VTA Board Chair Teresa O’Neill Talks Planning

BART extensions, station-area development... lots of change is coming to Silicon Valley

Image via Teresa O'Neill
Image via Teresa O'Neill

Earlier this week, Streetsblog San Francisco caught up with Teresa O’Neill, a Santa Clara City Councilmember and current Chair of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). VTA is the lead transit agency in Silicon Valley, involved in regional planning for future BART stations, the areas surrounding these stations, and congestion management–not to mention spearheading BART’s extension through the district.

For this interview, we focused on VTA’s role in regional planning. On October 18, comments are due for the first, “Transit Oriented Communities Playbook,” the “Downtown San Jose Station Playbook.” If adopted by the San Jose City Council, this “Playbook” would guide development for decades. You can read a draft of the plan, here. For more information about the Playbooks for San Jose’s Downtown Station, 28th Street Station and Santa Clara Stations, click here. Comments on the plans can be mailed to vtabart@vtabsv.com.

The interview below has been modified for clarity and length. If you want to listen to the original, click here.

SBSF : I’m Damien Newton, and today I’m interviewing Teresa O’Neill. She represents Santa Clara on the VTA Board. For those of you already familiar with VTA, you might want to skip a question or two as we’re gong to start with an overview. Then we’ll move on to discuss how VTA is fitting in to long-term planning in the region including BART extensions, High Speed Rail and how all those things can tie together.

Thank you for being with us today. Why don’t we start with an introduction?

TO: Thank you for the opportunity. I am on the City Council for the City of Santa Clara, which is the third largest city in Santa Clara County. I was elected in 2012 after serving on the Santa Clara Planning Commission and before that on the Santa Clara School Board for eight years. I’ve been involved with various non-profits and governmental entities and I had a career in the private sector for 335 years.

So, I bring the perspective of having worked in high-tech, and that can be a very different perspective than that of local government or non-profit.

I’m very interested in the two biggest challenges we face in regards to Climate Change, which everyone agrees is our existential challenge: our energy generation and our transportation.

The two largest assignments I have for the City of Santa Clara is that I represent our city on the various joint action agencies and boards in regards to our ownership of Silicon Valley Power, which goes back to 1896. We’ve been a leader in the green energy field.

I’ve also been involved with transportation, which is also a significant piece of carbon generation. That spurred my interest in getting involved with VTA in their role not just as light rail and bus provider, but also as a partner of BART but also the congestion management agency for Santa Clara County.

SBSF: For this interview, I wanted to talk about how VTA is part of the regional planning that will hopefully reduce vehicle emissions and the impacts of transportation on Climate Change in the long-term.

Back in 2012, San Diego County passed their larger regional plan through SANDAG. They got sued by environmental groups. Kamala Harris got involved. It was a big thing.

Since then, regionally, planning groups have been looking more at how to reduce the transportation impacts on climate change.

So, for this interview, we won’t be talking about the details of bus service (although there could be more Streetsblog stories on that in the future) and whether we should be doing more or less than that. We want to talk more about the long-term regional planning that’s going on.

VTA is very involved in planning with the BART extensions. Phase I of the BART extension will hopefully happen before the end of the year. A second phase will come online somewhere farther down the road, closer to 2030.

TO: That’s correct.

VTA is working very diligently toward having an end of the year opening for our Phase I that will include Berryessa in North San Jose and the Milipitas Station. I know we’re still working through some issues with BART, and they seem to have a slightly different opinion with where we are status wise.

But, we’re also working very diligently on Phase II. We recently earned a $125 million grant with the Federal Transit Administration as part of their expedited delivery program. We’re in the process of preparing a grant application that we will submit next year to get a substantial amount of the rest of the money needed for Phase II.

We believe this will be a very key link to bring workers to Santa Clara County from the East Bay to work in the job centers. This will be a significant way to remove cars from the roads in our region.

DD_PW_SV_View03_Aerial_2019_07_25 final
The future downtown San Jose. Image via VTA

SBSF: Another thing that’s going on is VTA is talking about urban planning around these new transit station. I’m especially intrigued by the TOC Playbooks that VTA is working on, guidelines for cities on how they should view the regional plan and also how they should plan for the areas near their stations.

These aren’t just guides, you’re actually putting together text for cities to pass legislatively to guide the way they grow.

TO: One of the first things I think is interesting, is that while most people are familiar with TOD, Transit Oriented Development, most people aren’t as familiar with TLA’s or the other three letter acronym: TOC’s, Transit Oriented Communities.

I believe that we’re recognizing that for transportation to be effective, we’re going to need to have a community where people are going to want to be able to work, live, play…all those good things.

