The new boss at the Valley Transportation Authority says she has become a big fan of the San Francisco 49ers. Which seems appropriate, since how well the VTA moves fans in and out of Levi's Stadium this summer and fall will be the first major test for general manager Nuria Fernandez.

"Levi's Stadium clearly brings an opportunity for us," said Fernandez, who this month succeeded Michael Burns as leader of Santa Clara County's transportation agency. "We want people to think of us as their first choice to go to the games and not as an afterthought."

In her first interview with this newspaper, Fernandez spoke of the challenges ahead for a transit agency that has rebounded from being $50 million in the red seven years ago to having balanced its last four budgets. Extending BART to downtown San Jose and expanding the successful network of express buses are two of her priorities.

But getting more rider feedback, luring more passengers onto buses and trolleys, and overcoming the images of slow and partially filled trains are other hurdles to overcome.

First is that new football stadium. How well the VTA can move fans to and from 49ers football games and other events at the Santa Clara stadium will be closely scrutinized. The $1.3 billion stadium is set to debut in August.


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A light-rail stop on Tasman Drive is just a few blocks away from the 50-yard line, and longer trains will be put in use. Buses will be rerouted to connect with Caltrain and BART to move fans to the game and back home. And the VTA will build a light-rail pocket track on Tasman to help with storing trains for football crowds.

"People come to events like this at different times, but they all leave at the same time," Fernandez said. "We're spending a lot of time to make sure light rail and our bus system and Caltrain and BART will work together."

She knows light-rail trains often run too slow, and she intends to be a strong advocate of running more express buses across the valley. Ridership on those buses has jumped more than 20 percent over the past year. And Fernandez will likely be making numerous trips to the nation's capital to press federal transit officials for funds to tunnel BART under downtown San Jose.

Fernandez, 54, is no rookie. She brings more than 30 years of experience at transportation agencies in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. She spent the past two years as chief operating officer of New York state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest transit agency in the country.

She is the first woman and the first Latina to head the VTA, which oversees transit operations and most highway construction in Santa Clara County. Her salary is $298,700 a year.

Fernandez spoke repeatedly about connecting better to riders.

"The community has some concerns and good ideas to share with us and that is what we need to do," she said. "This cannot happen in a vacuum."

Fernandez knows the biggest gripe -- those slow trains going under 15 mph through downtown and into Mountain View. Plans to bypass some stations to quicken a trip can only do so much.

"Decisions made years ago have impacted our ability to speed up trips," she acknowledged. "We just can't pick up the tracks and move them somewhere else."

Stuart Cohen, executive director of the statewide transit watchdog group TransForm, said the challenges Fernandez faces are not easy.

The $2.3 billion extension of BART to San Jose's Berryessa area-- the most expensive public works project in South Bay history -- will open in four years. But digging under downtown San Jose to extend the line to Santa Clara would cost another $4 billion, and only half of that money is guaranteed.

"It will be a challenge to get BART beyond Berryessa," Cohen said. "It will take yet more fundraising, and voters have already pitched in twice."

Another formidable challenge will be the proposal to remove two traffic lanes on El Camino Real, reserving them for buses only.

"Getting cities on board with bus rapid transit, and making sure it supports local businesses, will be critical," Cohen said.

Fernandez's goal is to increase transit ridership by 10 percent. More than 3.5 million trips are taken each month on VTA, with buses and trolleys carrying 143,791 riders each weekday, up from 141,846 a year ago.

Fernandez takes over an agency in much better financial shape than what Burns inherited in 2005, when budget deficits ran into the millions, lines were being cut and fares increased.

Now, there's money in the coffers, overall ridership is increasing and light rail has helped spur major development along North First Street.

Yet VTA remains among the most expensive transit agencies to operate in the nation, with taxpayers subsidizing 85 percent of the service. That's the second-worst rate in the U.S. in an area known for sprawling suburbs and lacking a high-employment downtown like San Francisco's.

So with the eyes of many South Bay residents beginning in August focused on the 49ers and the VTA, the agency already has plans to post dozens of employees at stations to help riders get on board.

So let the games begin, said Fernandez, who issued this promise:

"We will manage this very well."

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.