VTA budget may pit local against regional transit

In areas with great transit and high ridership, there is excellent integration between regional transit services like BART and Caltrain and local services like VTA bus and light rail, which serve complementary purposes.

However, financially, the BART Silicon Valley extension may be set up to compete with local transit for funding.  VTA may be on the verge of reaffirming a commitment to cut local service to fund regional service if the BART extension underperforms. 

History: The lien against TDA funds

It has come back to light in new press coverage that back in 2000, during the dot com boom era, as the BART Silicon Valley extension started to move forward, there was an agreement made to backstop operating funding for BART service with VTA’s funding from the state’s Transportation Development Act (TDA). The TDA funds provide 21% of VTA’s funding for local bus and light rail service (see graph below).

The main source of revenue to run BART is expected to be the sales tax passed in 2008. Because the project is so late in opening, that tax has accumulated over $300Million before it needs to be used to run trains. It would take a while for that well to run dry. But, there will also be a gap in time between when BART reaches Berryessa in North San Jose later this year, and when the line is extended to the Downtown/Diridon center, which will likely increase ridership.

In the event that BART ridership underperforms its plan and the dedicated BART funds run dry, VTA would be committed to use the TDA funds for BART service, and therefore would committed in advance to cut local transit to maintain funding to regional transit. 

Apparently according to the news coverage, this mechanism is up for debate in negotiations between VTA and BART about how to pay for the BART service planned to start later this year.   VTA’s staff report for its budget workshop on Friday says that the details of how to pay for BART will become available later this year.

According to long-time observers, when the agreement was worked out, it was during the dot.com boom when Silicon Valley was flush with cash, and the TDA lien didn’t seem like much of a risk. But now – when VTA has just pared back its Next Network transit service plan before it was fully implemented, a few years after Santa Clara County passed Measure B with a pot of new transit service funding – a promise to backstop BART funding with funding for local transit seems like viable risk.

Risk to transit-dependent riders and a good transit network

PittThis would harm transit-dependent residents who need local transit for basic needs and don’t have other choices. Pitting local service against regional service is contradictory to principles for providing a coordinated transit network, with fares and schedules that are well-integrated to provide affordable and convenient transportation.

One of the good goals of VTA’s Next Network program was, and remains, to create good connections between BART and frequent connecting local transit. Hopefully, when Caltrain is electrified, service will be frequent and regular enough for VTA to improve connecting service to Caltrain also. 

If you think it’s a bad idea for VTA to commit to trade off regional service for local service, send a note to the board – board.secretary@vta.org.  Feel free to copy us at friends@friendsofcaltrain.com .   VTA is holding a budget workshop on Friday morning, so this will be timely input.