Lessons learned from Alum Rock Bus Rapid Transit

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 Corinne OkadaAt TransForm, we are committed to connecting people to jobs, opportunities, and each other with affordable and reliable transportation options. Usually, we focus our efforts on championing decisions that will improve public transit, walking, and biking – for example, making sure good projects like Bus Rapid Transit move forward.  But when good projects don’t get managed properly, we speak out, as is the case with the construction of the Alum Rock Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). 

In March 2014, this long-awaited, first-in-the-Bay Area BRT line broke ground in San Jose. TransForm spent a decade working with our partners in the South Bay on engaging transit riders, community members, and small business owners to make sure plans for BRT would truly benefit the people who live, work, shop, and travel in downtown San Jose along Santa Clara Street, Alum Rock Avenue, and Capitol Expressway.

Yet over the past year, construction of the Alum Rock BRT project took several wrong turns. Several incidents during construction (including delays and work stoppages) ultimately led to the termination of the original contractor. The project has been put on hold, resulting in unfortunate impacts on the community; residents and business owners are concerned about public safety and the loss of customers to local businesses.

That’s why we sent a letter to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) urging swift and meaningful action to rectify the situation.

Thanks to the leadership of several members of the Board of Directors of VTA, particularly Supervisor Chavez, Mayor Liccardo, and Councilmember Carrasco, as well as the organized efforts of community members and organizations including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, VTA adopted a series of corrective measures this month.

VTA delivered a formal apology to the community, made necessary changes in project leadership, and strengthened oversight over the project. Additionally, they are addressing security concerns along Alum Rock Boulevard and listening to the community’s suggestions for ways to draw business to the corridor over the holidays.  VTA has recently established the Alum Rock BRT information office, with dedicated space for community relations, assistance for business owners, and open hours to meet with San Jose City officials and discuss the project.

Moreover, VTA is deciding how to provide greater support for impacted businesses including monetary compensation for losses, and will continue sustained outreach and close communication with the community along the corridor until the project is completed. These steps will help ensure that the Alum Rock BRT project construction moves forward with fewer issues and delays, and delivers an excellent finished project that will benefit the entire community. That said, TransForm will continue to monitor the construction of the project until residents and business have the transportation improvements they were promised.

And while it’s important that Alum Rock BRT moves forward without any more hitches, VTA must restore trust in the community and ensure that these mistakes will not be repeated in the future.

We recommend VTA incorporate the following measures as part of future transportation improvement projects:

  1. Better community engagement and outreach: VTA must allocate more resources to community outreach for major transportation improvement projects, particularly those that may result in significant changes for surrounding communities. The level of community engagement, including door-to-door outreach, by VTA over the past few months along Alum Rock is commendable. A similar level of proactive community engagement should be standardized across major projects during all phases of planning and implementation, not just in reaction to major issues.
  2. Higher standards and greater oversight over the selection of contractors: VTA should create checks and balances for greater oversight in the selection of future contractors for future projects, such as a citizens’ advisory committee made up of businesses and community leaders. Additional contractor qualifications may also be required for contractors to ensure the best possible construction firm is selected. VTA should also rethink their construction plan and consider approaches to minimize inconvenience to the community and provide safeguards in the event that issues may arise. 
  3. Proactive programs to support local businesses: VTA should set aside funding for mitigation of business and community impacts for future projects, including direct financial assistance when greater than expected impacts take place. Other agencies such as AC Transit have adopted such programs as part of their capital improvements; it’s time for VTA to standardize similar programs for its major projects.

Send an email to the VTA Board today at board.secretary@vta.org to thank them for taking corrective measures for the Alum Rock BRT project, ask them to be transparent about what the lessons learned from this experience are, and urge the Agency to apply the lessons learned from this project to future capital improvement projects.

You can also attend the next VTA Board Meeting in-person on Thursday, November 5 at 5 p.m. For the meeting agenda and more information, please visit VTA’s website.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.