VTA gives nod to San Jose BART extension

Board forgoes two studies to phase in the full BART project
San Jose – If South County residents want the full benefits of two sales-tax measures they helped pass to fund BART and other transit projects, they’ll have to hope for another economic boom, and probably vote next year to tax themselves again.

In the name of saving money, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority board voted Thursday night to commit itself to a BART project that will stretch through downtown San Jose to Santa Clara and cost at least $4.2 billion.

The decision jeopardizes, and at least delays, other projects, including electrification and double-tracking of the Caltrain lines to Gilroy.

The board was presented with two proposals to study phasing in the full BART project, in particular a first-step that would bring BART as far south as Milpitas, and cost about $2 billion. One proposed study would have lasted four months and carried a price tag of $325,000. A 10-month proposal would have cost $935,000.

The 11-member board debated the proposals for more than a hour before rejecting each of them – by a 6-5 vote – led by the four members from San Jose. Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage was in favor of both.

“I’m disappointed because we wanted to get some more information, and you have to have a plan B,” Gage said Friday, adding that San Jose’s domination of the VTA board is hurting the rest of the county.

“You have to have equity among all the cities, but San Jose pretty much dominates what happens here,” Gage said. “If we can’t afford to build BART and that pulls money away from other projects, everyone gets hurt.”

The VTA depends on sales tax for 80 percent of its revenue, and the slumbering Silicon Valley economy has cost it tens of millions of dollars since 2000. The economic malaise afflicting California and the country has held up more than $1.5 billion in expected state and federal funding.

Forrest Williams, a member of the VTA board and the San Jose City council, said Friday that “there are economic issues that people are using to try to curtail the effort to bring BART to Santa Clara, but the study doesn’t give you more resources.

“The way to solve this is to move ahead and find the resources to make it happen,” he said. “We shouldn’t start disassembling because we don’t have all the money now. If we always waited until we had everything, we’d never do anything.”

Williams said that the studies are pointless because they don’t solve the funding problem, and waiting will only make it more expensive.

While BART was the most publicized of the projects promised by the sales-tax measures A and B, the revenue also is meant for a variety of light-rail, highway-widening and safety, and other transportation projects.

Measure A kicks in next year, to replace the expiring Measure B. VTA plans call for a 2006 ballot measure asking for an additional-half cent tax. Of every dollar raised by that tax, 12.5 cents will go toward BART, with the remainder left over for other projects.

“We’re going to go back to the electorate and tell them that we’re going to do what we said we would do,” Williams said. “It’s our job to be leaders. We could have built BART years ago, and the region has lost jobs and intellectual capitol because we didn’t have the farsightedness to get it done.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting, General Manager Pete Cipolla officially became the first victim of the board’s divided stance over BART.

The board voted 10 to 1, with Williams against, to pay Cipolla $334,000 in exchange for his resignation. He will end full-time work June 30.

Finally, Thursday’s meeting marked the end of Gage’s tenure as chairman of the VTA board. He was replaced by Joe Pirzynski, a Los Gatos City Councilman.

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