Here we go again. On November 8, Santa Clara County voters will once again decide a transportation sales tax measure for Santa Clara County’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).
Remember the slogans of prior transportation sales tax measures in Santa Clara County? “A + B = Traffic Relief” (1996) and “Traffic Relief NOW” (2000) are some examples. Ask yourself: is access, speed, and reliability of public transit better than what it was when I was asked to approve a transit sales tax measure? Is traffic more or less than what it was the last time I was asked to approve a transportation sales tax?
Read on for information that supplements what’s already out there on why you need to vote NO on Measure B November 8.
What’s In Measure B, Anyway?
According to VTA, this is what Measure B would provide, if voters pass it with a 2/3+1 “supermajority” vote. (Figures stated are in 2017 dollars.)
- BART Phase II at $1.5 billion
- Bicycle/Pedestrian Program at $250 million
- Caltrain Capacity Improvements at $300 million
- Caltrain Grade Separations at $700 million
- County Expressways at $750 million
- Highway Interchanges at $750 million
- Local Streets and Roads at $1.2 billion
- SR 85 Corridor at $350 million
- Transit Operations at $500 million
If passed by County voters by 2/3-vote or more, it would add another 1/2-cent in sales tax revenue totaling more than $6.3 billion for the next 30 years. It would be the sixth such sales tax County residents would have passed, in addition to similar transportation measures passed in 1976, 1984, 1996, 2000 and 2008.
As you read this, remember: VTA also designs and builds highway toll lanes and interchanges, in addition to providing bus and light rail service in Santa Clara County. Here’s a list of VTA’s ongoing and completed highway projects in addition to their transit and other planning projects.
Supporters and Opponents of Measure B
Groups supporting Measure B include:
- Silicon Valley Leadership Group
- Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition
Groups opposing Measure B include:
- Sierra Club (Loma Prieta Chapter)
- Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association
- BayRail Alliance
We discussed the pros and cons of Measure B on our email list and our Facebook page. Learn why we are opposing Measure B – and our alternatives – below. The information is a supplement to information already mentioned against Measure B.
Some Good From Measure B
Our group had no problem with any of the proposed funding for Caltrain. This despite funding for these Caltrain improvements voters approved as part of Measure A back in 2000.
Improve Caltrain: Double Track to Gilroy and Electrify from Palo Alto to GilroyExtend the Caltrain double track from the San Jose Tamien Station through Morgan Hill to Gilroy. Provide VTA’s funds for the partnership with San Francisco and San Mateo counties to electrify Caltrain from San Francisco to Gilroy.
As of this writing, the double tracking to Gilroy mentioned above has yet to materialize.
Our group saw some merit with $1.2 billion allocated for local streets/roads. Ride any VTA bus or ride any cycle on any street in Santa Clara County and note how rough the bus rides, as highlighted in this video:
Having Santa Clara County residents tax themselves for pothole repair would not be necessary had the California State Board of Equalization (BOE) not lowered the state excise tax on gasoline for the third straight year back in February. When it took effect July 1, the act removed over $328 million in state funding for roads and public transit. This is abetted by the State Legislature failing to act on more than a $130 billion backlog in California local and state road repairs San Jose alone has more than $521 million in deferred road maintenance.
Instead of another regressive sales tax measure, here’s a proposal that County citizens need to monitor and ensure passage of. That proposal in the State Legislature from State Senator Jim Beall and State Assembly member Jim Frazier that will provide $7.4 billion annually for road repair and public transportation via a 17 cents/gallon gas tax increase. This shifts the burden of transit funding to motoristsi, removing some financial burden from lower-income families.
The Issues We Had With Measure B
Highway Expansion Does NOT Work
Our group had major issues with the total of $1.5 billion proposed for “County Expressways” and “Highway Interchanges” in Measure B.
One project VTA proposes in Measure B in particular, pointed out by Andrew Boone: spending $440 million of your money to “depress” one mile of Lawrence Expressway under three sections in northern Sunnyvale, for grade separation. A better alternative for a minimum 1% of that amount? Promote and increase frequency on VTA’s 328 limited stop bus line to run at least all day. Currently, the 328 only runs four times per weekday only – twice each during the morning and evening rush hour periods, respectively. While this is great for 9am-5pm weekdays, many Silicon Valley workers do not work those particular hours. As a long-term idea, the 328 should be run similar to the 323 limited stop bus line along Stevens Creek Boulevard.
