General manager of the Valley Transportation Authority and Joint Venture board member
Published: September 2015
VTA is the transit authority for Santa Clara County, serving 346 square miles and 43.1 million trips a year (10 million by light rail, 33 million by bus.) It has 2100 employees and it operates, maintains, schedules and provides security for 70 bus routes and 3 light rail lines 20 hours a day with a fleet of 450 buses and 99 light rail cars.
VTA is also the Congestion Management Agency, responsible for planning, funding and constructing all things transportation, with a Capital Program budget of $1.6 billion (in addition to $7 billion for two phases of bringing BART to the South Bay). This includes road improvements like the newly opened 280/880/Stevens Creek Interchange and planning and funding bike and pedestrian pathways.
VTA is a transit partner with eight organizations: Caltrain, Altamont Corridor Express, Capital Corridor, BART, Monterey Salinas Transit and TAMC, Santa Cruz Metro, and Dumbarton Express.
Valley Vision recently caught up with Fernandez for a conversation about her very busy role, her connection with Joint Venture and her background.
Q. What are the biggest challenges you see in your current role as General Manager?
A. There are several. How do we get everyone in Silicon Valley to do more to protect our environment and help mobility by using public transit, riding a bike or carpooling?
Getting consensus from the various stakeholders in how to provide the best service for our population, especially where Bus Rapid Transit and Express Lanes are concerned, is another challenge.
We are working more closely with municipalities on land use decisions and planning. We need to drive housing and job centers near existing transit infrastructure to shift people from cars to transit, biking and walking.
Silicon Valley presents a terrific opportunity to build a stronger allegiance to taking public transportation. VTA is continually looking for ways to not only make it easier for people to ride public transit, but to encourage more people to do so.
We want county residents to recognize VTA as more than a service provider and see us as the transportation authority and solution provider.
Q. Can you talk about some of the ongoing projects that are taking up most of your attention?
A. First of all, there’s BART Silicon Valley, the largest public works project in Santa Clara history. It’s now in its third year of construction and is trending months ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget. The plan is to begin service on the first 10 miles of BART to Silicon Valley in the fall of 2017.
Phase II has also begun with an environmental review and public engagement process that will analyze environmental issues, station placement and inform the community of the funding challenges we face and opportunities we have.
We will seek input from the public, local government officials, business and homeowner associations and other transit agencies to help us deliver the last six miles to the City of Santa Clara.
We’re also busy getting ready for the Super Bowl next February. We are working with the Super Bowl Host Committee and partnering with regional transit agencies to ensure the safest and most efficient transportation to and from the game.
Improving our light rail lines so they move as smoothly and quickly as possible around the Valley is a top priority and we have ongoing work to make that happen. That’s where the Double Track project in Mountain View comes in. With two tracks we can run trains going in opposite directions at the same time. It’s some pain for a lot of gain. With the construction work, we know commuters don’t like shutting down lines even for a few days, but once that work is finished it will make a big difference in the commute.
Delivering Bus Rapid Transit projects (BRT) that will provide a faster, more frequent bus service, is another priority. We know this has been a successful mode of transit in other places around the country and we think it will work to reduce traffic congestion here, too.
Silicon Valley Express Lanes are commanding our attention as well. We need to address increasing congestion levels brought about by continued employment and population growth. Express lanes are an essential tool to manage traffic demand, and they provide a reliable commute option.
A network that includes the SR 237, SR 85 and US 101 corridors would convert existing carpool lanes and add new lanes in the current roadway footprint to provide congestion relief throughout Santa Clara County. Converted carpool lanes offer solo drivers the opportunity to use carpool lanes for a fee, provide congestion relief through more effective use of HOV lane capacity, and provide more reliable travel times through dynamic pricing - pricing that changes as the number of cars increases or decreases to help keep traffic moving.
Q. What are some of your goals for the future of VTA?
A. Envision Silicon Valley is a long term planning process that we’ve developed. It’s an effort to engage community leaders in a dynamic visioning process to discuss current and future transportation needs, identify solutions and craft funding priorities.
We’re identifying a project list using a menu of financing opportunities that includes new funding sources, public-private partnerships and sales tax.
We are working to develop three key outcomes: Criteria that will be used to develop a viable list of projects, a project list for the VTA Board to consider and adopt and, most importantly, a financing plan that will leverage transportation funding.
We’re also working on ways of harnessing technology to improve the customer experience. In Silicon Valley we have unique access to cutting edge technology. For example, we’re about to test software that allows riders to connect with a special on demand transit service from their smart phone that will help people cover that last mile to their destination. For instance, if their workplace is too far from a public transit station for them to walk or ride their bike the rest of the way, our new pilot service will pick them up at the nearest transit station and take them to major employment centers. The pilot project for this service will roll out this fall.
Q. How did your association with Joint Venture come about?
A. When I was asked to serve on the board of Joint Venture I recognized the importance of having us all work together on the issues that are critical to our region. The beauty of Joint Venture is that it works across city limits and across county lines, with various elected bodies, businesses and public agencies. It’s imperative to have that kind of collaboration to make Silicon Valley great, and transportation is a key component of that success.
Q. How is the relationship between VTA and Joint Venture helpful to you as the GM of the local transportation Authority?
A. When we know what the other major organizations in this Valley are working on to improve life for our residents, it helps us do our job better. That collaboration in planning and services makes for a win-win for all involved.
Q. Tell us about your background: your upbringing, education, early jobs and personal interests?
I was born and raised in Panama, and I came to the United States at age 17 to attend college. I received a civil engineering degree from Bradley University and an MBA from Roosevelt University, both in Illinois.
My first job was working in the Engineering Division of the Panama Canal Company’s Gatún Locks. I later worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation managing the design and construction of rail expansion programs in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and managed operations of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Prior to coming to VTA, I served as chief operating officer of the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
I serve on the board of directors of the American Public Transportation Association and the board of trustees of the San Jose-based Mineta Transportation Institute.
In my spare time I enjoy being outdoors, hiking the Guadalupe or Alum Rock trails. I also knit and crochet. And I’m very excited about the arrival of my first grandchild in September.