HOT TAKE: Fernandez Returns To the FTA

Group founder & CEO Eugene Bradley.

The following is what I have to say regarding Nuria L. Fernandez resigning from VTA yesterday to accept a post at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Note that this is NOT group position.  Just my hot take on this matter.  Check it out…

“See Something, Say Something.”

Homeland Security, via many transit agencies in our nation like our Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in Silicon Valley, remind us all of this for our safety and security.

Over the last seven years, I’ve seen and experienced Nuria L. Fernandez’s work firsthand as VTA’s General Manager and CEO as a transit user, advocate, and watchdog.  Now that she is moving on from VTA, I will say some things.

Congratulations to Ms. Fernandez on her appointment to Deputy Administrator at the FTA in the Biden administration.

As VTA General Manager, Ms. Fernandez was a vast improvement over VTA’s prior two General Managers – Michael Burns and Peter Cipolla. An improvement in terms of public transportation knowledge, and empathy. It was an honor for her to mention my name in some of her presentations – an honor I never got from neither Cipolla nor Burns.

Under her watch as VTA General Manager, Ms. Fernandez ensured the completion of the BART extension into Milpitas and North San Jose (Berryessa). I also noted how some of the ideas her staff had to improve public transit on her watch have been shot down politically. One example: dedicated bus lanes along El Camino Real between Palo Alto and Santa Clara.

Pre-COVID, as an occasional rider of VTA’s 522 Rapid, 22, 60, and 23 bus lines, I have noted the service cuts that have occurred under her watch. (This as BART was being built to Milpitas and Berryessa.)  I have also seen VTA’s record of building projects on time and on budget end on her watch. Example: the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane project along Alum Rock Avenue in East San Jose.

I’ve also seen how VTA still remained inefficient under her watch. The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report from June 2019 documents this   As planning for BART thru downtown San Jose and Santa Clara rolled on, I saw very little from her office about cutting costs from the project.  Such silence indicated little interest in controlling its costs. Especially galling given BART’s history of cost overruns on its projects and extensions since the service started in 1972.

Being Chief Executive Officer of a group has taught me that you are supposed to leave an organization better than when you first started. Given the service cuts, rising costs, inefficiency, and broken promises that occurred on her watch, hearing that Biden had her on a short list to become Secretary of Transportation, surprised me. Had Ms. Fernandez at minimum done more to help control costs of these projects like BART and the Alum Rock Ave. bus lanes, she would have earned my nod to be Secretary of Transportation. (Double bonus points if she helped increase VTA’s fare box recovery).  It was interesting to learn how Biden picked her as Deputy Administrator at the FTA. This is especially true as she was in the same position at FTA in the Clinton administration, years before joining VTA.

VTA will be hard-pressed to find a General Manager with the public transportation knowledge, experience, and energy Ms. Fernandez has. Especially for an agency like VTA that also designs & builds highways in addition to providing public transit. Historically, the former contradicts the latter, in terms of traffic relief. Here’s one example of how VTA contradicted its own traffic relief goals in South County, and its results.  How would VTA’s next General Manager handle an agency that, by its current mission and goals, contradicts itself?

Overall, like Biden is doing now with our nation, Ms. Fernandez inherited a disaster with VTA. Like the two prior General Managers at VTA, the agency is too easily dominated by what I call the political technology complex. In particular, dominant influence by business lobbying groups and powerful politicians from San Jose. Given this, and given the constant prior broken promises, it is past time to disband this VTA (Very Troubled Authority), and replace it with a public transit-focused agency with full-time decision makers. More on that another time.

Ultimately, let’s hear Ms. Fernandez’ thoughts on

  • her appointment by Biden to the Deputy Administrator post at the FTA, versus being nominated for the Secretary Of Transportation post now held by Peter Buttigieg.
  • what she learned as VTA General Manager from the general public and transit advocates like myself
  • how she would apply what she learned at VTA in her returning role at the FTA

Please join me in wishing Ms. Fernandez good luck in her role at the FTA, and future endeavors.  Let’s ensure Ms. Fernandez’ policies and ideas at the FTA benefit all urban areas of our nation, not just San Jose.

Eugene Bradley
Founder & CEO, Silicon Valley Transit Users