The East Bay’s Free Weekly
June 10, 1994


Is Bay Area Transportation Planning on the Right Track?

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has a vision of the future: 500 miles of new freeway lanes over the next twenty years

by Dashka Slater

Regional transportation planning often feels like an interminable road trip with the entire family crammed into the car. Everyone agrees on the destination-clean air, convenient travel, and uncongested freeways-but no one can agree on the best route to take. "Are we there yet?" the citizens riding in the back seat keep asking. And the answer is always, "Not yet."

Environmentalists have long argued that the reason we never arrive is that we are traveling on a dead-end street. Building more freeways, they say, only ends up luring more cars onto the road, which means more congestion, more air pollution, and less greenery.

"Los Angeles is an example of 55 years of congestion-reducing freeways, and are they any better off now than they were before?" asks Matthew Williams, a member of an organization called Regional Alliance For Transit (RAFT). A regional federation of environmental and transit groups like the Sierra Club, Save Our Buses, the Modern Transit Society, and Urban Ecology, RAFT is trying to get regional transportation planners to consider taking a different route.

The folks at RAFT have been focusing their attention on the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), a twenty-year blueprint for how $74 billion in local, state, and federal transportation dollars will be spent in the Bay Area. The plan is the first one that the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission has prepared since Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation - Efficiency Act of 1991, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that effectively broke the stranglehold road-building interests had held on federal transportation dollars by making it easier for states to spend their allotments on public transit, bike paths, and pedestrian walkways instead of highways.

The Bay Area's MTC was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the 1991 transportation act, but now that the act is in effect, the commission hasn't done much to use the new funding flexibility to its advantage. As in years past, freeways still dominate the landscape. The new RTP would build 500 new freeway lanes in the next twenty years. "In a sense MTC is now considerably behind the federal government," says RAFT member David Llewellyn. "The federal government doesn't want areas that are noncompliant [in terms of air quality standards] to build more single-occupant freeway lanes."

One reason the revolutionary new plan for the future looks so much like the old discredited plans of the past is that transportation planning is a bit like an expressway-once you get moving in a certain direction, it's damned hard to get off and turn around. Ninety- five percent of the RTP's $74 billion spending allotment is earmarked for maintenance and operation of the existing transportation infrastructure or for projects that are so far along in the planning process that there seems to be no turning back. That leaves about $3.8 billion in "discretionary" funds, and this money is for new capital projects only-it can't be used to pay for operating expenses like hiring bus drivers so that buses can run more frequently.

"[The MTC's] planning is based on serving heavily subsidized automobile use and imbalanced and dispersed land use," says Sherman Lewis, a BART director who is also a member of RAFT. Lewis has been instrumental in the development of what is being called "the RAFT alternative"-a dissident plan for how MTC should spend its $3.8 billion in discretionary funds.

The RAFT plan was drawn up after members saw the transit alternatives that MTC planners were considering. Agency planners had come up with three different approaches-one that continued with the funding priorities of the past, one that emphasized the maintenance of existing systems, and one that emphasized transit and city-centered development but which environmentalists felt was rather anemic. What was missing from all of these scenarios, RAFT members say, was an understanding of the relationship between land use and transportation.

Right now, MTC planners simply take the population growth assumptions provided by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and then try to figure out how best to move all these new people from place to place. Those figures are based on the zoning densities in the various cities, and since suburban cities like Brentwood and Livermore want to build big, spread-out, low density developments, those are exactly the kind of developments ABAG says we will have. One and a half million new people are expected to be living in the Bay Area by the year 2010, and unless trends change, a good portion of them will be headed for the new tract homes that will be built on what are now orchards and grazing land.

Suburban living and freeways go together like a horse and carriage, of course. The farther away people live from each other and from urban centers, the more demand they place on transportation infrastructure and the harder it is for public transportation to serve them. "I know this is heresy, but I think we have to start thinking about not increasing capacity; we have to start thinking about reducing demand," Urban Ecology's Steven Wheeler told the MTC board last month. "I'd like to see us working toward a zero increase in vehicle miles traveled, perhaps even a reduction in vehicle miles traveled."

To that end, RAFT members asked MTC planners if they would be willing to run an alternative plan through the computer model that the agency uses to predict the outcome of different transportation plans. Much to everyone's surprise, the MTC agreed. "We wanted to work with them, so they could use the model to advocate their position," explains Chris Brittle, the MTC's planning manager.

