Up sales tax for BART

San Jose
– The great BART debate got a little heated Thursday.
Two members of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority
board refused to endorse San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales’ plan to
fast-track the project, and board member Don Gage urged the agency
to consider a world without BART.
San Jose – The great BART debate got a little heated Thursday.

Two members of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority board refused to endorse San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales’ plan to fast-track the project, and board member Don Gage urged the agency to consider a world without BART.

“I’m not against BART,” Gage said after the VTA board convened to discuss Gonzales’ proposal. “There’s too much emotion involved. I want to look at this from a business perspective.”

From a business perspective, the project to extend BART from Fremont to Santa Clara via downtown San Jose and the airport is in trouble. Outgoing VTA general Manager Pete Cipolla put the project’s price tag at $5 billion Thursday, the federal government has refused to fund it, and revenue from the 2000 Measure A half-cent sales tax that was supposed to build BART is running at least one-third below projections. Gage said that he fears AC Transit will not be able to fund its portion of the project, from Warm Springs to Milpitas.

“That would be the show-stopper,” Gage said. “If it isn’t done in the other county.”

But Gage also said that he believes BART can get built without federal and state money if the VTA is willing to sacrifice, or at least put off, other projects promised by Measure A, and that’s what Gonzales wants to do.

The mayor’s plan calls for eliminating one downtown San Jose station to save $100 million, delaying by several years projects such as Caltrain electrification and a link between Caltrain and the airport, and scrapping one of the two light rail extension promised in Measure A. Gonzales wants VTA staff to compose a spending plan that assumes a new quarter-cent sales tax and stock offerings to make BART the “priority project on an optimum schedule for construction and operations.”

Thursday, Gonzales called for “shared sacrifice,” and said he wanted to “begin a dialogue that will bring regional consensus and keep faith with what the voters approved in 2000.”

But the rift between the cities that would be serviced by BART and those that would not was evident Thursday, with County Supervisor Liz Kniss and Los Altos Mayor David Casas refusing to even consider Gonzales’ plan.

“There are different ways to get from point A to point B,” Casas said. “You can get there methodically or you can lurch. I see this as a lurch.”

Kniss, who represents Palo Alto, called a ridership projection of 89,000 people a day that dates to the late 1990’s as “almost an urban myth,” and questioned the point of a sales-tax measure that would raise only $80 million a year. She criticized Gonzales for asking for sacrifices while suggesting only a 2 percent cut to the BART budget.

“That’s not a lot of pain, Ron, to be quite honest,” Kniss said. “I don’t see this as something that will be of equal benefit to the entire county.”

Casas and Kniss were the only two of 12 VTA members to vote against adopting Gonzales’ plan as a framework for discussion at future meetings, but several members amended it, including Gage, who said that Gonzales’ desire to forget about projects that don’t meet funding requirements must also apply to BART.

Gage stressed he wasn’t trying to administer a poison pill, but said “I’m a little concerned that we’re not looking at all of the options we have,” he said. “If projects aren’t going to be complete, then we should move funding to a project that will be built. That should be true for all projects.”

Gage also said he doesn’t believe voters will pass a sales-tax measure. And if they do, he said, the money will barely maintain VTA’s status quo.

“Without it, we might be looking at 20 percent service cuts,” he said.

But several board members, most notably Jaime Matthews of Santa Clara and Gonzales’ colleagues from the San Jose City Council, were vocal in their support of the mayor’s plan.

Councilwoman Cindy Chavez praised Gonzales as “the pioneer who gets all the arrows,” and said she wished Kniss and Casas viewed the plan as an olive branch rather than a stick in the eye.

“We all have to leave something behind,” she said.

In an interview, Gonzales rejected a suggestion that Milpitas, Santa Clara and San Jose take more responsibility for financing BART.

“We’ve never done that before,” Gonzales said. “We didn’t do it for Caltrain. BART will benefit the entire region. People in South County recognize that they can take Caltrain and then transfer to BART and ride into Oakland. And getting BART into the South Bay provides an opportunity to one day bring BART all the way to Gilroy.”

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