A “Mr. Roadshow’ column in the Mercury News from 2014 detailed how Highway 101 is “as jammed as ever” after over $1.2 billion of your money was spent to expand it. This and other highway expansions were approved by Santa Clara County voters in 1984 and 1996. As the story will show, adding more lanes never solved anything.
One except from the story:
A decade ago, the 85-101 interchange at Shoreline Boulevard was rebuilt at a cost of $123.5 million, making it the most expensive interchange in Silicon Valley.
“The PR message was that it would greatly reduce traffic congestion on northbound 101,” said Diane Farrar of San Jose. “The congestion became, however, worse than ever and remains so years later. Is anyone accountable for this mess?”
The answer to Ms. Farrar’s question: VTA’s Board of Directors is ultimately accountable for that interchange. The 85-101 interchange in Mountain View was approved by County voters as part of Measures A & B in 1996. That interchange opened in 2006.
Akos Szoboszlay emailed me personally about Highway 85 after it was built, and its effects after it was completed.
For example, despite their promise to provide “traffic relief” in 1984, their brand new freeway 85 took just two years for the traffic to return. In fact, the congestion on that route (or “corridor”) after two years was worse than it ever has been (according to the Mercury News). That’s because the subsidy for car commuting encouraged people to buy new tract housing in south San Jose, while working in north County (Sunnyvale, Mt. View, Palo Alto). Nobody benefits except the special interests wanting more car commuters from further and further away. (They don’t really believe in transit due to their very short-term business model.) Other freeway subsidy projects encouraged people to buy a home in Tracy and work here, giving us their pollution and congestion.
One solution to this problem mentioned in the above Mercury News story:
“Just throwing more money at our transportation problems is not what we need,” said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of the advocacy group TransForm. “We need innovation. Without innovation, we’ll keep throwing billions more into 20th-century infrastructure projects and we’ll get 20th-century results. Ever-increasing traffic, worsening pollution, and people separated further and further from each other.”
One member of our email list, Thomas Mayer, said it best: “I have always voted yes on the transportation measures. This time I am voting NO. Far too much money to freeway lanes that support suburban sprawl.”
Our group challenges anyone to name one highway expansion project in the United States that has ever relieved traffic longer than five years.
Not Enough Money For Buses, Light Rail, and Bicycle Paths
At the June 2, 2016 VTA Board of Directors’ meeting, several Board members commented on how there was not enough money for bus and rail service and bicycle projects in Measure B. In other words, no new or expanded bus lines or light rail. No known service increases in Measure B as well.) At 2:45:00 of the video recording, San Jose Mayor (and VTA Board member) Sam Liccardo pined over not enough money in Measure B. “We all agree it’s still not enough,” Liccardo said.
Liccardo also hinted that another sales tax ballot measure would be needed to make up for this shortfall at 2:45:55 of the video. “It won’t just be one ballot measure, but it certainly needs to be this ballot measure.” Translation: there will be another sales tax ballot measure for County voters to approve within two to four years.
Measure B Can Change At Any VTA Board Meeting
Even if County voters pass Measure B with a 2/3 vote November 8, the VTA Board of Directors can change what’s in the measure within a 30-day government notice. It’s buried in the “fine print” of the measure mentioned earlier…
If approved by a 3/4 majority of the VTA Board of Directors, and only after a
noticed public meeting in which the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors,
and the city council of each city in Santa Clara County have been notified at least
30 days prior to the meeting, VTA may modify the Program for any prudent
purpose, including to account for the results of any environmental review required
under the California Environmental Quality Act of the individual specific projects
in the Program; to account for increases or decreases in federal, state, and local
funds, including revenues received from this tax measure; to account for
unexpected increase or decrease in revenues; to add or delete a project from the
Program in order to carry out the overall purpose of the Program; to maintain
consistency with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Plan; to shift funding
between project categories; or to take into consideration new innovations or
This means that nine out of the twelve VTA Board members must approve any changes to Measure B. Remember: five of the twelve VTA Board members also serve on the San Jose City Council or are the Mayor. Two members of the VTA Board also serve on the County Board of Supervisors. Given that four of the five County Supervisors’ seats represent San Jose in some manner, means San Jose potentially controls seven of the nine override votes.
