Top-ranking VTA officials and Mayor Sam Liccardo went out of their way to be “very silent” about a federal report that added $2 billion to the estimated cost to build the BART extension to downtown San Jose, while they privately shared concerns over public perception and funding gaps, newly obtained text messages reveal.
In one message, the mayor inquired on whether VTA officials could ask the Federal Transit Administration to strike the new price estimate from a news release.
When confronted this week about the text conversations, Liccardo – a chief proponent of the extension’s design – said the secrecy was necessary to save the taxpayers money. He told the Bay Area News Group that he will now ask for an independent review of the project’s controversial single bore tunnel design to ensure public confidence.
Liccardo’s announcement marks a reversal after months of pushing back against a growing chorus of transit advocates who worry the tunnel design is forcing costs higher and will ultimately inconvenience riders. But questions remain over how the VTA will implement a good-faith review of the long-delayed project while it continues marching forward with the current design, as Liccardo says it plans to do.
The six-mile, four-station BART extension through downtown San Jose, which will be managed by the Valley Transportation Authority, will be the largest infrastructure project in Santa Clara County history. And the latest revelations provide a window into the thorny balance officials must strike between providing taxpayers with price transparency while negotiating contracts, seeking additional state funding, and fending off criticism from transit advocates.
In multiple text exchanges, obtained by the Bay Area News Group in a public records request, officials urged one another to conceal a Federal Transit Administration analysis of the BART project that pegged the likely cost at $9.1 billion – a $2.25 billion increase over the current budget – and projected that the downtown extension’s opening could slip to as late as June 2034.
“We need to be very ‘silent’ about our budget issues,” VTA’s Takis Salpeas, who is overseeing the BART extension, told Liccardo in an October text message, referring to the FTA’s estimate. Salpeas told Liccardo in a text that he feared contractors bidding on the project would inflate their costs if they knew of the higher price tag.
“As you know, we have 9 major construction teams shortlisted . . . They [sic] listening to everything!! I know you know,” Salpeas added.
A week later, the FTA announced its higher cost projection in a news release, which prompted Liccardo to plead that it be removed from the announcement.
“I’m sure you caught the part in the federal announcement where they assert the project cost ‘is expected to be $9.148 billion.’ Can we ask them to revise that language??” he texted Salpeas and VTA’s General Manager Carolyn Gonot. But the language was not changed.
Meanwhile, the VTA did not acknowledge the federal cost estimate and initially denied a Public Records Act request from this news organization for a federal assessment that explained the new price tag and extended timeline.
After months of downplaying the federal cost assessment, the VTA earlier this month said it may be short by up to $1.66 billion in needed project funds and indicated that the agency is scrambling to identify new state and federal sources to fill the gap. The agency said the rising cost of supplies and labor is driving up the price but it remains adamant that the final cost will come in lower than the federal projection.
In an interview this week, Liccardo defended his actions to conceal the higher price estimate as an effort to “protect taxpayer dollars.”
“We were trying to ensure we can get a project built without giving hundreds of millions of dollars more of taxpayer money to contractors,” he said. “So in other words, it was a tightrope in trying to elicit more state and federal resources for the project without telling contractors that there’s more money in the pot for them to go grab.”
In an interview Tuesday, Salpeas said he is “the guard of the public money” and revealing higher costs “on the street” hampers his ability to negotiate. “If I had to do it all over again, I would say the same message,” he added.
Yet John Pelissero, senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said the messages could “undermine the public’s trust and confidence” in government.
“The fact that the federal government had a number and they shared it with the local officials in the valley and they were not willing to put this out in the public appears to be an attempt to be less than transparent, and that’s never a good strategy for public officials,” Pelissero said.
In the face of growing criticism, the mayor plans to present a memo at Thursday’s VTA board meeting that will seek an independent review of the project’s tunnel and station designs – marking a major victory for transit advocates who have long been pushing officials to reevaluate the project’s design.
In 2018, the VTA and BART boards chose to dig one of the world’s largest subway tunnels with a single bore instead of a more conventional twin bore design that would require tearing up large sections of Santa Clara Street. Critics argue that the single bore design compromises the long-term experience of riders by requiring passengers to descend nearly 90 feet to get from the street to their trains and failing to provide access points on the south side of Santa Clara Street.
For more than a year, text messages reveal that the mayor – who has also publicly voiced concerns about the station designs – has been profoundly worried that he may lose local support for the project as local agencies seek new sources of funding.
In a November 2021 text, referring to an influential public policy think tank, Liccardo wrote: “Ok. I just think we have to publicly wrestle with the parade of ‘better ideas’ that advocates like SPUR insist that we’re not heeding. I don’t want to deal with the political headwinds of having local advocacy organizations against us.”
It’s unclear who will conduct the new analysis or how long it will take. However, Laura Tolkoff, a transportation policy director for SPUR, praised the mayor, saying the extensive back and forth with VTA officials showed a “genuine effort to improve the project.”
“I think Mayor Liccardo knows that getting BART Phase II (to downtown San Jose) right, is as important as getting this project done,” said Tolkoff.
Scott Knies, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, was one of the most vocal proponents of the single bore design back in 2018 when transit officials were choosing between the two. Today, however, Knies said he is open to additional analysis in order to convince residents and taxpayers that they are getting the best project.
“I think a lot needs to come out in this study for a change in direction,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that. I see it as a reassurance that we’ve made the right decision four years ago.”