Although Delayed, BART Extension Inevitable, GM Says

Valley Transportation Authority general manager says people
mover is a priority; No back-up plan if tax measure fails at
Gilroy – The head of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority said Tuesday that a BART extension to San Jose is inevitable, even if it is delayed by political squabbling and financial shortfalls.

“I don’t see any likelihood that BART won’t happen,” VTA General Manager Michael Burns said. He added that, for now, his agency has no back-up plan should a new sales tax measure to fund BART fail at the polls next year.

“BART is the priority. It may not happen on the same schedule, or it may be a different configuration,” Burns said. “It’s a catch-22 because as the schedule moves out the cost increases.”

In a wide-ranging interview with the Dispatch editorial board, Burns discussed BART, the challenges of leading the VTA through politically turbulent times, and the chances that Santa Clara County’s effort to get its own new tax passed may torpedo the VTA’s measure.

And addressing questions about the VTA’s alleged favoritism toward San Jose, Burns said this region figures prominently in the agency’s plans and made a case for BART’s benefits south of San Jose.

“We care about South County,” he said, listing a number of studies and initiatives the agency has undertaken to improve roads and transit in South County. “We recognize that the vast majority of South County residents are commuting into Silicon Valley and VTA is planning for their needs through public transit and highway improvements.”

Burns pointed to the widening of U.S. Route 101 to Morgan Hill, the just completed Southern Gateway and Land Use Study, the ongoing South County Circulation Study and an upcoming investigation into weekend and expanded weekday Caltrain service, at the behest of Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy, as proof of the agency’s commitment to this area. He said BART would alleviate congestion in San Jose that slows down many South County commuters each day.

“Maybe it won’t take cars off the road at the 101-85 interchange, but it will take cars off the road at Alum Rock,” Burns said. “It will keep businesses in Silicon Valley and support a region with a healthy sales tax bases and a healthy business base.”

He also said that forgoing BART would not free up money for road improvements in South County because the 2000 sales tax measure to fund BART was limited to transit projects.

“There’s a misconception that if we don’t do BART there will be more money for highway funding and that’s not the case,” Burns said. “They are two different funds.”

The VTA’s most optimistic scenario envisions the $4.7-billion BART line between Fremont and San Jose built by 2018. To do that, the agency will have to place a quarter-cent sales tax measure on the November 2006 ballot and win approval from two-thirds of county voters.

That effort has bogged down in disagreements among VTA board members about what other projects the tax should pay for. Earlier this month, the VTA board delayed a vote on a tax measure until February in the hope of achieving consensus on a financial plan.

Without a new tax, Burns said, the VTA will not have the money to build many of the projects promised to voters who approved the half-cent sales tax of Measure A in 2000 because tax revenue has fallen far short of expectations.”

South County officials, including Kennedy and Supervisor Don Gage have said they may not support the new tax if it doesn’t do more for South County. And last month, County Executive Pete Kutras announced that a new poll showed broad support for a county tax measure to fund health and social services, raising the possibility of competing measures on the November 2006 ballot.

“If the VTA goes forward with a tax, I hope the county does not,” Burns said. “If there are two tax measures, neither one will pass.”

In another bit of bad news for the VTA, it recently withdrew BART from consideration for $750 million in federal funding because the project was doomed to a poor rating from the Federal Transit Administration.

Last week, the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, the former San Jose congressman after whom is named the Mineta San Jose International Airport, praised the BART project and suggested the VTA would win federal funding with a less aggressive construction schedule.

“I’ve heard that code, too, but I don’t really know what it means,” Burns said, adding that he doesn’t believe the influence of Mineta or powerful Congressman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, helps the project in federal eyes.

“I actually think the opposite is true,” Burns said, reasoning that Democratic officials are traditionally more transit-friendly and saying that the FTA has been vague in its directions to the VTA. “We haven’t been able to nail down a baseline for the problems we need to address.”

As it moves forward with its BART plans, the VTA is also undertaking the first comprehensive system-wide review in its history.

“This hasn’t been looked at in 20 years; I’m not sure this has ever been done.” Burns said. “We need to know where is it that people need to go, what should the rate structure be and what kind of service it should be.”