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Measure B transit tax faces legal challenge, delaying projects

A Saratoga resident and her attorney are continuing a lawsuit that ties up an estimated $6.3 billion in voter-approved funds for Santa Clara County transportation projects.

One such project facing construction delays is the redesign of Foothill Expressway in Los Altos.

Attorney Gary Wesley of Mountain View, who filed an appeal Aug. 17 on behalf of Cheriel Jensen, said Measure B, which passed with 72 percent of the vote last November, is invalid by law. He said the wording is vague and vulnerable to “bait-and-switch” tactics by the Valley Transportation Authority. The VTA-proposed Measure B is a 30-year, half-cent countywide sales tax aimed at improving transit, highways, expressways and transportation options.

Wesley and Jensen filed suit in January and a hearing was held April 20. Superior Court Judge Mary Arand sided with the VTA on July 19, prompting the plantiffs’ appeal.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, chairwoman of the VTA board, of the lawsuit, which blocks Measure B funds from being spent until the case is resolved.

Bruins said funding could be in limbo as long as two years while the case awaits a hearing in the Sixth District Court of Appeal. Wesley figures the case will be given priority and heard within six months.

“As the transportation authority for the county, VTA is responsible for ensuring the transportation network remains in a state of good repair,” Bruins said in a statement. “Time spent on this legal battle could extend into years, adding to the cost of implementing these needed projects.”

Measure B revenue specific to Los Altos could fund pothole repairs and traffic-calming improvements for Foothill Expressway. With an estimated 94,000 vehicle trips daily, the expressway suffers major gridlock during commute hours, especially between the San Antonio Road and El Monte Avenue intersections.

VTA officials presented preliminary Foothill Expressway redesign plans at a June 29 workshop in Los Altos that included additional expressway lanes, a new through lane at the El Monte intersection, elimination of running right-turn lanes and bicycle lane improvements.

Funding for the expressway improvements was at the top of the priority list, and officials were hoping for construction to begin as early as next summer. But the appeal “impedes VTA from distributing any 2016 Measure B funds, as was planned for this fall,” agency officials said in a statement.

Post-resolution plans

The city of Los Altos contributed $400,000 to Foothill Expressway design work, ensuring that work is fully funded and will proceed on schedule.

“The design of the Foothill Expressway project will not be impacted by the Measure B lawsuit,” said Susanna Chan, the city’s public works director. “We continue to proceed with completing the design by June 2018.  … Our plan is to get the project shovel-ready so we can move quickly into construction as soon as the legal issue is resolved.”

In their complaint, the plaintiffs cite the County Counsel Office’s analysis, which notes, “State law requires the VTA to state specific purposes for which the sales-tax proceeds will be used, and that the VTA must spend the proceeds of the tax only for these purposes.”

“If, as it appears, the VTA could, under the language of Measure B, switch its use of proceeds to ‘any prudent purpose,’” Wesley points out, “the measure does not confine the VTA’s use of the tax proceeds for any specific purposes, and the measure is unauthorized by the state law.”

Wesley said VTA officials have no one to blame but themselves for the funding delay, citing the VTA’s decision to write Measure B to permit a “bait and switch.”

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