VTA Measure B’s Bloated Highway Expansions Leave Transit Unfunded

Decades of failed highway expansions haven't discouraged VTA from seeking more. The agency would allocate $1.85 billion to highway projects if Measure B passes. Photo: Andrew Boone
Decades of failed highway expansions haven’t discouraged VTA from seeking more. The agency would allocate $1.85 billion to highway projects if Measure B passes. Photo: Andrew Boone

The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)’s proposed 30-year Measure B half-cent sales tax is bloated with billions of dollars in highway traffic expansions. If Santa Clara County voters pass Measure B on November 8, $1.85 billion would be lavished on highway projects while less than half that amount would go to bus, light rail, bicycling, and walking improvements combined over the next 30 years.

“We have no intention of leaving them stranded at the curb,” said Silicon Valley Leadership Group President and CEO Carl Guardino of “non-choice” VTA riders who don’t own a car, during a debate Wednesday afternoon on Measure B at De Anza College’s Student Senate. “That’s why half of a billion dollars is for lifeline service and core transit service to meet their needs.”

While $500 million for better bus and light rail service might sound like a lot, that’s the amount Measure B would invest over 30 years, and it’s just 8 percent of total revenues. This is only half the investment needed only to restore bus service to 2001 levels [PDF]. Just $250 million over 30 years, or 4 percent of revenues, would go into fixing hazards faced by people walking and bicycling.

“To repair our roads and relieve congestion, Yes on Measure B,” proclaims a video ad on the Countywide Coalition To Fix Our Roads, Fill Potholes, And Relieve Traffic Congestion website. “Measure B improves highways 101, 280, 85, 17, and 87… Better roads, better commutes. Yes on Measure B.”

But for VTA, “better roads” means increasing highway capacities for more traffic with new traffic lanes and underpasses, and rebuilding bigger interchanges, the same failed strategy that has led to today’s worsening traffic jams.

Santa Clara County ballots promise voters that Measure B will “Relieve traffic on all nine expressways, key highway interchanges,” while pursuing a long-failed strategy for doing so. Measure B includes funding for a list of 50 highway expansion projects [PDF], based on the outdated Auto Level of Service method that disregards trip reduction programs or transit improvements as feasible mitigations for reducing traffic congestion.

“We need to have a band-aid before our transit system can be completed,” stated former Santa Clara County Supervisor Rod Diridon, Sr. to the Santa Clara City Council at an October 11 study session as a justification for Measure B’s highway expansions. “We need to eliminate as many bottlenecks as possible so that our industry doesn’t move away.”

VTA justifies sinking billions of Measure B funds into highway expansions based on the flawed Auto Level of Service (LOS) environmental impact method that California has mandated be discontinued. Image: Santa Clara County
VTA justifies sinking billions of Measure B funds into highway expansions based on the flawed Auto Level of Service (LOS) environmental impact method that California has mandated be discontinued. Image: Santa Clara County

One clever way of winning support for VTA’s bottleneck removal strategy of widening highways is to simply call them transit improvements. The agency’s $350 million Measure B project to widen Highway 85 from six to eight lanes and install Express Lanes is described as “new transit and congestion relief projects” in the county’s voter guide.

On top of sinking over one-fourth of Measure B revenues into highway expansions, VTA officials are still insisting on duplicating existing Caltrain and bus service by tunneling BART from Diridon Caltrain Station to Santa Clara Caltrain Station, after BART is extended from Fremont to San Jose.

“I will be adamant in my advocacy that we build all four stations from Alum Rock all the way to Santa Clara, or this BART project will not be a success,” declared VTA Board of Directors member Sam Liccardo in June when the agency voted to place Measure B on county ballots.

Measure B’s opponents, which include the Sierra Club and the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, point to such rigid support for highway expansions and wasteful transit projects such as BART from Diridon to Santa Clara as evidence that VTA is headed in the wrong direction. They say the agency needs to present a much more effective set of transportation investments than Measure B to voters for approval.

“We need a vision for transit in Santa Clara Valley that serves future needs,” said Andy Chow, President of Bay Rail Alliance which opposes the tax measure. “This is for 30 years. Why not put up a credible plan with more equitable funding for social justice and environmental protection?”