While this is an improvement over prior ballot measures requiring a simple majority vote for changes to occur, any change to a ballot measure should really be put to a vote of the people. If VTA can change Measure B after voter approval on little public notice, why promise voters things that cannot be kept? Like any government agency, VTA ultimately answers to YOU as its collective manager and financier. As one of VTA’s collective managers and financiers, YOU should have final say in any changes to what your fellow citizens approved.
Can’t Trust VTA For Anything
Bait and Switch
Speaking of changes, VTA has a history of changing projects from what voters originally approved. Citizens were informed of these changes only days before the VTA Board approved them. Both examples are from 2000 Measure A.
The first involves what should have been light rail linking downtown San Jose to the East Valley:
Extend Light Rail from Downtown San Jose to the East Valley byBuilding a Downtown/EastValley Light Rail line from downtown San Jose serving the new San Jose City Halland San Jose State University, out Santa Clara Street to CapitolAvenue to join the Capitol Light Rail line thensouth to Eastridge Shopping Center.
Instead, VTA is spending $148 million of your money to build and run bus rapid transit (BRT) along this corridor. While light rail construction from Alum Rock to Eastridge will start in 2017, light rail was also supposed to run down Alum Rock Avenue to downtown San Jose. Read up on what happened during construction of the BRT system along Alum Rock Avenue.
The second, and little-known, example also involves BRT along El Camino Real between Palo Alto and downtown San Jose. Here’s what VTA promised in Measure A back in 2000:
Improve Bus Service in Major Bus Corridors
For VTA Line 22 (Palo Alto to Eastridge Center)
and the Stevens Creek Boulevard Corridor, purchase
new low-floor articulated buses. Improve bus stops
and major passenger transfer points and provide bus
queue-jumping lanes at intersections to permit buses
quick access along the corridors.
Here’s the definition of a queue jump bus lane. Photo is below.
Instead, VTA proposes to have dedicated bus lanes run along El Camino Real. This has been met with opposition from cities like Sunnyvale. Would such opposition occur in the first place, had VTA stuck with what the voters approved for El Camino Real? Perhaps we would have advanced, modern bus service right now had VTA stuck with what it promised voters back in 2000…
Transit Ridership and On-time Performance Since 2001
Between 2001 and today, after voters passed the last comprehensive transportation measure there, Santa Clara County’s population (source: US Census Bureau) increased from 1.6904 million to 1.8946 million – a 10.7% increase.
Looking at VTA’s year-to-year overall ridership numbers from 2001 until now, VTA’s light rail ridership increased 9%. However, the basic lifeblood of transportation in Silicon Valley – the bus – had a different story. Since 2001, VTA’s buses has nearly 31.9% fewer riders now than in 2001. Much of the bus ridership drops are easily traced to the fare hike/service reduction cycles VTA enacted in the early 2000’s.
In January 2008, VTA underwent a restructuring of its bus system resulting in an additional 9% overall service cut. Now, VTA is undertaking a second transit network restructuring conceptually known as the “Next Network.”vta-next-network-90
One of the three concepts developed for bus routes pictured above – “Network 90” – suggests VTA to eliminate many “Community Bus” lines not on a main thoroughfare like El Camino Real or Monterey Highway. The “Network 90” bus concept features no more VTA bus service in Los Gatos, southern San Jose, and neighborhoods off Monterey Highway in Morgan Hill and Gilroy
One other key measurement of how a transit agency is doing: on-time performance. According to its own numbers, VTA’s on-time performance for buses and light rail fails to meet its own targets. VTA’s latest figures from 2015 indicate their buses and light rail ran 85.3% and 77.4% on time, respectively. VTA’s targets for bus and light rail on-time performance were 92.5% and 95%, respectively. Both figures have dropped for three consecutive years.
Would you give more of your money to a transit agency who still struggles to keep its own printed schedules?
Where Your Money Has Been All These Years
The Palo Alto Daily Post and Mountain View Voice had articles detailing where your money went since voters passed Measure A in 2000.
