Scathing Grand Jury report blasts VTA performance and governance, misdiagnoses some causes

In June,  a Santa Clara County released a scathing report blasting the performance and governance of VTA, the transportation district that runs the County’s light rail and bus services.

Key observations in the report include:

  •  VTA’s operating performance has continued to deteriorate over the last 10 years, relative to both its own historical performance and the performance of its peers, across a wide variety of metrics
  • The VTA Board has consistently failed to adequately monitor VTA’s financial performance and has taken action, albeit less than fully effective action, only in the face of imminent financial crises;
  • Despite the serious ongoing structural financial deficit, the VTA Board has been unwilling to review and reconsider decisions made years or even decades ago regarding large capital projects (and their attendant operating costs) that are no longer technologically sound or financially viable, based on their costs and projected ridership. 

The report assesses deficiencies with board members’ qualifications, preparation, level of staff support, and attendance.  The assessment observes:

  • a lack of experience and continuity by many directors
  • dominance, in terms of numbers, seniority and influence, by representatives of San José and the County
  • inadequate time for the directors to devote to the Board’s oversight and policy-making functions;
  • a lack of engagement by some of the directors, fostered in part by the committee system, resulting in VTA functioning largely as a staff-driven organization; 
  • conflicts of interest between the directors’ fiduciary duty to VTA and its regional role; and the political demands of their local elected positions.

The report includes some reasonable recommendations of techniques to improve the knowledge and level of attention of board members, including:

  • terms that are longer than two years with cumulative term limits
  • changing the composition of the board to add some people with expertise in domains such as transportation, finance, and running large organizations, with models from metros including Austin, Texas and the Twin Cities in Minnesota

Strong on process, flawed on substance

While the report provides astute analysis and recommendations regarding structural and process problems with the VTA board’s composition and competence, the report’s assessment of the substantive causes of VTA’s problems is deeply flawed.

The report’s substantive analysis focuses largely on VTA’s financial woes, reporting on lagging indicators of the financial problems (falling ridership, high and increasing costs per rider).

But the report does not flag important leading indicators that have been driving decline in financial performance — buses and light rail vehicles have been moving slower and slower, making the service less competitive for riders, and making it more costly to run, and more costly per rider as customers. 

Declining transit speed leads to declining ridership and increasing costs

For example, report mentions VTA’s “Next Network” redesign, which was intended to increase ridership by concentrating and increasing service on a network of frequent routes that are most conducive to transit ridership.  But it does not mention the fact that VTA delayed most of the Next Network redesign rollout, waiting for the completion of a BART extension to North San Jose. If anything, the report appears to praise VTA’s cut to expected service increases before they were rolled out, considering it fiscally prudent to reduce service.

The report raises valid concerns about VTA continuing to advance long-planned capital projects that outlived the vision from decades ago, and are likely to generate low ridership; creating more service that the agency can’t afford to operate.  The report focuses on the risks of light rail extensions, and touches on the BART extension only briefly, but it captures some damning anonymous quotes from officials. “A senior staff member stated unequivocally that “BART is going to bankrupt VTA.”  The report appears to allude to, but does not directly cite the agreement being negotiated, which contains a dangerous promise to cut bus and light rail service if BART underperforms.   

What is missing is a substantive analytical framework of the factors that support transit ridership and cost-effectiveness, including a network of frequent and fast service, with well-designed integration between local and regional lines; and expansions that are evaluated in the present based on the potential for increasing ridership, rather than on long-ago political promises.

Anti-transit orientation

Overall, the substantive solutions that the report suggests are problematic. The report cites right-wing think tanks such Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Hudson Institute that have long been pessimistic about public transportation. For example, it quotes longtime transit skeptic Randal O’Toole of Cato Institute recommending a blanket halt to rail investment.  “First, transit agencies should stop building rail transit. Buses made most rail transit obsolete nearly 90 years ago.” This is an objection to rail in general, rather than to the particular weaknesses of VTA’s light rail system, which is winding and slow, and only decades later developing land use that can support transit. 

Drawing on these anti-transit sources, the report frames the root of VTA’s problems as dependence on bus and light rail public mass transit models that it deems obsolete compared to emerging innovations from the Silicon Valley private sector, in the form of autonomous cars that it hypothesizes will be better-suited for low-density suburban land use.

However, recent news reports indicate that general-purpose autonomous driving is going to be slower to roll out than optimists have predicted.  Transit-focused analysts have long been skeptical that autonomous cars will overcome the basic facts of geometry, and are likely to increase congestion unless policies are put in place to increase people per vehicle on well-travelled corridors, in other words, by providing mass transit.

And transit-focused think tanks like TransitCenter have been demonstrating how the solutions to the problems of transit can be found, not with over-the-horizon promises of hyperloop and autonomous cars, but with fundamental practices like bus lanes and signal priority which VTA is trying again to pursue.

In order to improve the fundamentals of VTA’s performance, it would be helpful to look at the regions in the US and North America that are seeing improvements to transit ridership based on following basic principles of transit design, operations and land use.

VTA compares poorly to peer transit agencies

In sum, the grand jury report contains valuable lessons to strengthen VTA’s governance structure and process, but is a much less helpful source for guidance for the substance of reform.

On the substance of reform – as the region considers a regional tax measure that would support transit capital and operating funding – there should be regional standards for factors like the cost per net new rider; the speed and reliability of transit; and customer-focused service coordination, including across agencies and between local and regional services, in order to receive money. Otherwise, tens of billions of taxpayer money would be at risk.