A key element of our pursuing funding from other sources, particularly the federal government and the current administration, is having a public-private partnership. One of the ways VTA is putting that forward is we’re saying that we will create an environment where there will be development from the private sector. We’ll fulfill that requirement by having private investment next to the public investment.

Instead of having the private entity participate  by building the station, or having naming rights, to the stations…and who knows? Maybe that will still happen with naming rights being sold everywhere. I’m not sure if our public is ready for a Mark Zuckerberg BART Station, but there certainly is a Zuckerberg General Hospital in San Francisco now.

Part of the thinking now is that for transit lines to be successful, they need to have people living and working near them.

One of the biggest challenges, particularly in an area such as Santa Clara County is the suburban sprawl which was the preferred model for about 50 years.

I’ve talked to some of the leading transportation planners in the world, and I’ve gotten at least one of them to agree that Santa Clara County may be the most difficult setting in which to transform to a Transit Oriented Community. With our relatively low density and some of our geographic constraints such as mountains and streams and the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay…it makes it more difficult to do this sort of development.

It’s not like Los Angeles, which has hundreds of miles to sprawl out. Even if we did, that’s not the right thing to do.

Our focus on creating communities is coming from several different points. It’s about getting ridership on those lines, it’s about creating partnerships to help fund and secure the funds to show this is viable.

There are other concerns about ridership. Will we have the ridership? There are others saying we’re not having enough parking. One of the things that’s very expensive on a lot of different projects.

We can’t just keep building more and more parking facilities.

I’ve seen studies that show the average car has about nine parking spaces. The amount of land we are wasting, and the cost of it. With that money the cost of transit can be lowered, the cost of housing could be lowered.

We’re trying to look at this holistically. By having the approach of Transit Oriented Communities, we have a chance to come up with a holistic solution that will actually provide high quality of life for those that live in our communities now and those that will be coming.

SBSF : We’re planning a separate story on this, and we’ll have a link in the text that accompanies this story, but comments for the San Jose Station Playbook are due October 18. This is a process that is moving forward, it’s not just something people are thinking about. It’s something that VTA staff and board are working with cities to try and get these standards and plans in place. And they’re trying to do it early.

I tell a story on my Los Angeles experience: about ten years ago we opened a rail extension into East Los Angeles, an extension for the Gold Line. Before it opened, we did a bike tour of the extension for Streetsblog Los Angeles. We ran into the local City Council member giving an news interview outside of the gates for one of the stations. We went over to see what he was talking about.

He was promising that they were going to look at bicycle and pedestrian access to all the stations to improve their usefulness for the community. This was two days before the station opened.

I look at where we were then as a state and where we are now…

In some cases we’re talking about the San Jose Station, work being done on the Diridon Station, there’s going to be ongoing work on all these stations. We’re talking about development plans now for that, for supporting lines that aren’t yet built.

That’s exciting for me to see.

TO: I hope we learned the lesson from the approach we used to take to planning. Part of the challenge we’re facing in the pre-existing, already developed areas of the county, is that this thinking wasn’t there in the planning. We’re learning how difficult it can be to put this infrastructure on top of a previously built-out environment.

I’m thrilled we’re looking at it early on to. We’re trying to educate folks that this is the time to do it.

SBSF: I like to keep these interviews to about 15 minutes to not overwhelm people downloading off our podcast page or reading at home. We’re at about the twelve and a half minute mark now, so if there’s something you’d like to say in closing, some event you’d like to highlight or something exciting at the VTA board, now’s the time to bring it up.

TO: Several years ago, the residents of Santa Clara County passed Measure B which would provide $6.3 billion over 30 years. We were held up in court with that, but we finally have access to the funds. We’re starting to fund projects. People are starting to see more work done on road improvements, bike and ped improvements. One of the things we’re looking forward to is getting these funds out in the community. All the cities in Santa Clara County can submit grant requests to VTA to receive funding. We have very defined guidelines for what projects should look like.

We’re trying to address many different needs such as grade separations for Caltrains so that we can be running more trains in a more safe manner once Caltrain electrification is finished in a couple of years. There’s a lot of things going on.

There’s the Regional Measure 3 that was passed. We’re looking at other ways to fund more transportation development in addition to Senator Beall’s SB1 and the funds coming in.

We’ve neglected transportation for a long time in the State of California. Particularly in Santa Clara County where we have a history of being a self-help county on transportation funding, it’s going to be an exciting time to see what we can accomplish in the next ten years.

SBSF: It’s great to see. We’ve seen it throughout the state.

In Los Angeles, we’ve voted for transportation taxes. It’s empowering for people to understand that we can face the transportation problems we face both nationally and regionally…and what people’s commutes are like.

Thank you for your time today and I’m sure we’ll have plenty more chances to talk soon.

TO: Thanks for the opportunity…and have a great day.

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