Getting Tough with the VTA

Threat to withhold support for new sales tax if VTA doesn’t
promise improvements
Gilroy – No new buses in Gilroy and Morgan Hill? No BART. No additional Caltrain service? No BART. No more money for South County road improvements? No BART.

That’s the new message South County leaders are sending to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, threatening to withhold support for a new sales tax to bring BART to San Jose if the VTA doesn’t promise significant transit improvements throughout South County.

With their demands, local politicians have joined a growing chorus of dissatisfaction that’s jeopardizing the united front needed to persuade two-thirds of county voters to approve a new tax.

“They keep talking about how they want buy-in from everybody and that means in South County we don’t want to be a stepchild,” Gilroy Mayor Al Pinheiro said. “We want to be at the table.”

The proposed quarter-cent on every dollar sales tax would last for 30 years and be used to operate the $4.7 billion BART-to-San Jose project.

If a measure planned for the November 2006 ballot passes it will raise Gilroy’s sales tax to 8.5 percent. The tax would supplement a half-cent increase to fund BART and other transit projects approved by voters in 2000 and replace the 10-year Measure B tax that was approved in 1996 and expires next year.

A poll taken earlier this year found the measure falling several points shy of passing. VTA officials and BART proponents say they recognize the need to provide services in all parts of the county if the measure is to pass.

But a VTA board vote planned for Thursday to place the measure on the ballot was postponed after San Jose representatives complained about a plan to scrap a rail link to the airport and some light rail services

And now Pinheiro, Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy and Supervisor Don Gage have made a list of demands that the VTA must meet before the cities will consider endorsing the sales tax proposal:

• Additional Caltrain service

• Double tracking Caltrain to Gilroy

• Double funding for the South County pavement management program

• Schedule at least two major South County roadways for upgrades

• Create community busing programs in Gilroy and Morgan Hill.

Currently, the VTA’s tax proposal, which will raise about $5.1 billion in its 30-year life, includes little funding earmarked specifically for South County aside from $100 million for Caltrain improvements.

South County could benefit from some countywide programs, including a share of $50 million intended for senior and disabled services, a possible bus rapid transit line between Morgan Hill and San Jose and, perhaps, from still undetermined increases in bus service, according to VTA sources.

That’s not enough for South County leaders, who say, based on population, South County should receive at least $245 million in improvements and possibly more because of the amount of sales tax revenue generated at the Gilroy outlets. In fiscal year 2004, one-quarter of one percent in sales tax revenue in Gilroy equaled $2.9 million. Allowing for growth, that figure will grow well beyond $100 million over the life of the tax.

“Over a 30 year period we’re going to generate close to $200 million and we’re not getting our fair share,” said Gage, who also sits on the VTA board. “Most of the money is going to go to BART. BART’s a great project, but I don’t want South County left out in the cold.”

Michael Burns, the VTA’s general manager declined to comment. South County politicians are hopeful that the VTA’s need to appeal to all parts of the county will give Gilroy and Morgan Hill some leverage in negotiations. Every previous VTA tax measure was endorsed by the Gilroy City Council. And though South County currently has just one voting member on the VTA board, support among South County voters is critical if the measure is to pass.

“By being very clear and specific with our request we’ve given them a better idea of what we need, and we wanted to convey to them that getting buy-in really is going to be important,’ said Morgan Hill Councilman Greg Sellers. “It’s not as though we have veto power, but they need a unified front to succeed and there’s value in that for us. Getting that support is significant.”

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