Gloves Off in Battle Over BART

County’s smaller cities join to fight funding proposal
San Jose – The BART debate got ugly Thursday as the county’s small cities banded together to temporarily halt a plan to fund a BART line to San Jose with a new sales tax.

At the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s final board meeting of the year, Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage – whose district includes Gilroy – led an effort to turn back a proposal by San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales to force a decision on funding and completing the $4.7 billion BART project as soon as 2015.

Rather than ask county voters to pay an extra quarter-cent in sales tax to build BART, potentially at the expense of transportation projects in other parts of the county, VTA board members agreed to two more months of negotiations before deciding if they will put the tax measure on the November 2006 ballot.

While all but one of the 12 VTA board members – Santa Clara’s Jamie Matthews – agreed to the proposal, it was made amid evidence of a bitter divide between San Jose and the county’s smaller cities.

“They don’t care what you think, Don,” Los Altos Mayor David Casas told Gage of the five VTA board members from San Jose. “They don’t care what I think. I don’t know if they care what voters think. If we can’t get a two-thirds majority on the board, what are voters going to think. It’s one thing to play smoke and mirrors here; it’s another thing to play smoke and mirrors with the voters.”

The sales tax measure that transportation planners want to place on the November 2006 ballot would fund BART and a host of transportation improvements first promised by Measure A in 2000, when voters approved a half-cent tax increase that begins next year. Those projects are in jeopardy because sales tax revenue has been much less than expected.

A new tax would also fund new senior and disabled transit services and a new pavement management program. To succeed, it must receive two-thirds voter support.

A poll taken earlier this year suggested the measure will fail, and in recent weeks, politicians from cities that would not be served by a new BART line from Fremont to San Jose have threatened to withhold support for it.

And South County will have more leverage the next time the VTA board convenes. Under the VTA’s system of rotating board seats among cities, two cities anxious for BART service will lose their seats at the end of the year to cities that would not be served by a new BART line.

Bob Livengood, of Milpitas, and Matthews, who works for San Jose but represents the city of Santa Clara, will be replaced by Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy and a still unnamed official from Mountain View.

If the VTA’s new plan doesn’t include more funding for South County road repairs and Caltrain services, Gage said he would encourage voters to say no to a new tax.

“I don’t tell people how to vote,” Gage said after the meeting. “I’m going to give them a choice, but my opinion is going to be that I won’t support it because it doesn’t have what we need in South County.”

In October, Gage, Kennedy and Gilroy Mayor Al Pinheiro threatened to withhold support for the measure unless South County received a larger share of the tax’s benefits. They argued that the sales tax generated in the area, particularly at Gilroy’s Premium Outlets, entitles the region to more Caltrain and bus service and a greater share of road and expressway funds.

Several board members, even those who support the BART project, said they wanted to delay the vote because a divided board will make it difficult to sell the tax measure to voters. Kennedy said he was heartened by the delay and is hopeful it will result in a more balanced funding plan.

“Dialogue is a good thing and to bring things out in the sunshine is a good thing,” he said. “This action to delay allows that and takes us away from the perception that the VTA is run by San Jose.”

Gage said he asked for the delay because the board had had just two days to review two new BART funding scenarios, one prepared by VTA staff, the other by San Jose. Neither proposal includes additional funding for South County. The San Jose plan calls for reallocating some Caltrain funding to other projects.

“That concerns me a great deal. We’re finding more people are moving south out of Santa Clara County, and [without Caltrain] people will not be able to take the train when 101 fills up,” Gage said, adding that moving quickly on the proposals will sow distrust among voters. “I think we’re jumping too quickly on this.”

Gonzales said that he was mystified that several board members said they weren’t ready to vote on a BART funding plan that has been circulating in different versions for months.

“How can it be surprising when this has gone on for a year?” he said. “I think it’s only fair that the region pay better respect to our city. Every time we make a proposal we’re criticized and labeled as the bad guys, but we’re just as committed to relieving congestion on our roads and just as frustrated that we don’t have the revenue. We need to get out of the finger-pointing business and name-calling business.”

San Jose Councilman Forrest Williams called BART a regional benefit and offered to show his fellow VTA board members the merits of the project.

“I’ve heard so many excuses today it’s unbelievable. Why are we in this job?,” he said. “If you need help, I’ll help. I’ll come down and help you do the research.”

What Officials Want

Directors of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority agreed Thursday to delay a vote on a new sales tax to fund BART to San Jose until February, when yet another funding scenario will be presented.

Local officials say they won’t support the tax unless it pays for transit improvements in South County including:

– More Caltrain service

– More bus service

– Road repairs

– Expressway improvements

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