Reeling In the “Rail Big Fish”

This post is in response to an article in Metro Silicon Valley on allegations of cronyism on a project VTA is doing design work on.  That project involves the renovation and modern redesign of San Jose Diridon train station, served by VTA buses, light rail, Amtrak, Caltrain, intercity bus services.  The station will serve as a stop for California High-Speed Rail in the future..  VTA just gave its response to the article, denying the allegations.

Note that the post is NOT an indication of any group position on the matter.  This is simply my take on the latest local transit news.

After reading the article and VTA’s response, I noted this is the latest example on how transit projects in the San Francisco Bay Area are the world’s most expensive.  The Metro Silicon Valley article gives examples of how past transit projects were late and/or over budget like the San Jose Transit Mall, AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, and VTA’s BRT bus lanes project in East San Jose.  (The effects of the BRT project in East San Jose forced businesses to unite and form the Alum Rock Santa Clara St. Business Association.)

The “G” Factor

As for Google’s involvement with the project: it seems it wants to build its own “city within a city” in downtown San Jose.  While I leave this to others to comment on, from my own experience working in Silicon Valley, having people sign non-disclosure agreement (NDA) forms before providing key information indicates you don’t want the public to know something.  What does Google have to hide from San Jose residents in its vision?  Unless Google is hiding secrets involving national security in its “city within a city” proposal, the general public needs to know what is truly going on.  Hiding information only raises suspicion.

Know Your Other Role, Mr. Mayor

The article also mentioned how San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo was initially informed of the allegations by Metro Silicon Valley.  While it is good that Mayor Liccardo is asking questions of VTA staff, there is one other thing he can do.  Mayor Liccardo is one of three Santa Clara County elected officials who serve as “commissioners” on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).  Here’s what the MTC does:

We plan, invest and coordinate to keep the Bay Area mobile, sustainable and prosperous. At the same time as addressing the needs of a growing population, we are committed to preserving the diverse communities and natural beauty that make the Bay Area a desirable place to live and work.

Note the key words in that piece: plan and coordinate.  If he has not done so already, Mayor Liccardo needs to be talking to MTC staff immediately to help ensure VTA is actually following its own contract bidding processes.  While he’s at it, he can ask MTC staff to ensure all players mentioned above work together to create the best, most useful Diridon Station possible.  As Mayor of the Bay Area’s largest most populated city, and access to “C-Suite” officers in local companies, he has the power and stroke to make it happen.  Given the transit players mentioned above, the project is getting funding from the state and federal government.  As MTC distributes that state and federal funding to this and other projects, it surprised me that they were not involved in the planning and coordination.  This must change.

Conclusion

Too many Bay Area transit projects have been late and/or over budget, at the expense of taxpayers and the riding public.  If proven true, the Diridon Station redesign project will be yet another example. The allegation is Yet Another Black Eye for VTA when one notes how their “New Service” is not working for many people.  Elected officials and VTA staff must do better by being more open and transparent on this and other transit projects.  Otherwise, they will face a public push to replace VTA with an agency where openness and transparency, and customer service are acted on, not written in press releases.

Eugene Bradley
Founder, Silicon Valley Transit Users

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