VTA Abandons BART Funding Plan

Worried the Federal Transportation Administration might give
BART-to-San-Jose a bad grade, valley officials withdraw request for
Gilroy – Transportation planners have withdrawn San Jose’s proposed BART extension from consideration for federal funding because the Federal Transportation Administration was poised to give the project a poor rating for a second consecutive year.

“It’s clear to me that there are still a lot of outstanding issues,” said Michael Burns, general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, Friday. “Rather than go through and having those issues reflected negatively in their report, it’s better to step back and try to work through these issues with the FTA.”

The FTA report on BART was scheduled for a February release, just as the VTA hopes to kick off a campaign to convince county voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax measure to help fund the $4.7-billion project.

Supervisor Don Gage is also a member of the VTA Board of Directors and has threatened to vote against the tax measure if it doesn’t include more funding for South County. He said the FTA’s hesitance to fund BART shouldn’t be a reason for voters to not support the project.

“We’re not meeting their requirements right now, but that can change in the future,” Gage said. “It would have been detrimental for us to have them tell us we don’t qualify. This is a smart move so we don’t get a negative report that could hurt us in the future.”

The project is eligible for up to $750 million in federal financing. Burns said his agency will work with the FTA to improve the modeling used for ridership forecasts and cost projections.

The VTA can reapply for “new starts” funding as soon as next year but does not need federal help until 2008 to remain on schedule. So far, state and local dollars are paying for preliminary design and engineering work.

“This action we’re taking now, while on it’s face looks like a step back, is going to be a positive step,” Burns said. “We’ve been struggling with the FTA and this will allow us to step back and get agreements.”

Earlier this year, the FTA said the project was not cost-effective and gave the proposed 16.3-mile extension – from Warm Springs in Fremont through downtown San Jose – one of its lowest ratings in its “new starts” program.

To improve its rating, the VTA asked the FTA to study a cheaper, above-ground segment ending at Berryessa. And in September, the VTA produced new ridership projections that predict 111,000 daily riders by 2030. The old projection was 83,000 riders by 2025.

Those changes were not enough to convince the FTA – which says the project will cost more than $6 billion – that it’s worthy of federal funds. But John Flaherty, chief of staff to U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, said his agency believes in the project that the VTA would like to build as soon as 2015.

“It’s a good project and this is a positive move by the VTA,” Flaherty said. “If the VTA takes the longer view on this, they’ll ultimately come around and be able to build this project with federal funds.”

One of the FTA’s biggest concerns is the lack of a clear financial plan for the project. The VTA is working on that plan, but it has been held up by disagreements among its representatives over what a new sales tax should pay for.

Last week, representatives of the county’s smaller cities and areas that would not be served by BART forced a delay on a vote to put the sales tax measure on the November 2006 ballot. In April, a poll sponsored by BART proponents found that a measure, which needs two-thirds support to pass, would fall a few points shy of approval.

If a measure does appear on the ballot, it will be the second time voters have been asked to raise taxes to build BART. In 2000, voters approved Measure A, a half-cent tax that promised BART and a host of other transit and road projects.

South County’s representatives, Gage and Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy, have said they will only support a new measure if it provides more Caltrain and bus service, and more money to repair and improve South County roads. Many VTA board members have said the measure will not pass without consensus on what it will pay for.

“Clearly one of [the FTA’s] issues is the financial plan,” Burns said. “We don’t know if the financial plan works without the sales tax, but we know that it does work with the quarter-cent.”