Check out Streetsblog’s coverage of Measure RR/The BART bond, San Francisco Measures J & K and Prop. E, Oakland’s Measure KK, and Contra Costa’s Measure X.

  • RichLL

    To provide some context, according to the last census, 88% of journeys in Santa Clara County are by car. 77% driving alone and 11% car pool/share. Trips by cab are excluded.

    Helps to explain why most of the transport $$ are for vehicular improvements

  • thielges

    “That’s why half of a billion dollars is for lifeline service and core transit service to meet their needs.”

    This is a little disturbing. Half a $B for ongoing operational support for a small fraction of transit riders.

    So the majority of the funds raised by this measure B go to business as usual drive-all-the-time-everywhere transportation. Of the crumbs are left over for transit, a large chunk is consumed by what is effectively a social justice program, not a mass transit program.

    Transit equity for those who cannot drive is great, but it should not be done at the expense of building out a proper high quality transit system for the masses. It sounds like one progressive cause (alternative transit) is being played against another (transit equity). We should support both and if anything the expressway expansion program should be pared back to fund lifeline transit.

  • Eli

    Or to flip it around, funding priorities like these help to explain why 88% of journeys in Santa Clara County are by car.

  • RichLL

    Those priorities get decided by the Santa Clara voters. I suspect a majority of them support those priorities.

    But if they don’t then the bond measure will fail.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Your simple guide to Santa Clara ballot scams: every word that has ever been uttered by Carl Guardino is a lie.

  • Funding doesn’t necessarily bring transit; nor does transit bring riders. Santa Clara County is the poster child for both points.

  • SPUR, Bay Rail Alliance, etc. with their 20-, 30- and 50- year transit plans. Oh, enough already.

    “We need a vision for transit in Santa Clara Valley that serves future needs.” Transit and development go hand in hand. SCV needs a vision for development as well, especially given that the area has been pro-sprawl and pro-freeway for the past 50 years. It’s just the way SJ and SCV are designed.

  • farazs

    Lack of funding necessarily ruins transit. A ruined transit drives people to driving. Santa Clara County is the poster child for both points.

    Re-flipped!

  • RichLL

    farazs, do you think there is a better approach in deciding how to spend the tax dollars of the people of Santa Clara County than asking those people what they want to spend it on?

  • Depends on if you’re considering funding for operations, expansion, etc. You can operate an efficient transit system without requesting additional funding. Sadly, that just doesn’t happen here in the Bay Area.

    As for SCV, that whole area was developed poorly as farms and ranches were turned into stripmalls, office parks and housing tracts all based around the auto. Before a spade of earth was turned, they should have thought about how to integrate effective transit into their designs and seek funding to build those projects. Instead, you have what you have and the VTA is scrambling to piece together, rather expensively, a transit system around sprawl. Case in point: downtown SJ will get only two (2) BART stations. A city of over million residents will get 2 BART stations (4 total) with none to few connections to major employment centers.

    The car will always rule in the South Bay.

  • Jame

    Well BART didn’t design for more than 30 years and we have over crowding, trains holding 5x more capacity than they were designed for and outdated train controls. And this stuff won’t get fixed for another 20-40 years. So yes, we need to build for more than the current needs because if we don’t plan for it now, it won’t be ready till we have been wiped out by zombies. Do you not remember how long it took to go from Bay Bridge retrofit idea to execution?

  • Jame

    If you start with crappy infrequent transit, you don’t get riders. Everyone is busy saving up for a car because transit isn’t a realistic option.

  • Joe Brant

    Ridership has been down 20% since 2001. Service hours have been down 20% since 2001. Connect the dots?

  • RichLL

    Yes, given the 88% car saturation rate and the distances involved, those seeking to turn Santa Clara County into a car-free nirvana is ill-fated and doomed.

    And that is also why balance must also be retained in San Francisco because, in the end, it is just one small part of a vast urban area, the vast majority of which looks like Santa Clara. The place to experiment with car-free lifestyles is probably not an urban area of 10,000 square miles.

    I also agree that transit can be improved without necessarily trying to roll back car usage. And the same in SF – there are improvements that can be made to Muni that have nothing to do with cars and driving.

