September 15, 2014

A transportation plan for the Bay Area

How should $244 billion be spent on Bay Area transportation over the next 28 years?

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is charged by state law (SB 375) to develop a “Sustainable Communities Strategy” (SCS) that combines housing and transportation plans to accommodate the Bay Area’s expected population growth. The goal is to reduce car travel and greenhouse gases (GHGs, of which 43% in the Bay Area come from transportation). Other planning organizations similar to MTC throughout California are also working to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and GHGs in their areas. The SCS will in turn be a part of the next 28-year Regional Transportation Plan, scheduled to be adopted in spring of 2013.

Providing input to MTC on its plan is not as straightforward as it should be. First off, MTC’s boundaries include the Bay Chapter plus parts of three other Sierra Club chapters. That requires a lot of Sierra Club coordination.

Also, MTC is asking each county transportation authority (Alameda County Transportation Commission, Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Transportation Authority of Marin, and San Francisco County Transportation Authority) to provide inputs to the SCS plan. The effort can’t be focused just on MTC; there is a lot to do just to monitor the county transportation authorities.

MTC is developing and analyzing a series of “scenarios” that will be used by the staff to recommend projects and programs to include in the RTP. The transportation funding currently estimated to be available over that time period is $244 billion, of which approximately $176 billion is dedicated to “committed” projects (projects that appeared in earlier RTPs). These committed projects may not help achieve the SCS goals, but MTC has voted to include them again without further evaluation.

This leaves “only” about $68 billion for new and ongoing “discretionary” projects and programs. If state and federal funding sources are cut back, as is likely, then the $68 billion could decrease, potentially jeopardizing the success of the SCS.

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which is responsible for projecting housing needs and identifying land-use scenarios, is working with MTC on the SCS (this cooperation is required by SB 375). It’s remarkable that this is the first time in decades that the two organizations have worked together closely on housing and transportation planning.

Beginning late this fall, when the initial analysis of scenarios is completed, MTC and ABAG will be sponsoring public outreach activities. The final RTP/SCS is scheduled for adoption in the spring of 2013.

In January 2010 the Sierra Club Bay Chapter adopted a set of 11 objectives for the 2013 RTP, copied below.

Patrisha Piras and Matt Williams

Objectives for Bay Area’s 2013 Regional Transportation Plan

These objectives were approved by the Executive Committee of the SF Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club on January 11, 2010.

A. Climate Protection Program

1. A campaign to inform and educate the public about changes necessary to comply with AB 32 and SB 375 and other greenhouse gas solutions should begin as soon as possible.

2. Provide a free bus transit pass to every junior and senior high school student. This is a step to reducing automobile usage, both today and in the future.

3. Spend money on proposed new projects and programs that reduce the greenhouse gas problem, not add to it. Transportation in the Bay Area today accounts for 43% of the total GHG problem. Example—stop building new freeway lanes. Projects that add to global warming cannot be “mitigated” enough to be acceptable.

B. Smart Growth and Sprawl Prevention

1. The Bay Area’s open spaces are worth preserving, and transportation projects should not facilitate sprawl. Residential development of open space requires large expenditures for roads and transit. Example—more than $500 million is to be spent on widening state highway 4 to 8 freeway lanes in the Brentwood area (Brentwood’s population in 1990 was 9,000; the projection for 2012 is 63,000).

2. The Association of Bay Area Governments’ FOCUS initiative “emphasizes the need for focused growth as well as the conservation of natural resources. In particular, FOCUS encourages the development of ‘complete communities’—neighborhoods with housing, jobs, shopping, parks, schools, and other services near transit services—as a way to increase the range of housing and transportation choices in the region.” Support this initiative by directing transportation funds only to compliant areas: communities that are not supportive or compliant should not receive any increased funding.

C. Effectiveness in Achieving Policy Goals

1. Areas with dense population should receive transit service around the clock. In other areas, only invest in new transit operations that are cost effective on a per–passenger basis.

2. Only invest in transit capital projects which do not add to the operating cost per–passenger of the existing transit system.

3. Review all proposed projects and programs in the 2009 RTP that cost more than $5 million to weed out projects that do not help reduce global warning, are not cost–effective or do not help eliminate social inequities. The “committed list” is long and contains projects that were planned years ago before global warming, financial sustainability and environmental justice became important issues.
D. Environmental Justice

1. Transit operators should receive adequate financial support to maintain their operations, as long as they are cost–effective or needed by residents who are dependent upon transit services.

2. All residents, regardless of ethnicity or income, should benefit from new investments—environmental justice and social equity require that gaps between different parts of the community will be narrowed or, preferably, eliminated.

E. Transparency and Accountability

1. Fiscal transparency in government is a sound practice and must be a part of transportation planning. More than $2 billion is spent on transportation projects and programs in the Bay Area each year, but there is no single source of information listing the sources and expenditures of funds by MTC, the nine county Congestion Management Agencies, the transit operators and the city and county public works agencies. MTC should publish annually a report allowing the public to “follow the money,” with GIS data included for each project and program.

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