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April 29, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, April 29, 2005

Greg Perry vs. BART Greg Perry vs. BART (April 29, 2005)

Council member is lightning rod in debate over project

By Jon Wiener

Mountain View City Council member Greg Perry has become one of the most visible critics of the BART-to-San-Jose extension in recent months. And in the aftermath of a heated sidewalk debate last week with one of the project's biggest supporters, Perry says he has no intention of backing off.

In an interview with the Voice on Monday, Perry said that the business community's role in organizing a counter-protest at his press conference was the only the latest in a string of attempts to silence him.

"The manufacturing group has been trying to quiet me down and drown me out for two years now," said Perry. "I'm not going to stop just because of another try."

Last Thursday, Perry and his supporters organized a press conference to protest his exclusion from a Commonwealth Club panel discussion on the BART project. But just before he took the microphone on the sidewalk outside the County Sheriff's office, in marched Carl Guardino, accompanied by 35 sign-toting union members chanting loudly enough to drown out the gathering.

Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (formerly the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group) maintains he is not trying to silence Perry but only speak for the voters Perry should be representing.

Perry and other opponents of the several billion-dollar project - costs vary depending on whom you're talking to (see box) - say it could suck funding away from basic transit services throughout the county. They contend that other projects - such as restoring the old Dumbarton rail bridge or increasing the frequency of ACE trains between Fremont and San Jose - can attract a similar number of riders for a fraction of the cost. The debate has pitted San Jose and neighboring cities against outlying cities and towns like Mountain View.

Nowhere was this on display more clearly than at last Thursday's debate. As Guardino and labor leader Neil Struthers used their "We Want BART" placards to cover up the hand-written signs held by Perry's supporters, local Sierra Club director Melissa Hippard grabbed the microphone in an attempt to shout over the crowd.

"This is the business community against the environmental community," she yelled. "They're getting in the way of public debate."

With tensions rising and the two groups moving closer together, Perry challenged Guardino to a debate. Face-to-face and both trembling, a fight looked like a distinct possibility.

"That had a risk of turning out badly," Perry said later. "It's good that it didn't."

Guardino accepted Perry's challenge and tensions gradually calmed, but not before Guardino accused Perry of misrepresenting his constituents and his fellow city council members.

Guardino pointed to survey results he says show the project remains popular with voters throughout the county (see story on page 1). Voters approved a half-cent sales tax under Measure A in 2000 to pay for BART and other projects that have fallen by the wayside due to declining revenues. Without another new tax, Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) staff says the agency will not be able to build the BART project and will have to continue to cut bus and light rail service, a position Guardino disputes.

Perry questioned the validity of Guardino's survey results and the ridership projections they rely on. As for the voters, he said, "They elected me to think."

"There's a better plan out there than BART," said Perry. "And by excluding me from this debate, you're not allowing it to be heard."

Perry had originally been listed as a participant at the forum scheduled for that afternoon, organized by the Mineta Transportation Institute. His removal, he said, marked the third time that BART supporters have tried to shut him out of the debate, referring to being uninvited to a BART stakeholders group and a letter from Guardino asking the Mountain View City Council to remove him from a Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) advisory committee.

But outside on the sidewalk, with Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold serving as moderator, Perry got the chance to sound off to the public.

"Why would we want to spend $5 billion on BART when there's a better option on the table?" asked Perry, referring specifically to the Dumbarton rail project. "It makes a lot less sense than spending $2 billion on commuter rail."

Guardino said the BART project would relieve one of the Bay Area's most congested corridors - I-880 north of San Jose - and create highly valuable land for developers around the new stations. Most importantly, he said, it was and continues to be voters' top priority.

"The same groups that are opposing BART today opposed it in 2000," Guardino told the Voice in an interview on Tuesday, referring to the environmental groups who have put forth competing projects. "That was what they tried to pitch to voters in the last election, and it's not what voters said yes to."

The debate itself got quite heated, with Guardino criticizing Perry's blunt style of public speaking, telling him that he has trouble relating to people and saying, "There's a reason you're not vice mayor."

Perry's fellow council members cited his outspokenness on BART when they passed over him during a controversial vice mayor vote in January. But even some of those who voted against him then are supporting him now in the face of continuing attacks from the leadership group (see box on page 1).

Many council members and other leaders in North County cities and elsewhere have said that if VTA's ridership and cost projections do not pan out, other services -- like the buses relied on by the county's poorest passengers -- will be sacrificed.

Perry and Guardino both said the debate, though at times heated and personal, was productive.

"We have a difference in philosophy about transportation infrastructure and a difference in philosophy about representative democracy, and those are both fine things to have differences about," Guardino told the Voice.

But organizers were upset about the leadership group's intrusion.

"I think it shows that Greg Perry would have been good to have on the panel," said Okuzumi. "Of all the elected officials, Greg Perry has the best understanding of this horrible situation. It's just really troubling that they won't let him speak out."

Christopher Lepe, an organizer with the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, said he did not believe the counter-protesters really knew what cause they were supporting. "They're trying to silence dissent," said Lepe. "It was totally apparent."
E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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