Instead of the 500 new freeway lanes envisioned by the MTC plan, the RAFT alternative builds only nineteen, and puts the remaining money into transit. In Alameda County, the I-80 widening project and the proposed Foothill Freeway would be replaced by electrified trolley lines along East 14th Street and Telegraph, College, and MacArthur, and express buses between Pleasanton and Martinez and Pleasanton and Vallejo. The San Joaquin and Capitol trains would run more frequently and there would be a commuter rail line between Tamien in the San Jose area and Livermore that would connect up with BART at the Fremont station.

And while most transportation planning contents itself with building the infrastructure to get people in the suburbs to their jobs in the cities, the RAFT plan funnels the Bay Area's population growth into the cities where the existing transit stations are, and leaves the greenbelt green. It also puts drivers and transit users on a more equal economic footing by requiring employers that provide free parking to give an equivalent $3-per-day subsidy to those workers who take the bus or ride their bikes to work.

What would happen if these policies were put into effect? According to the MTC model, Bay Area residents would drive 6.3 percent less each year and would ride transit 24 percent more. In the East Bay, Amtrak ridership would go up 152 percent and AC Transit ridership would go up 39 percent. Fuel savings would amount to 128 million gallons each year, and 6898 tons of carbon monoxide; 657 tons of reactive organic gases, 1022 tons of nitrogen oxides and 1204 tons of particulates would be kept from contaminating the air. None of MTC's own alternatives had anything close to this sort of success in persuading people to get out of their cars. "The only significant difference in transit use we found is with the RAFT proposal,” Brittle says.

So does this mean that MTC is going to adopt the RAFT alternative instead of its own plan when the RTP comes up for approval on June 22? Well, no.

The alternative plan is being viewed more as a learning tool than a serious proposal, in part because the MTC says that there are no operating funds available for the new transit systems that RAFT members have proposed. "They don't have any costs for the long-term maintenance and operation of their proposal, and I have real problems with that," says Alameda County Supervisor Ed Campbell, one of two Alameda County representatives on the MTC board. "If fare box recovery was one hundred percent, then we could just fund transit, but it isn't. The vehicle is still the most efficient and time effective way to move people."

This is typical of the double standard that exists or highway and transit, RAFT members say. "We know we have a problem with operating funds, but it's not unique to transit. MTC doesn't have the operating and maintenance funds for highways, either,says Lewis.

The MTC has also had trouble accepting RAFT's premise that land-use decisions should be built into the transportation plan. After all, the decision to live in the city or the suburbs is up to individuals, and questions of zoning are up to each municipality. But RAFT members argue that if transportation agencies didn't rush in to solve the problems created by bad land-use decisions, the cities and counties would have to start planning more rationally. "The MTC's vote is an implicit vote to accept the land-use plans of the cities and counties,". Lewis says. "In American planning, cities and. counties plan their laud use and the transportation agencies are supposed to provide the infrastructure. The problem is that the cities are not basing their decisions on the cost of transportation plans so they're making their decisions in a vacuum of fiscal ignorance."

David Llewellyn of the Modern Transit Society has a slightly different analysis. He points out that the MTC is made up of representatives from each of the nine Bay Area counties. "The MTC says, 'We don't have any control over the cities and counties-if they go for sprawl we have to provide them with the transportation services,'" he says "But who is the MTC? The MTC is the same city councilmembers and county supervisors who are making those land-use decisions. So they wring their hands when they're on MTC and then they go back to their jobs on the board of supervisors or the city council and approve sprawl development. One hand washes the other, but in this case it's the same hand.”

Expect the lathering to continue, at least for the time being. Two controversies are now coming before the MTC as part of the RTP process, and in both cases the MTC is being asked to approve freeway projects that environmentalists say will continue the pattern of sacrificing the greenbelt on the altar of the automobile. The Foothill Freeway is a 5.3-mile road that, Lewis says, will compete with passengers for BART, resulting in a net decline in transit use. The other is a proposal to use money that was originally earmarked for a West Dublin BART extension to widen Highway 84 in Livermore at the 580 interchange. The Alameda County Congestion Management Agency opposes such a move, but Alameda County Supervisor Ed Campbell has said that he will use his position as an MTC commissioner to make the switch happen.

The RAFT people say they will be on hand to fight both projects, and the determined to keep pressuring MTC to plan for a more sustainable transportation system. “We’re doing something the local jurisdictions are not willing to do,” Lewis says. “Which is to plan rationally for quality of life.”