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SCCo. Grand Jury report: halt SJ BART extension

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  • 6/22 Morgan Hill Times
    Published Tuesday, June 22, 2004, in the Morgan Hill Times Report: Halt BART extension By Lori Stuenkel Following a nearly year-long investigation, the Santa
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 22, 2004
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      Published Tuesday, June 22, 2004, in the Morgan Hill Times

      Report: Halt BART extension

      By Lori Stuenkel

      Following a nearly year-long investigation, the Santa Clara County
      Civil Grand Jury is recommending delaying BART-to-San Jose and
      restructuring the Valley Transportation Authority's board of
      directors because its members are too distracted to provide
      oversight.

      In an in-depth, 13-page report released Friday, the grand jury said
      the VTA board did not efficiently provide management oversight
      and "has not reacted to the present budget problems with diligence,"
      depleting financial reserves.

      [BATN: The 210kb PDF-format report is available at
      http://www.sccsuperiorcourt.org/jury/GJreports/2004/BoardStructureFinancialMgmtVTA.pdf ]

      Also, the $4.2 billion BART extension to San Jose -- for which the
      VTA won't have funds for another 20 years -- should be suspended in
      favor of funding other transit projects, the grand jury said.

      Don Gage, District 1 county supervisor and VTA board chair, said
      Monday that the issues laid out by the grand jury are what the board
      has been dealing with for more than a year, but that the transit
      board won't make any decisions on its recommendations until December
      or early next year.

      "The grand jury report was pretty accurate, but it didn't factor in
      the data the full board needs to make the decision," Gage said. "We
      have to wait until probably December, when we have all our financial
      data gathered to make a determination on whether we can go forward
      with our 2030 plan. ... There's a lot of pieces to the puzzle here."

      One of those is a new half-cent sales tax that would go to
      maintaining roads and operating the county's existing bus and rail
      network. The VTA plans to ask voters to approve the tax in November
      2006.

      The 19-member grand jury report does not require that the board
      follow its recommendations, but does warrant an official response.

      "We owe them a reply and we'll give them a reply, but from my own
      personal experience right now, I've got to have more facts before I
      deal with them," Gage said.

      The grand jury found that the VTA board, which oversees the VTA and
      its $350 million operating budget, is "too large, too political, too
      dependent on staff, too inexperienced in some cases, and too removed
      from the financial and operational performance of VTA."

      It criticized the 12 voting members, consisting of county supervisors
      and city councilmembers, for not requesting in-depth explanations
      from VTA staff and rarely engaging in "frank and open discussions on
      important matters of policy."

      Grand jury foreman Richard Woodward said the board members' lack of
      focus was at the core of the issues examined throughout the course of
      the investigation.

      "That was sort of the crux, is that this is not their primary job,"
      Woodward said. "And therefore it just follows that the amount of time
      they've got to focus on this isn't as focused.

      "That seemed to be obvious when you went to the meetings and could
      see that often the members of the board really needed to spend a lot
      of time getting educated on the issues."

      To allay these concerns, the grand jury said the VTA board should
      be smaller -- five to seven members -- and members should be either
      directly elected or appointed.

      "Everything you do in this process is political," Gage said. "If you
      went to an elected board, people would vote for the people who would
      think like them."

      Nevertheless, a committee headed by VTA Board Vice Chair Joe
      Pirzynski is looking into changing the board's membership. Doing so
      would require a legislative change that probably could not happen
      until early next year.

      "For me, we're right in a critical path right now, and it's not the
      wisest thing to do to change horses in the middle of the stream,"
      Gage said.

      The VTA board's distraction led to other problems cited in the grand
      jury report, Woodward said. For one, the board allowed VTA finances
      to deteriorate badly before taking action.

      When reserves were depleted during the recent economic downturn, the
      board borrowed $275 million plus interest against future Measure A
      sales tax revenues to pay current costs. "That action prevented a
      21 (percent) cut in transit services this year but has not solved
      the current financial problem," the jury reported. "It merely pushed
      it into the future... ."

      The grand jury found that the VTA has refused to consider cheaper
      BART plans, such as extending only to Milpitas or Berryessa and
      connecting to light rail. BART, a $4.2 billion project, would largely
      be funded by a half-cent sales tax. About one-third of the cost would
      be covered by state and federal funding. At present, the VTA cannot
      afford to build and operate BART to San Jose.

      "Spending limited resources on BART could squander an opportunity to
      build, maintain, and operate a far larger network of transit options
      throughout the county as enabled by voters approving the half-cent
      Measure A sales tax in 2000," the grand jury said.

      In fact, moving forward with the San Jose BART extension may be to
      the detriment of other the transportation network throughout the
      region. If the board decides to alter its BART plans or Measure A-
      funded projects in some way, it will be with voter approval, Gage
      said.

      "We're probably going to have to go back to the voters, especially if
      we say we're not going to do it because they're the ones who voted
      for Measure A," Gage said," and ask them, `What do you want us to
      do?"


      Lori Stuenkel covers education for The Dispatch. She can be reached
      at 408-847-7158 or lstuenkel@...


      [BATN: See also:

      VTA chair brushes off Grand Jury SJ BART criticisms
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/18903

      Sun King Ron Gon still dreams of BART to SJ
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/18902

      VTA determined to build BART regardless of cost or utility
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/18886

      SCCo. Grand Jury: Halt BART to SJ, reform VTA
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/18861 ]
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