BayRail Alliance urges transit supporters and Caltrain riders to vote No on Measure B in Santa Clara County. Despite the benefits Measure B would provide for Caltrain, we have deep concerns about VTA’s credibility, as well as some of the elements included in the proposal.
VTA’s terrible credibility
For the 16 years since the passage of Measure A sales tax in 2000, VTA has failed to keep its promises. Transit has suffered as the result. Transit service declined 13% and ridership declined 23%.
Status Report on Measure A projects:
- BART extension (project shortened and still not complete, always thirst for money)
- East San Jose Light Rail (changed to bus lanes and construction stalled)
- Caltrain electrification (delayed for more than 15 years)
- Palo Alto Transit Center (canceled)
- Automated train to SJC from Caltrain/LRT (canceled)
- At least 2 additional Light Rail corridors (completely forgotten)
The mismanagement, lack of vision, and gold plating on BART has resulted in money quickly running out with almost zero result for taxpayers and transit riders. Over the course of 16 years, VTA has repeatedly depriorized Caltrain funding needs, including electrification. While we are pleased to see the electrification project going forward, we have to recognize that years of delay have resulted in costs going way up. Passengers have had to suffer service delays, as older diesel equipment ages and breaks down more often.
Unless the public says No on B, Measure B will continue VTA’s current policies and will not completely fund the rest of the 2000 Measure A’s program.
Redundant rail line still on the table
VTA proposes to use Measure B funds to extend BART beyond San Jose Diridon Station to Santa Clara Station, completely duplicating existing Caltrain service. This is a clear example of VTA’s poor decision-making. It explains why Caltrain supporters like BayRail Alliance still cannot trust VTA.
VTA to this day still does not have a clear explanation why a BART station is needed in Santa Clara. One possibility is a need to build a railyard, but the BART district recently approved an expansion of its existing yard in Hayward, eliminating that need. Also, a rail yard does not require a station. Operating costs will increase, as trains to stations need to operate regardless of passenger load, rather than just running trains to and from the yard on an as-needed basis.
VTA has played politics by building rail projects despite their terrible projected ridership. A clear example would be the Almaden light rail line. The line was built on an abandoned freight rail right of way so the construction cost was relatively low. But after it opened, the line has attracted few riders (because of the need to transfer). VTA is stuck with millions in operating costs every year to run mostly empty trains (the cost to run trains is far higher than a bus). So the fact that a rail line is politically popular in Santa Clara, or that city officials support it, does not translate into actual ridership. These riders will have plenty of options such as Caltrain and bus rapid transit.
Some say that if Measure B passes we can somehow lobby the federal government not to fund the Santa Clara segment (because the federal government has or will have invested a lot on Caltrain). If we think that this segment is a bad idea in the first place, why should we support a tax measure that will fund it?
Highway project disguised as a transit project
Highway project disguised as a transit project
One element that Measure B supporters did not agree on was the addition of lanes on Highway 85. VTA for years has planned to build high-occupancy toll lanes (express lanes) on Highway 85. Some of the cities oppose the addition of HOT lanes. They would rather support transit expansions on the corridor with bus or rail. This direction is not favored by the VTA.
A compromise of wording was reached, which was to use the word “transit lanes,” to describe the highway widening instead of express lanes. Another compromise is that this element is neither included in the ballot summary nor the ballot argument.
Measure B will enable VTA to build toll lanes on Highway 85 as originally intended. Despite the fancy “transit lane” wording, there’s currently no transit-only lanes on any freeway in California, and the previous transit-only lanes (El Monte transitway in Los Angeles) have been converted to high occupancy toll lanes. VTA could use Measure B funds to expand the pavement, run a few buses during commute hours as it does now (fulfilling the usage by transit), and use other funding sources (without voter approval) to install toll collection devices.
Instead, what VTA needs, but does not have, is a transit plan for the corridor to guide investment decisions. VTA is telling the cities that they will have to wait until after the election. If the tax is approved, VTA could argue that adding another highway lane was approved by the voters and that having it become a toll lane was inevitable.
Demand reform by voting NO on Measure B
This region has grown in the past 16 years, and congestion has worsened. Transit service never caught up. More tax money has been paid for transit but taxpayers have received few benefits. Because of poor planning and past performance, we see Measure B as more of the same. If VTA had listened to us back then, we believe that the region would enjoy the benefits of improved transit many years sooner.
Many regions are presenting transportation tax plans for voters to decide this November. Regions like Los Angeles and Seattle are presenting bold ideas for transit expansions, months after these regions opened key rail extensions.
Transit advocates need to see a strong plan from an agency with a successful track record. VTA’s Measure B is nothing like that. Measure B’s program for transit is less ambitious than even the 2000 Measure A. Also, VTA has nothing to show after spending Measure A tax revenue for 16 years. None of those projects have been completed. The last VTA rail expansion opened more than 10 years ago funded by a program approved by voters in 1996.
A strong NO vote sends a message that VTA need to reform and come up with a better plan. As we have learned from high-speed rail (approved by voters in 2008, but the project has suffered from controversies and lawsuits ever since), voters need to screen ballot measures carefully and be mindful of the pitfalls versus the potential benefits. If this measure is approved, we will continue to kick the can down the road and ensure years of inaction, while debates over contentious issues like the redundant BART line and toll lanes continue.