City pushes for fair representation on VTA in response to Civil Grand Jury

August 15, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

In June 2019, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury released a highly critical report regarding the operations and governance of the Valley Transportation Authority and asked cities within the VTA service boundary to respond to specific recommendations regarding VTA Governance. City Council will discuss and approve a draft response on August 19.

The Civil Grand Jury report stated that “year after year, VTA operates one of the most expensive and least efficient transit systems in the country.” Despite a series of critical civil grand jury reports dating back to 2004, the VTA continues to veer from one financial crisis to another, while also perpetuating a structural deficit of $50 to $60 million per year. Regular users represent fewer than 5 percent of the county’s commuters despite continuous, significant increases in operating costs, 90 percent of which are subsidized by taxpayers. 

Overall, the jury concluded that radical changes in policy and strategic oversight are needed, but that the VTA Board as currently structured and operated, lacks the capability to accomplish that change. Key findings point to lack of experience, engagement, continuity and leadership on the board; insufficient time investment due to other duties as elected officials; domination of the board by representatives of San Jose and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors “in terms of numbers, seniority and influence;” and frequent tension between directors’ fiduciary duties to the VTA and the political demands (and interests) associated with their local elected positions.

Key jury recommendations include calls for the VTA and the county to commission separate studies of successful transportation agency governance structures, reports from each city on its views regarding VTA governance, and consideration of such things as duration of directors’ terms, appointing directors who are not actively serving elected officials, and extending the chairperson’s term to two years.

Palo Alto’s draft response requests that the studies of successful governance include, not just “large city” agencies, but specifically those in metropolitan areas where service boundaries span multiple municipalities. The city cautions that small cities, and especially those without representation on the VTA Board, will need time and resources to meaningfully weigh in on alternative governance structures for the VTA, including strategies to sustainably represent the interests of multiple municipalities. Specifically, the city proposes evaluating VTA governance (and representation) based not only on population distribution, but also such things as employment and sales tax generation (a primary source of VTA revenues) or communities with direct interest in shared permanent transportation issues, such as Caltrain and High Speed Rail. Palo Alto urges that VTA provide funding to an organization such as the Cities Association of Santa Clara County to facilitate that work. 

The city is open to participating in legislative reforms pertaining to governance structure, but cautions that they must address the root concerns that lead to underrepresentation of smaller cities, particularly those bordering other counties. In particular, it may be premature to commit to extending the Chairperson’s term prior to resolving issues of fair representation across constituent agencies. 
This item is scheduled for council action on August 19, beginning at 7:50 pm. Click here for the staff report.

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