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[whitespace] Alternatives to VTA tax topic of conversation

Santa Clara--The battle of the transportation tax is heating up, and the fight could last long past the dog days of summer.

While most public officials agree the Bay Area desperately needs transportation relief, many different ideas are being thrown around as to the most efficient and cost-effective solution.

About 250 people gathered to attend a Joint Transportation Workshop between the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last Wednesday at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Dozens of government officials were on hand to discuss the current Valley Transportation Plan 2020. The plan can only be enacted if the board of supervisors votes to put the half-cent transportation tax on the November ballot.

The tax would raise approximately $4 billion over 20 years for use toward alleviating the current traffic congestion problems. An extension of BART all the way down to San Jose through Milpitas and Santa Clara is the big-ticket item and would cost at least half of the entire tax revenue.

Most officials agree that if the tax makes it to the ballot, it will pass. But a few locals think it shouldn't get that far.

Groups such as the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition (BATLUC) say the process of adopting VTP 2020, has been hasty at best. BATLUC's Silicon Valley Coordinator Kimberly Strickland says, "There are other solutions. We have time to do studies in order to come up with a better plan. This mad rush for dollars is borderline ridiculous. It scares me."

The original adoption schedule has been drastically shortened in order to push the proposed tax through for the November ballot, even though the plan cannot be acted upon until 2006.

Andy Chow, Board Director of Peninsula Rail 2000, agrees with Strickland. "This project is not well thought out," he says. "There must be a consideration of alternatives. We can enhance the existing commuter rail (CalTrain) to suit better, faster, higher quality trains. This can be done quicker and for much less money than the BART extension."

The Sierra Club also supports Peninsula Rail 2000's plan. They call for the electrification of CalTrain because it is a cheaper, more efficient use of current technology.

BATLUC agrees with the electrification idea, but it also states that the bus system has not been given enough attention. It submits that, according to an Operating Statistics Report provided by the VTA, 84 percent of all VTA riders use the bus system. Because bus riding is not viewed as a glamorous activity, it says, options to improve the bus system have been mostly ignored.

Brian Peoples, founder of buspool.org, has gone one step further than BATLUC. Peoples says that bus use may be the most efficient and cost effective solution to Silicon Valley's transportation problem. "But people have a stigma against public transportation," he says. "Fixed transit isn't any quicker for most commuters because they have to make so many stops and connections.î

Peoples' buspools offer the alternative of what he calls "customized public transportation." His buses are funded by advertisers who can customize each bus's paint job.

Commuters gather at a common meeting area at a certain time and are driven directly to their workplace. They pay set rates depending on the length of their commute. The driver is just another commuter who takes the initiative to get a Class B certified driver's license. According to Peoples, "Drivers can earn up to $1,000 a month by just driving to work."

Buspools already has six buses and Peoples says they will have four more by next month.

Peoples, Chow and Strickland all want everyone to know that there are other cheaper options than the current VTP 2000 plan. They resent how quickly this initiative has been pushed through. All they ask is that a $4 billion, 20-year tax be given its due thought before it is rushed from plan to policy.

As Strickland says, "Everybody is tired of congestion, but VTP 2000 is based on poor planning. There are too many what-ifs to pass it so quickly."
Daniel Hindin

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Web extra to the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro.

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