Interview: VTA Chair Cindy Chavez on the Agency’s Response to COVID-19

Image via Santa Clara County.
Image via Santa Clara County.

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

As part of our COVID-19 coverage, Streetsblog wanted to bring you interviews with some of the decision makers that will decide how transit and transportation agencies respond to the crisis.

Our first interview is with Cindy Chavez, the president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and Chair of the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).  Chavez discusses how decisions have been made at VTA over the past couple of weeks, including the decision to close the VTA’s light rail line after an operator trainee tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

In the interview, Chavez also gives a few ways for people to stay involved with VTA and advocacy while they are sheltering in place. First, you can stay abreast of VTA’s schedules and other COVID-19 news at a webpage setup for the emergency. Second, the VTA will be broadcasting their upcoming meetings at ZOOM and on their YouTube channel. Last, she encourages people to stay up to date on the federal government, particularly the CARES Act and any successor legislation, and make sure your officials know you support public transportation.

This interview has been very lightly edited for length and clarity.

Streetsblog San Francisco (SBSF) – Welcome, Cindy. As either Chair of the VTA or as an elected official in Santa Clara, do you have any message you would like to give VTA Riders, or workers, or just anyone reading this story?

Supervisor Chavez (SC) – First, thanks for reaching out to me and having me, I appreciate it very much.

My first message would be one of gratitude for the front-line workers who are coming out, even in these very concerning times: all the bus drivers, the persons cleaning the bus, the mechanics, and the staff and customer service…particularly those that are interacting with the public. I’m just really grateful that we have a public transportation system in our community that is so respectful of the public. Even in the most trying times, they’re trying to serve the public.

SBSF – We are recording this interview on March 30, so people should check the VTA website (http://vta.org) for the most up-to-date information. That being said, can you give us an update as to what the agency is trying to do to continue service for those who need it, while keeping the system as safe as possible?

SC – First of all, VTA very quickly sprang into action as we began to understand the public health crisis. All of our actions after have been focused on the health and safety of our staff and customers, once we got information from the World Health Organization and our own public health departments.

It’s a core value of VTA, that we want to be safety centered. So I’m not surprised that they sprung into action the way they did, but I’m very grateful.

SBSF – Across the state and country, we’ve heard various reports of the safety steps that agencies are taking – rear-only boarding, no fare collection, revamped service schedules. At VTA when it’s time to make those types of decisions, who makes them? Is it the staff or the board?

SC – Those decisions are happening by staff. They certainly inform the board. I’ve heard no concerns from my colleagues (on the board) about those decisions. My colleagues want VTA to do what it takes to do the right thing.

There was something you just said that was really important and I want to highlight it. VTA wants to be focused on the health and safety of our workers and customers. VTA has boarding in the back and shields in the front for the safety of our workers. We’ve marked out the seats so riders can’t sit close together. And we’re offering free fares. And we’ve restructured the schedule.

They’re also offering assistance to the Emergency Operations Center  (EOC) of Santa Clara County. What I’ve appreciated so much is the alacrity of the VTA. VTA and other institutions have managed to stick to their core values while they’ve continued their work. I’m very grateful for that.

While we activated our EOC on March 12, our staff has been actively looking for solutions to every single roadblock that has come up to providing these services.

SBSF – What kind of feedback are you getting from passengers and riders on your service? What kind of feedback are you getting from the bus operators? What is the experience like on your buses?

SC – For a lot of the operators, the drivers in particular, raised concerns about the buses being clean. VTA moved quickly to begin cleaning every day, which is critical. A lot of our drivers are very concerned not just for their own health and safety, but also the implications of going home with an illness and how it impacts their family.

One thing that’s been great is that the unions that represent our workers have been working closely with VTA on how to address these problems. I think that’s really important.

I also think it’s important that we follow not just the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, but also our local public health departments so that we’re really aligning our actions to do what we’re supposed to do.

SBSF – As other states and agencies start to take the COVID-19 crisis more seriously, is this how you would recommend doing decision-making: a collaboration between employees, union and management with the board kept in the loop?

SC – You know, that’s an excellent point. But there’s a few statistics I want to add. We’re trying to make these decisions but everything is changing so fast.

We’ve had a drop in daily bus ridership of 64 percent. On our light rail line saw an 86 percent drop.

On late Wednesday night, March 25, we found out we had a light rail operator trainee test positive for COVID-19. Then we suspended light rail.

We know this decision had a negative impact on some part of our community, but we’re trying to balance the health and safety of our customers our staff and the entire community.

All these decisions we have to make…they’re tradeoffs.

There’s no better way to say it.

SBSF – The way I was trying to phrase some of the questions was…I don’t want to say it was a rosy view, but one of the reasons we’re doing this interview is to try and highlight some best practices of transit agencies in this crisis. Streetsblog San Francisco and California are part of a national network, and we hope that some of the things agencies are doing here might be replicated elsewhere.

So yeah, it’s important to be honest that there are going to be tradeoffs and hard choices that not everybody will be happy with. There’s no guidebook to this that if you follow the steps then everything will just be fine.

SC – That’s right.

You know, on April 2 we’re going to do our first board meeting virtually. People will be able to follow on the VTA YouTube channel or Zoom.

We’ve done it at the Board of Supervisors and it’s worked really well.

Ok, we’ve done it once. But it went well!

The other thing I want to add, and this is about the spirit of the place that we live in. When the orders came out about transportation, to keep essential transportation going; I got a call from John Bauters (a Councilmember from Emeryville and past-Mayor) who said, “What about bike shops? What about people on their bikes? What are we doing to keep bike shops open?”

And then another person from our community named Joseph Lucas reached out to say “what about bikes?” So we changed the F.A.Q.’s to be inclusive about bicyclists.

That’s the place we live in. We know each other. We know how to reach out. We try to make the best choices we can for people’s health today, but also about the environment long-term.

I love this place. Even though it’s been a tough time, there’s no group of people I’d rather be in it with.

SBSF – Those initial orders in the Greater Bay Area became the model that a lot of places used going forward. So that mindfulness of including bike shops, and bike mechanics, became something that had a big impact around California and maybe beyond.

Well, we’re starting to run up against my artificially created time-limit so let’s hit the last question. Is there anything that you would like to add, as a Board Chair for VTA or Board of Supervisors President, that we didn’t touch on today? This can be a message from you or some data point I didn’t ask the right question for?

SC – Because your readers understand public transportation, it’s really important that we talk about the CARES ACT. We need to make sure as a community of people that care about public transportation, that we need to make sure that people have access to alternatives (to the car), that there are resources made available to counties across the country and transportation agencies across the country is really important.

While they’ve given a lot of money (in the first CARES Act), we’re going to have to figure out if it’s enough money. This public infrastructure belongs to the community and really needs to be protected not just for us, but also for those that come after us.

So stay focused on the CARES Act and make sure that money gets distributed quickly. But we also need to keep our foot on the gas so to speak, in terms of making sure that resources continue to be distributed throughout the transportation network, both public and private.

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