  • farazs

    > You can operate an efficient transit system without requesting
    > additional funding
    Funny how that does not apply to highways, eh?

  • farazs

    There are many approaches, each with its own pros and cons. One of the pros of the current approach is that we get to discuss and debate the merits of the measure as a means of swinging opinion – which we are! The only thing I get from your question is that you would like to shut down the discussion.

    Should I either come up with a better approach or shut-up about it?

  • RichLL

    farazs, you must have misunderstood my question.

    You appeared to me to be arguing that more of this bond money should be directed away from roads and vehicular traffic, and towards transit, bikes and pedestrians.

    That’s a reasonable position to hold, but it appears to be in conflict with what the majority of Santa Clara voters want.

    So my question is this. Do you think the authorities should take less notice of what their voters want and take more notice of the kind of points that you and others here routinely make?

  • farazs

    You are forcing me in to a false dichotomy. Why could I not be thinking that the solution is to convince a majority of Santa Clara voters about the validity of my position?

    You appear to me to be arguing that the status quo is justified simply because it is the status quo – which is a cyclic argument and a completely unreasonable position to hold.

  • Christopher Childs

    Yes. Eliminating California’s love of ballot propositions would be a great start. Nobody wins with our level of self-interested voter micromanagement. Each county is competing with each other to protect their interests despite needing each other.

  • RichLL

    Farazs, I am only “forcing” you to accept the limitations of your stated position.

    And no, I am not arguing for the status quo. I am arguing for what the voters clearly want.

    But yes, your job is to convince voters. That is a central dilemma for most of the StreetsBlog agenda. As noble as it all sounds it appears that the vast majority of voters nationwide aren’t buying it any more than they buy the Climate Change hysteria.

    So you need a plan to convince them and I respectfully suggest that if you cannot convince me, you cannot convince them, dooming your objectives.

  • farazs

    I respectfully acknowledge that it is impossible to convince *you* about any thing that you do not wish to be, irrespective of the validity or force of the underlying arguments.

    And I respectfully disagree with your assessment that this somehow dooms my objectives. If it does, I still respectfully decline to give up on those objectives on your insistence.

  • RichLL

    You are arguing for less Balkanization of the Bay Area, and I agree with that. The Bay Area should be one County with a unitary adminstration.

    But voter initiatives are part and parcel of our democracy. I vote “NO” on 90% of them because they are invariably ridiculous.

    But every now and then a good one comes along. Prop 13 is probably the single finest piece of legislation in the State, aside from statutes for violent felonies natch.

    Without propositions, how do we rein in the politicians and the political machine?

  • RichLL

    farazs, I was not asking you to give up your objectives. I was merely inviting you to reflect on why you have so far failed to convince a critical mass of the voters.

    And inviting you further to reflect on why you have failed.

  • farazs

    Again, not succeeded yet is not the same as failed. I will concede that I have failed when I am ready to stop trying without having managed to convince a single person to carry on the effort in my stead.

  • RichLL

    Oh, sure, you might convince a few people. But if you reduce the driving share in Santa Clara County from 88% to 87% then that isn’t going to make a material difference.

    What is your timescale for convincing a majority of SC Cty voters?

  • farazs

    That is none of your business. I don’t work for you!

  • RichLL

    OK, so you admit you have no idea of when, if ever, your efforts will succeed. Got it.

  • farazs

    Oh, I have no problems admitting that! Doesn’t bother me one bit.

  • RichLL

    OK, if you concede the futility of your quest than I certainly won’t argue with that.

    But the tragedy is that if your ambitions were more modest and achievable, then your probability of success would no longer be zero.

  • farazs

    Futility/tragedy – that’s your interpretation, not mine! Not that my actions would be different one way or another!

    You are not my psychiatrist or life ‘guru’. I did not seek your “helpful” analysis, and I reject it as more of your usual bullshit.

  • If they hadn’t given priority to road improvements, the measure would never have passed at all.

  • Sadly, he does. Bait-and-switch the voters, as previous ballot initiatives did. But that won’t fly anymore, which is why this most recent initiative had to stress road improvements.

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