Los Altos City Council members were scheduled at Tuesday’s meeting, after the Town Crier’s Monday print deadline, to review city responses to a critical Santa Clara County Grand Jury report on the Valley Transportation Authority.
Issued in June, the report cited numerous examples of the agency’s dysfunctional operations and governance. The VTA is responsible for running and maintaining buses and other alternative transit systems throughout the county.
Required by law to respond to grand jury findings within 90 days, Los Altos officials agreed with the findings in an Aug. 27 staff report. City officials are set to provide a specific response to recommended changes in VTA governance no later than Dec. 31.
Jurors allege inefficiency
The grand jury report – its third critical review since 2003-2004 – centered on the VTA’s ongoing budget deficits and the 12-member board’s lack of effectiveness. The report described the VTA as inefficient in its operations, listing as an example the agency’s funding of projects like light rail that projected poor ridership. It added that the agency has not done enough to address its budget shortfalls.
Jurors suggested the board’s makeup of sitting council members representing the various county cities results in poor governance because the leaders serve limited terms and are primarily focused on their own communities. In addition, jurors alleged that the city of San Jose wields heavy influence on the board and suggested underrepresentation in the northern area of the county. Currently, Mountain View Councilman John McAlister is the lone VTA board member representing Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Palo Alto, while San Jose has five representatives.
“A root cause of VTA’s poor performance was the governance structure of the VTA Board, which was too large, too political, too dependent on staff, too inexperienced in some cases, and too removed from the financial and operational performance of VTA,” the report read.
VTA leaders recognize the ongoing problems and have moved to correct them. In January, before publication of the June 18 grand jury report, VTA chairwoman Teresa O’Neill initiated an ad hoc “board enhancement committee” to review the governance issues and determine solutions. Los Altos Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, who previously served as a VTA board member and is now an ex-officio member, sits on that committee.
Reached by the Town Crier last week, Bruins said the grand jury report had “a lot of oversimplification.” She said the problems with board member performance had to do less with the system than the efforts or expertise of the individual board members themselves and the municipalities that select them.
“The VTA doesn’t get to pick who sits there,” she said. “The VTA has no say on who goes on and who goes off (the board).”
Bruins suggested that politics often plays a hand in board selection, with less attention paid to qualifications or abilities. For instance, she cited the local VTA seat, with leaders from Los Altos and three neighboring cities switching out every two years so that each city takes a turn having a representative on the board.
She agreed in general with the jury’s recommendation that board members serve longer terms to encourage more experience and continuity of leadership.
Foothill Expwy update
A project for widening a bottlenecked portion of Foothill Expressway in Los Altos is moving forward, Bruins reported last week.
She deemed the design phase of the project, adding an additional lane in each direction, among other improvements, “95 percent complete.”
The project, between the San Antonio Road and El Monte Avenue intersections, includes an additional through lane on El Monte and squared-off corners at the Foothill-El Monte intersection intended to boost traffic safety.
Bruins estimated the project would secure construction funding in the next month or two and that work would start by next spring. Prior to actual construction, crews will remove approximately 13 trees and various shrubs in the roadway median.