

In response to the BayRail's numbers, Burns pointed out that the tax would be collected years before opening, which would produce a surplus in the early years. Even so, a simple calculation shows that VTA would still leave a deficit of about $200 million under the BayRail scenario, assuming that VTA would not use any of the funds in other ways, which is very unlikely.

Instead of asking hard questions, reviewing VTA's financial obligation to BART, and figuring how this tax relates to other VTA projects like Downtown East Valley, most of the boardmembers were instead telling stories about their delusions. Carl Guardino deliberately rushed this tax at the last minute directly to the board to avoid serious discussions and analysis, especially at the committee level.

Unfortunately, the same carelessness displayed by most boardmembers tonight have led to budget crises at the agency in the past eight years. Does VTA deserve more of your tax dollars? The choice is clear in November.

Federal regulation vs. state law on charter service

Silverado Stages, a charter bus company that will take over SamTrans service to the 49ers games at Candlestick park, recently filed an application with the California Public Utilities Commission for an authority to operate bus service to the stadium. SamTrans was forced to abandon the service because the new federal regulation considers premium fare stadium service to be charter service, even though no one hires the whole bus.

Previously reported, charter bus companies that have TCP (charter bus) licenses cannot operate a service that collects individual fares from passengers in California. To do so legally, the company must obtain a Passenger Stage Corporation license indicating areas the company would serve.

Meanwhile, Muni, VTA and Golden Gate Transit will continue to provide special service the 49ers games. For Muni, its special fare ($7 round trip) is lower than the $5 one way cable car fare. For VTA, normal express bus fares will be charged this season to comply with the regulation. Earlier, VTA wrote to the FTA that its 49ers service should not be considered charter because the per mile fare of its service (minus parking fees and the time drivers have to wait for passengers) was only slightly higher than the per mile fare of regular VTA express routes.

VTA Board restructuring soap opera goes on

Last year, VTA's internal audit identified deficiency regarding its board structure, especially relating to the five members representing cities other than San Jose. Because the cities rotate to serve on the board every two years based on city groupings, the smaller cities have a comparative disadvantage compared to the county supervisors and the San Jose members who could serve eight years or longer.

Early this year, a one-man committee comprised of Greg Sellers of Morgan Hill proposed a series of recommendations. Recommendations like eliminating rotational representation and reelecting the same member for two consecutive terms were approved in May.

The recommendation that the board did not approve is the rearrangement of the city groupings. Sellers proposed a new grouping scheme where Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy would have its own representative. This plan did not go well with cities in other parts of the county because the south county would be over-represented with half of the population as other city groupings.

Since then, Sellers and director David Casas of Los Altos established a committee consisted of members from the policy advisory committee (where all cities are represented) and the citizens advisory committee. Most members of the committee recommended an alternative plan where members of the policy advisory committee would select all five non-San Jose members, with votes weighted by population. This ticked off Sellers and the VTA staff.

VTA staff argued that allowing PAC to select board members would require a change in the joint powers agreement, where the County and the City of San Jose have veto power. VTA also tried to amend the committee report that supports the plan of appointment by the PAC. Due to the opposition from other members of the committee, VTA attached the report in full but with a disclaimer of the staff's disapproval.

VTA will discuss the board restructuring tonight, right after the tax vote and before the Alum Rock-Eastridge light rail extension. This should be an interesting meeting.

Friday, August 01, 2008

VTA 1/8 cent tax proposal and more

Without providing an expenditure plan, the VTA Board will consider next week placing a 1/8 cent sales tax increase on the ballot for the BART extension at the request "of a coalition of business, labor, environmental, academic and civic leaders." It is more like Carl Guardino wrote the memo and the ballot measure for VTA by himself, based on his private polling results that he refuses to share with the public.

Also without any analysis, VTA claims that the tax would generate enough funds "to fulfill VTA’s obligation to BART," which is not true. VTA General Manager Michael Burns has admitted that even with the tax, there's still a shortfall of $8 million every year. That shortfall would only cover the minimum payment for BART; however, VTA will actually be responsible for all of the operating subsidies on that extension, including when BART unilaterally increases its operating costs and when ridership fails to meet projection.

In addition, this proposal has not been discussed in any of the VTA standing or advisory committees prior to next week's VTA Board meeting. While it is obvious that Carl Guardino does not want any public participation in the drafting of this tax measure, it is something that the state auditors recommend: "Reviewing work plans for advisory committees to ensure the committees have an opportunity to review and provide input on issues in the early stages of development."

Even without sufficient funds, the VTA board is asked to reaffirm its commitment to the light rail extension from Alum Rock to Eastridge at the same meeting. Apparently, the Downtown East Valley Policy Advisory Board got disturbed by Michael Burn's quote in the San Jose Mercury News suggesting that the light rail extension could be deferred due to lack of funds. San Jose Vice Mayor Dave Cortese sent a memo to VTA reminding the agency that the 2000 Measure A was not all about BART (contrary to Carl Guardino) and that it is time for East San Jose's turn to get a light rail extension.

Although this project has entered into final design and is almost ready to build, the ususal VTA argument for spending prioritization (project readiness) will likely not apply. The problem lies the fact that VTA still operates under an old expenditure plan that assumes a new 1/4 cent sales tax, something which was criticized by the state audit released yesterday. Regardless of VTA's "commitment" to the project, the 1/8 cent sales tax pushed by Guardino will provide nothing for the light rail extension. If Dave Cortese truly believes that it is "unfathomable" for VTA to ask for a tax increase yet trying to take away this project, Cortese should vote against the proposed 1/8 cent sales tax.

Obviously, this light rail extension is useless without a light rail line to downtown via Alum Rock and Santa Clara. Without that portion, the ride from Eastridge to Downtown will take more than twice as long as the buses do today. The biggest barrier other than funding for light rail on Alum Rock and Santa Clara is the BART extension.