By the Numbers: The VTA’s Burgeoning Budget Boondoggle

The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury dealt a harsh blow to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), revealing a massive budget gap, dysfunctional governance and plummeting ridership. Below are some key takeaways from the recently released report.

That’s the VTA deficit after the agency drained its capital reserves from $49.5 million in 2017 to $5 million in 2018 to keep funding its operations. In response to the funding gap, VTA officials plan to up fares, slash service hours and introduce a voluntary early retirement program.

The change in ridership from 2009 to 2018. Despite that downward trend, the VTA increased the number of its employees and the number of buses and trains.

The rate at which the VTA’s light rail budget has grown in the past five years, even as ridership declined by 15 percent.

The cost of the Eastridge Mall light rail extension, which is expected to only attract 611 new riders by 2025.

The cost to taxpayers for every new rider gained through the Eastridge light rail transit extension’s first year of operation.

Source: Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury

Nicholas Chan is a journalist who covers politics, culture and current events in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholaschanhk.


  1. I have no desire to pile on, but the VTA board needs an intervention. Transportation experts may argue about whether VTA is the worst-run, or second worst-run transit agency in the nation, but regardless: it’s bleeding taxpayer money on an obviously deeply flawed model that’s just getting worse. VTA board members may blame California sprawl on their failure, but it doesn’t wash: lots of transit agencies in places like, and in, San Jose perform way better than VTA (San Diego, BART, Caltrain).

    How this board can respond to this economic disaster with an extension of the costly light rail system to Eastridge, with a cost of $720k per new rider (no typo there) is beyond comprehension. We could give out Teslas to the Eastridge Food Court customers every day and still save money.

    Trimming a line here, and line there, raising prices a bit will not solve this problem. The board is stuck and should either bring in some high powered help to get them to rethink what they’re doing or gracefully step aside and let in some people with new ideas. This group is throwing good money after bad.

  2. Ha! What’s a couple of million dollars here and there when talking about union heavy transportation budgets (that’s sarcasm if it wasn’t obvious.)

    What frosts my butt is the tie ups at busy intersections where light rail has right of way access. Extra long red lights cause major traffic disruptions, creating huge backups for no other reason than letting trains that apparently carry 15% less riders have the right of way.

    But back to the numbers. Apparently nobody is riding mass transit, and the plan going forward is to entice more customers by raising fares and cutting service. That should be a sarcastic comment, but sadly it’s the truth.

    The West Coast is not like the East Coast. We need cars to transport us across the huge amount of land that is California, not half-baked planet saving programs like light rail, or “rode diets” that take lanes away from cars and give them to rarely seen bicyclists.

    Light rail has been a disaster for nearly everyone except those it employs. Service cuts and higher fares, traffic disruptions, and predictable appeals to raise taxes to fund this boondoggle.

    • > That should be a sarcastic comment, but sadly it’s the truth


      I commend you on your humanity and civility.

      “Sarcasm is civilization’s way of protecting stupid people from violent strangulation.”

      Thanks to your restraint, a moron somewhere goes on with his life.

  3. A fundamental question the VTA board needs to ask is whether it can fulfill the dual mission of being a Congestion Management Agency and a Transit Agency. That was one of the many questions that we had in preparation for a meeting where VTA presented to our neighborhood association. What surprised me at the time, was that the VTP2040 plan, which was supposed to anticipate what transportation would look like in 2040 made no mention of autonomous vehicles (and no mention of micro-mobility options, which hadn’t yet been developed).

  4. I think that the discussion on the way the directors are chosen sort of misses the point. I don’t think it matters that much how the directors are chosen. Change my mind.

    However, the grand jury is onto something when it writes “Despite the serious ongoing structural financial deficit, the VTA Board has been unwilling to review and reconsider decisions made years or even decades ago regarding large capital projects (and their attendant operating costs) that are no longer technologically sound or financially viable, based on their costs and projected ridership.”

    Based on current ridership projections, the Eastridge extension is questionable. This is especially true if you consider that it duplicates the existing Rapid 522 service.

    An even bigger waste of money, which the grand jury ignored is the extension of the multi-billion dollar BART line from the San Jose to the Santa Clara Caltrain stations. This would duplicate existing Caltrain service and the 22/522 buses from San Jose to Santa Clara. This just reinforces the common impression that big ticket transit projects are a waste of money.

    • Exactly, this is all a tiny drop in the bucket compared to anything related to BART, the world’s most financially irresponsible transit system.

      Whole thing is yet another hit piece by someone who probably hasn’t taken transit a day in their life. Don’t know where these empty VTA buses and trains are – my VTA commute is packed, both lines, both ways – every day.

      • Inverted: if your VTA experiences are so packed with riders, why do you think the financial performance is so weak?

        • I don’t have the answer for that. However honestly it’s time for some tough changes at the fare box in my opinion. Disabled / senior should be the same price as a regular full adult fare, as the mobility devices and carts cause the most loading / unloading strain. Youth fares should be set at the present disabled / senior rate to spur ridership of public transit earlier in life. No more operators waving people with a sob story on for free either, although that’s gotten a lot better this year.


    Massive deficits and driver strikes
    Teresa ONeill is reading poetry

    Equipment failures everywhere
    Cortese is meeting with Charles Schwab

    Problems coming to a head finally
    Liccardo is staring in a musical

    Vta board where are you?

  6. I tried to explain to VTA people light rail was obsolete back in the early 1900’s when some clever person invented busses that could take rider all over town instead of just where the rails ran at a fraction of the cost, but we are dealing with green minded environmental fender heads that insist that no cost is to great, no price is to high to force people to do something that is to expensive and time consuming to do. Light rail is economic suicide. Sell it and fix the roads!

  7. Seems it would be more cost efficient to simply buy new Cadillacs for all transit riders and junk the empty, costly, lane hogging buses.

  8. VTA already covers 91% of the cost of service. VTA should make riding transit FREE and see what the real demand is. Then it can cut the routes that aren’t used, even when free, that don’t have much interest. VTA could then focus on the real demand within the realms of being the first large US city to offer free transit service.

  9. The real problem is that the VTA Board isn’t elected. The VTA Board is controlled by San Jose City interests. That’s why the light rail lines are build to promote San Jose interests, rather than being located to serve regional interests.

    Why doesn’t the VTA have an elected board like the other big regional local agencies like Bart and the SCVWD? There’s nothing preventing such a change. Let’s make it happen.

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