A breakdown of expenditures from the Palo Alto Daily Post article is below, using numbers they received from VTA. Of the $1.4 billion in sales tax revenue raised by Measure A in 2000:
- $642 million went to the BART project (extension from the East Bay to San Jose)
- $53 million went to Caltrain
- $29 million went to the VTA bus program
- $99 million went to VTA light rail
- $2 million went to the Mineta San Jose International Airport (proposed) tram
- $235 million went to VTA for operating costs
- $6 million went for miscellaneous operating expenses
- $293 million went to pay off bonds
- $81 million went to “fund exchange payments”
The Mountain View Voice detailed research by County Supervisor Joseph Simitian from the county and VTA. Per Simitian’s research, of the $3.65 billion raised so far by 2000 Measure A and 2008 Measure B, nearly 80% of the money raised so far went to the BART extension into San Jose.
Read VTA’s expenditures and project report card from 2000 Measure A. Ask yourself: is taking a bus or train better and faster for me now than it was when VTA last asked me to approve a sales tax measure? Have the projects VTA has completed or are ongoing sped up my daily commute? If you answer NO to either of these questions, then you need to vote NO on Measure B November 8.
Conclusion: A better alternative to Measure B
Santa Clara County tends to sell itself to others as a “liberal” and “progressive” place to live in. It surprises us that VTA would propose another sales tax measure disguised as “relieving traffic” that further punishes middle-class and poor working families. As you have read, Measure B as proposed does nothing to increase needed bus and light rail service in Santa Clara County. That it can be changed without a vote of the people at any VTA Board of Directors meeting makes no sense.
Our group would have considered supporting Measure B if the $1.5 billion proposed for “County Expressways” and “Highway Interchanges” went instead to funding expanded bus and light rail service. Also, we would have also supported Measure B if it contained language making VTA reduce its operating expenses by 20% within five years, or rescind collection of the sales tax. According to the latest figures from National Transit Database, VTA’s farebox recovery ratio of 12% is the lowest among many of the agencies it compares itself with. This indicates the need to be more efficient.
Finally, our group would have supported Measure B had VTA worked more with institutions like Stanford, Google and Apple to work on innovative technologies like driverless buses, and light rail running on solar power. Even a localized version of Elon Musk’s “hyperloop” should be among innovations VTA must work on. Such innovations, if executed properly, can help reduce operating expenses while reducing auto traffic gridlock.
As an alternative to having BART run from San Jose Diridion to Santa Clara (duplicating existing Caltrain, ACE and Capitol Corridor rail service) consider this plan from the Friends of Caltrain which saves $230 million. That $230 million can also be used to help build an integrated Great America rail and bus station that would serve an upcoming $6.5 billion mixed-use development in Santa Clara near Levi’s Stadium.
All of this requires citizens of Santa Clara County to be more informed, active, and vocal on transportation issues. David Foote said it best on our email list when he expressed opposition to Measure B.
Our elected representatives at city, county, state and federal levels are doing an absolutely detestable job addressing real 21st Century transportation issues across our entire region. They delight in squabbling among themselves, kicking the can down the road, passing the buck, blaming others, and when in doubt, dreaming up confusing ballot measures and punting the ball back to the voters!They should, of course, be taking responsibility, analyzing the issues, crafting solutions with their colleagues and doing the job we elected them to do.Their inactions and inertia have done virtually nothing to eliminate the Balkanized political, planning and funding structures that pit us against one another and guarantee gross inefficiencies, massive waste and long-term sub-optimization.
The time has come for citizens of the greater Bay Area to categorically refuse further support of any piecemeal transportation measures put before us, such as Measure B. We must demand our elected representatives at all levels work together to DO THEIR JOBS, give us meaningful area-wide transportation planning reform, eliminate Balkanization, and start moving us ahead to give us the world-class transit networks we need and deserve.Nothing less should be acceptable to us. If current office-holders can’t or won’t do their jobs, it is up to us to put our shoulders to the wheel and replace them with people who will.Tall order? Absolutely. Will take a long time to accomplish? No doubt. But unless people like us start shaking this tree, it is for sure going to fall over on us.
Founder, Silicon Valley Transit Users
Disclosure: our group was part of the “Envision Silicon Valley” effort that crafted what is Measure B.