Pandemic puts cash-strapped VTA on verge of historic service cuts

The beleaguered Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has had a feast or famine financial relationship with its riders for decades. But effects from the COVID-19 pandemic have put the cash-strapped authority on the verge of historic service cuts.

“We are analyzing scenarios every which way to ensure that our board has the best information and options available to them,” said Ken Blackstone, a VTA spokesman.

He said a one-two combination punch of 70% declines in ridership, coupled with a loss of sales tax revenue, produced a critical financial condition. Staffers will present the VTA with three options for service cuts that would impact the 121,000 daily riders.

The first would have a 10% reduction in service. Light rail and bus service would end one hour earlier, and one midday bus route would be reduced. At 20%, most bus routes would end earlier, and bus frequency would decrease by 10 minutes. And at 30%, all bus and light rail service would end at 10 p.m., plus two bus routes would be eliminated. It’s a difficult set of possible options for Santa Clara County residents dependent on VTA.

“We don’t have enough to pay and maintain my car. All the people, the elderly people, really need to use this kind of transportation,” said Jenny (last name withheld), a VTA bus passenger who uses the service five times a week. 

Countered Blackstone, “We know it’s not optimal for anybody, for us or our riders. But we’re doing our best to make due.”

Regular VTA rider Monica Mallon became so frustrated by routine service reductions, she formed the non-profit Turnout4Transit to fight proposed cuts.

“We saw this coming, because of the revenue declines. This is something that’s happened over and over and over again,” she said.

Mallon advocates using Measure B sales tax dollars – originally passed in 2016 -- now instead of decades down the road to spare present day cuts.

“I really think we need to get access to this money as soon as possible so that we can have a chance to create a better future for transit,” said Mallon. “We’re stealing our own money from the future. That’s all we’re doing here.”

The VTA board has a series of community input meetings on the issue of service cuts scheduled, including one Wednesday at 6 p.m. The full board will vote on recommendations in December, with service cuts starting in February 2021.