Mountain View Voice

News - January 21, 2011

Abe-Koga to chair VTA board

Council member will be major player in county transit decisions

by Daniel DeBolt

Mountain View's Margaret Abe-Koga was named chair of the Valley Transportation Authority board of directors last week, which may bring a focus to local transportation issues that the city hasn't seen since the early 1990s.

Abe-Koga, a Mountain View City Council member and former mayor, is now a mayor of sorts for a much larger organization, overseeing a budget of $363 million and 2,100 employees. The last time a Mountain View council member held the post was the early 1990s when Pat Figueroa was appointed.

"I've come to find transportation really interesting and quite fascinating," Abe-Koga said. "I'm really excited about it. It is important for Mountain View, definitely, because it helps us to advocate for our projects in the city, to make sure we have a voice. We (Mountain View) are pretty key to transit in the county."

Abe-Koga was the top fund raiser in the 2006 and 2010 City Council elections, and is also eyeing Liz Kniss' seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors when Kniss terms out in 2012. Abe-Koga's new job enables her to network with city and county leaders from around the county.

New duties

Like the Mountain View mayor job, her duties as VTA board chair include helping to set the agenda for regular board meetings, which allows her to set priorities to some extent. She will also make appointments to various committees and act as ribbon-cutter for projects all over the county, including a new express shuttle service opening in San Jose at the end of the month.

The board as whole approves a budget twice a year and approves all expenditures the VTA makes that exceed $250,000. The board also recommends large transportation projects to the state and federal government for funding.

The VTA general manager, Michael Burns, has announced that the VTA is beginning the year with an optimistic budget outlook after a tough 2010.

In a press release, Abe-Koga said she was encouraged by the news, but urged the VTA to be "prudent."

"In terms of goals, I would like to focus on the basics," she said.

Her priorities

Abe-Koga said a top priority for her was saving cash-strapped Caltrain, which the VTA funds, along with San Mateo and San Francisco counties. She notes that Mountain View has the second busiest Caltrain station on the line, second only to San Francisco.

Major VTA-funded Mountain View projects in the works include a bike-sharing program at the downtown transit center, express light rail service to and from downtown Mountain View and improvements to the rapid transit 522 bus line on El Camino Real. That could include dedicated bus lanes and improved bus turnouts on El Camino Real, a "big project for Mountain View" Abe-Koga said. Bus rapid transit is said to be as fast as going by car, skipping unpopular stops and communicating with stoplights to get green lights.

Hopefully this summer, Abe-Koga said, VTA will test a system to notify riders of an early or late bus. Using GPS tracking devices on the buses, riders with Internet-enabled phones will be able to "check on line to see when the next bus is coming, whether it's coming early or late, so you can plan your schedule better," she said. Initial roll-out of that project is scheduled for this fall.

As for more controversial topics in Mountain View, VTA continues to make the extension of BART to San Jose a big priority, Abe-Koga said, despite concerns among North and South County cities that the VTA cannot afford it. And the VTA is also considering a new program that would reward cities that build larger shares of the county's housing with transit funding. The Association of Bay Area Governments rates cities on the number of housing starts every year, and poor ratings for Mountain View have angered Mountain View officials, who have questioned ABAG's rating methods.

Finding funding

The VTA was facing major budget cuts late last year, but an unexpected influx of funding and a rosier sales tax revenue report in the last quarter will probably mean no cuts to bus or light rail service this year, Abe-Koga said. Hopefully, services cut recently can be added back as the economy improves, she added. The VTA is also negotiating contracts with its unions this year, and she says the agency will be taking a close look at salary and benefit costs.

Ultimately, she said, the VTA needs a new source of revenue, because depending on sales tax for most its revenue means the VTA is subjected to the wild swings of the economy.

"It is pretty hard to predict how much funding we're gonna get," she said. "If transit is going to survive or do better we have to find a more stable source of revenue."

Getting the job

Abe-Koga almost wasn't given the opportunity to chair the board. It started with a re-organization of the board last year, which allowed board members to be elected by city groupings. Under the old system, it would not have been Mountain View's turn to sit on the board for several years. But last year, after three years on various policy and finance-related VTA committees, Abe-Koga was made vice chair of the board, which made it a sure bet that she would rotate into the top seat this year. County Supervisor Ken Yeager was selected to be vice chair last week, making him next in line.

The new job means longer hours for Abe-Koga, who already works 20-30 hours a week on City Council duties. Being vice chair was a 15-hour a week job, she said.

Her compensation? She says she receives a stipend of $80 per meeting, which includes one board meeting and several committee meetings a month. That's on top of about $500 a month she receives as a Mountain View City Council member.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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