VTA’s Big Ask…and More7 min. read

The November 3 Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Board Of Directors’ meeting had lots of information discussed. Among key issues discussed:

  • Proposals to speed up light rail thru downtown San Jose.
  • Why there have been so many bus service cancellations on some routes in the last two months.
  • A change in how VTA applies for federal funding for extending BART into downtown San Jose.

Feel free to view the Board meeting in its entirety above. Meanwhile, here’s what was discussed November 3, in order of Agenda items. Links in listed show what was discussed, approximately at that moment.

General Manager’s Report (Item 5.2)

General Manager and CEO Carolyn Gonot and staff gave their report on the state of VTA. Ms. Gonot mentioned the imminent opening of the U.S. Highway 101/Blossom Hill Rd. pedestrian overcrossing later in the month. She also mentioned that VTA Staff will soon accept public input on two long-term planning projects. Those long-term planning projects are Valley Transportation Plan 2050 (VTP 2050) and the “Visionary Network” for future Santa Clara County transportation improvements. This in addition to updates on media coverage, events VTA is a part of, and what VTA employees are doing for volunteer work throughout Santa Clara County.

Ms. Gonot gave an update on VTA bus (lack of) availability and recent rash of service losses on some bus lines. I gave testimony as follow-up to VTA’s September 6 bus and light rail no-shows due to extreme heat came after John Courtney’s testimony to the Board and Staff. More on what’s going on – and how VTA is addressing this issue further – will be in a future article.

Presentation: Speeding Up Light Rail Thru Downtown San Jose (Item 7.3)

One criticism of VTA light rail details how the trains slow to a crawl thru downtown San Jose. This Agenda Item featured an update from Jason Kim, Senior Transportation Planner at VTA, regarding plans to help speed up light rail thru downtown San Jose. This includes several alternatives to the current routing of light rail thru 1st and 2nd streets in downtown San Jose.

After Mr. Kim’s presentation, I gave testimony inquiring Mr. Kim about whether or not connections to other VTA bus lines and the upcoming BART line thru downtown are being considered in these plans. Seeing the presentation, such connections in all of the alternatives were lacking.

Given how many destinations in Santa Clara County require more than one transit transfer to access, this will be something worth tracking.

VTA’s “Big Ask” From the Feds (Item 7.5)

The VTA Board received an update from VTA staff on Phase II of the BART extension into downtown San Jose and Santa Clara. Gary Griggs, Chief BART Silicon Valley Program Officer, gave an introduction and update to the item. This also included an “Independent Peer Review” presentation by staff from the American Public Transit Association (APTA). The presentation included a table of trade-offs between single-bore and twin-bore tunneling methods. Finally, the presentation illustrated VTA/BART’s reasons for going with the single-bore approach for the tunnel underneath downtown San Jose.

Ryan Odoshemi (spelling?), in Public Comment, raised questions about the presentation. He first inquired about when a public report on the presentation will be made available. He next inquired about time-to-build for single-bore vs. twin-bore previously approved and environmentally cleared. VTA Board and APTA Staff on hand answer questions from Mr. Odoshemi as well as Board members Sam Liccardo and Pat Burt, who had their own questions on the APTA staff presentation.

The biggest part of this agenda item – and this Board meeting – is when VTA staff discuss how it will change its Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding application for BART Phase II. Two articles in the Mercury News further detail tunnel plan endorsements by experts, VTA Board members’ concerns, and what VTA is now asking from the Federal government.

Here’s a more technical analysis of what VTA is now asking the federal government to do.

In other words, VTA applied to move its federal funding application for BART Phase II into the Federal “New Starts” funding program.

Here’s what VTA’s CEO/General Manager Carolyn Gonot had to say about the funding application move:

“We can almost double the federal investment in the project,” VTA General Manager Carolyn Gonot said in an interview this week. Santa Clara County residents have voted twice to tax themselves — first in 2000 and again in 2008 — to make the BART project a reality. Local voters have “have done their share,” Gonot added. South Bay taxpayers have agreed to pay about $2.8 billion through sales taxes and another $375 million in bridge tolls.

In total, the agency needs $9.3 billion to ensure the project is properly funded. The number is primarily based on an earlier FTA analysis that pinned the likely cost at $9.1 billion. Gonot said the agency adopted the FTA’s analysis and tacked on an extra $200 million due to rising interest rates. “We just marked it up,” she said. “I hate to say that — we’re trying to be as conservative as possible as we go out there.”


Per the same Mercury News article, the current estimated cost of the BART Silicon Valley Phase II extension is more than $9.3 billion. It’s 35% higher than the prior $6.9 billion cost estimate, and double the estimate in 2014. Here’s what makes VTA’s latest move for BART Silicon Valley Phase II a “Big Ask”:

If the FTA accepts the VTA’s plan for more federal funding, it would be “the largest single New Starts grant in history,” said Eric Goldwyn, a New York University professor who studies transit project costs. “That’s a big ask.”


This is something that will continue to be followed, as needed. Stay tuned.


Based on the November 3 Board meeting and what was discussed, here are my takes:

  • It’s clear that VTA needs a Chief Operating Officer (COO) to help coordinate safety, state inspections, cleanliness, and maintenance of its bus and light rail fleet. My feeling is that current staff can only do so much, given BART Phase II and highway design and construction work as part of VTA’s duties. Will they hire one to replace David Hill, who left to form his own transit consulting firm earlier this year?
  • As for proposals for speeding up light rail thru downtown San Jose: regardless of what is chosen, ability to connect with VTA buses and BART in downtown San Jose will be key to its success. One will still need to transfer to a bus from light rail in downtown San Jose (Santa Clara station) to reach areas along Stevens Creek Blvd., northbound along El Camino Real, or to areas south of downtown, not accessible by light rail. Also, how much time will be saved on each of the proposed plans, versus the current light rail alignment along 1st & 2nd Streets at 15 mph maximum speed? This in addition to how costs will be controlled with the final, chosen project.
  • Speaking of cost controls: it seems VTA and BART are leaving this with bidding contractors to determine how much BART Phase II will costs. Correct me if I’m wrong on this. I feel that VTA must first answer this: how will they hold the winning contractor(s) to their bid? In particular, a low bid being suddenly inflated due to change order(s) by the winning contractor(s). Is VTA prepared to handle this eventuality?

All this will continue to be Worth Watching.

So, what are your feelings on what VTA Board Members and Staff discussed? Please comment below.

Eugene Bradley
Founder & CEO, Silicon Valley Transit Users