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September 17, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, September 17, 2004

BART project could impact local transit BART project could impact local transit (September 17, 2004)

Extension could mean less service, less safety

By Jon Wiener

The planned BART extension to San Jose could come at the expense of transit service in Mountain View and other North County cities, critics are warning.

Opposition to the project to San Jose has been getting louder ever since the ballot measure to pay for it passed with 70 percent of the vote four years ago. Now, with VTA officials scrambling to come up with a long-term financial strategy to save it, even the Mountain View City Council is joining the fray.

The council sent a letter to Superior Court Judge Thomas Hansen two weeks ago, throwing its support behind a stinging grand jury report that called for restructuring the transit agency's board and delaying the BART project. The letter, sent by Mayor Matt Pear, agreed with the grand jury's finding that the region's transit plan "can not accomplish all that was promised in Measure A."

The council did not take a position on the recommendation to delay the BART project but could do so later this year at a study session that will include VTA financial staff and one or more transit watchdogs.

"We were promised the sun, the moon and the stars, and we'll be lucky to get the stars," said Council member Mike Kasperzak.

Public transit riders are frustrated, too. "This project is just going to suck away all funding for transit projects in North County," said Eugene Bradley, founder of the VTA Riders Union. He said he is so fed up with VTA's misuse of his sales taxes that he recently moved to Santa Cruz.

In addition to the BART extension, Measure A is intended to fund Caltrain electrification and safety improvements such as grade-separated crossings. Patrick Moore, a Mountain View resident and the transportation chair for the Sierra Club's local chapter, is concerned that BART-to-San-Jose will rob those coffers.

By the time the BART extension would be open, Caltrain is planning to increase its train runs from 86 to as many as 130 each day, according to Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Kunz. Without grade-separated crossings at Rengstorff Avenue and Castro Street that Measure A could help pay for, this could become the source of massive traffic snarls.

"I think we're going to see fatalities go up because we don't have the grade separation," said Moore.

Though a vote is still pending, it appears the VTA board is planning to move ahead with putting another half-cent sales tax on the November 2006 ballot, the same year Measure A funding is set to kick in. If the BART project is viable at that point, the 2006 vote could be considered a referendum on its future. But even with another new tax and potential federal and state funding, some people think VTA will continue to be in trouble.

"Even if everything goes right (for VTA), half of Measure A won't get built," said Council member Greg Perry, who also represents the city on the VTA Policy Advisory Committee. VTA rankled its critics in recent weeks as it forged ahead with plans to spend $170 million on preliminary design of the extension and another $8 million promoting it.

VTA maintains that delaying the project could cost an additional $700 million. But Perry and others have said that figure is dishonest, as it does not account for inflation.

"We're spending money to design a system we can't afford to operate," said Perry.

In the official response to the Grand Jury report, VTA board chair and County supervisor Don Gage wrote, "It is not a question of which projects should be completed but rather how can we deliver all the projects approved by the voters plus add cost-effective service in the future."

VTA staff has said that, even without building BART, it will need the new half-cent sales tax in order to avoid cutting existing transit services by 21 percent.

E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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