The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) will dump a contractor after permitting issues and a busted gas line put a major project behind schedule and over budget.
Work on the seven-plus-mile Santa Clara-Alum Rock Bus Rapid Transit route should have cost $114 million and been finished by now. But construction halted when a third-party contractor hit a live gas line in July.
The pipeline breach, compounded by a series of delays and safety issues, prompted the VTA to negotiate an out with its general contractor, Livermore-based Goodfellow Top Grade.
Now, the completion date has been pushed back to early 2017. Businesses along Alum Rock Avenue have told San Jose Inside that the construction zone has driven away customers and caused an uptick in traffic accidents.
Earlier this week, the VTA announced that it would restructure its delivery of the rapid bus line. That means finding a new company to take over the job.
“Given the issues over unmarked and unknown utilities, we determined that re-allocating our resources was the best way to balance the safety of our community with delivery of the project,” said Carolyn Gonot said, the VTA’s Director of Engineering and Transportation Infrastructure Development. “VTA believes that this restructuring will ultimately provide the best results for all of our stakeholders.”
The Santa Clara-Alum Rock rapid bus line was meant to quicken travel between San Jose’s Eastridge Mall and Diridon Station in the heart of the city.
The project includes state-of-the-art, train-like buses with high-backed seats, larger street-side shelters with digital schedule displays and bus-only lanes. New high-tech buses are supposed to glide through traffic signals using wireless technology that holds green lights. Similar projects are underway along El Camino Real and Stevens Creek Boulevard.
As part of restructuring the Santa Clara-Alum Rock project, the VTA and Goodfellow Top Grade will enter into an agreement that will keep work going on key portions of the route while reserving the rest of the work for another company under a new bid.
“As a result of project changes, issues with unknown and unmarked utilities and the lack of key permits to proceed in certain areas, this was a very challenging project from day one,” Brian Gates, Goodfellow Top Grade’s president, said in a statement. “[Goodfellow Top Grade] and VTA worked closely to try to address these challenges, but ultimately we agreed that a different approach to delivery was in everyone’s best interests.”
Public transit advocates criticized the way the VTA handled the debacle. Chris Lepe, a planner for transportation nonprofit TransForm and an East Side native, said the VTA should apologize for the delays and explain how they happened or risk losing public support for a future transportation tax.
“The community has been very patient with VTA up to this point, but the amount of delay in taking action as this point is inexcusable,” he wrote in a letter to Santa Clara County supervisors Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese, San Jose Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco and other public officials.
Below is his letter in full, which was written after a public meeting convened to address the issue last week.
Dear Councilmember Carrasco, Peralez, Herrera, Mayor Liccardo, and Supervisors Cortese and Chavez,
I want to thank you for your leadership in pushing for VTA action on the Alum Rock BRT construction debacle.?I also want to let you know that I'm disappointed by the way the Alum Rock BRT meeting was run last night. This feeling is shared by several other people I spoke with at the meeting.?
Although I arrived late, I understand from others present that VTA staff did not communicate some very basic things that I feel the community needed to hear (outlined below). The ramifications were evident by the anger, frustration, and resentment in the room. Not all of those feelings could have been avoided, but VTA's handling of the meeting added fuel to the fire and caused the meeting to spin out of control.
I fear that the repercussions moving forward will not be good for this project and VTA's other initiatives, including future transit extension projects and the sales tax unless swift and meaningful actions are taken. In fact, several community members at the meeting said they would oppose VTA's sales tax and future transit improvement projects.?
The community has been very patient with VTA up to this point, but the amount of delay in taking action at this point is inexcusable. As one business owner said, why does it take us having to organize and make a huge issue out of this, showing up to public meetings, etc to get VTA to act? Again, it's critical that VTA move swiftly and take meaningful measures as soon as possible to ensure the community is protected with this project and other projects moving forward.?
I grew up in, currently live in, and have over a decade of experience engaging on transportation and land use plans in the East Jose/Downtown area. This issue is both important to our organization and to me personally. Here's what I feel should have been communicated last night, much of which was not:
1. Admit what has happened is terrible/unfortunate and apologize to the community for the situation. This is fundamental and I understand that this very basic step was not taken at the outset of the meeting by VTA staff.
2. Explain how the issue happened, including issues with unmarked utilities, having the select the lowest bidder because of legal requirements, etc. Not everyone is aware of the difficult factors that led to the issue at hand, some of which were outside of VTA's control. Unfortunately, this fundamental information was to my knowledge not conveyed by staff. ?
3. What has the agency learned? Convey clear steps VTA will take to ensure the situation is addressed for this project and how VTA will help impacted businesses moving forward. This was only partially addressed, which I understand was to some degree because of current negotiations. Still, this is no consolation to impacted businesses and community members.?
4. Explain how VTA will change its practices moving forward to prevent this type of situation for future transit projects and to provide safeguards for businesses impacted by future projects. As mentioned above, comments were made at the meeting that included opposition to any future VTA transit improvement projects and the sales tax, but there was no response from VTA staff to help give the community more confidence in future transit improvement projects.?
Moving forward, my recommendations are:?
1. A formal apology is in order. Make sure the community is aware of the reasons why the issue took place. Explain what the agency has learned and the new measures that the agency will adopt to minimize impacts as part of this project.?
2. Increase the amount of resources for this project for more sustained and in-depth community engagement and assistance for local businesses including direct financial assistance for unusual/extreme business impacts. AC Transit proactively adopted a business mitigation fund as part of their BRT project in the event of significant impacts to businesses along the corridor.
3. Allocate significantly more emphasis and funding for community engagement/outreach for future transit extension projects as well as business mitigation funds. This will help minimize concerns about future transit improvement projects such as BART Phase II.?
Please feel free to follow up with me if any of my observations or recommendations are incorrect or unreasonable. I'm cc'ng VTA and City staff that were present at the meeting as well as several community members that were present. I would also be happy to meet in person to discuss this issue in further detail with other interested stakeholders.?
Moving forward I will make myself more available in my limited capacity as a resource to the community to support their efforts to form a merchant association (which has been a long time coming) and to help ensure their needs and concerns are met.?
Another transportation advocate weighed in after the meeting, too. Here's his letter.
This evening's VTA meeting on the Alum Rock BRT situation was apparently an eye opener for the VTA team.? The Alum Rock business community was very vocally present, ensuring that the VTA members present clearly understood the scope of the disaster the project has been for the community.Instead of completing "on time and under budget" next month, the project has now been extended one and a half years.? Unfortunately, VTA didn't think to put any mitigation clauses into the contract to deal with the massive financial losses these Mom & Pop operations are facing.They were also left hanging in the breeze when the emotionally charged audience demanded to know what VTA was going to do about their losses, given that the only board members present were Councilwomen Magdalena Carrasco and Vice Mayor Rose Herrera.? The VTA board needs to clearly address the damage that the mishandling of the BRT construction along the Alum Rock corridor has done to the local business community.This meeting for me was the tipping point.? I have decided to actively oppose the Envision Silicon Valley tax increase.? There is nothing there that can help these people recover for the damage that was done to them and none of the promises that were made to the people of East San Jose in the previous tax measures have been kept.?
The light rail system never made it to Eastridge.?
The BRT system is a disaster.?
VTA attempted to move the Alum Rock BART station to 23rd street
I will be at the Envision Silicon Valley meeting Monday night at the Roosevelt Center.? It should be an interesting evening.
Robert (Bob) Van Cleef
This story has been updated.