Suppose you expect to have a generous chunk of cash at your disposal — to the tune of over 200 billion dollars — and suppose that you rule over a congestion-prone corner of the world where over 80% of trips are made in an automobile, and where transportation is responsible for a full 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, during a time in which people are flocking to mass transit in light of ever-rising gasoline prices. Wouldn’t you want to spend a very substantial chunk of that money on projects that would increase the capacity of your local transportation network in a sustainable way, while encouraging people to leave their cars at home and hop on a bus or train instead? And wouldn’t you want to fund projects to help move your corner of the world in the direction of reducing emissions levels — rather than fund projects that would only encourage yet more driving, congestion, and pollution? Not if you’re the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, apparently.
It is well-documented that widening a roadway only serves to induce higher demand for that roadway. Any perceived congestion relief is only temporary, as it adds an incentive for drivers to jump in their cars and solo-commute in lieu of carpooling, biking, or finding a transit route to work. The more pronounced long-term effect of widened freeways is that they encourage more of the same suburban/exurban development and sprawled land use that caused the traffic congestion in the first place. And once the widened freeway has filled up again with cars, drivers will clamor for a still wider freeway. Claiming that we can build our way out of congestion with yet more pavement is a false promise.
A crucial regional goal for the Bay Area is to make headway on transportation emissions reduction by implementing policies and funding projects that have a direct nexus to making a dent in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) throughout the region. (In 2006, average daily VMT in the Bay Area was over 148 million miles, and it is projected to increase 29% to over 191 million miles by the year 2030.) This will be necessary if we expect to comply with AB 32, the bill that requires California greenhouse gas emissions to be at 1990 levels by the year 2020. MTC acknowledges that there is an emissions problem, and its planning vision statement looks good on the surface:
Where we have a viable choice to leave our autos at home and take advantage of a seamless network of accessible pedestrian and bicycle paths that connect to nearby bus, rail and ferry services that can carry us to work, school, shopping, services, or recreation; and
Where we lead and mobilize a partnership of regional and local agencies, businesses, and stakeholders to take effective action to protect our climate and serve as a model for national and international action; and
Where our transportation investments and travel behaviors are driven by the need to reduce our impact on the earth’s natural habitats; and
Where all Bay Area residents enjoy a higher quality of life.
But then MTC turns around and leads the Bay Area further down the counterproductive path of roadway expansion, contradicting its vision statement. The Transportation 2035 Plan is the latest version of the Regional Transportation Plan that MTC periodically updates. MTC will dedicate this year to preparing an EIR; the draft EIR will be released this December, and the final plan will be adopted by March 2009. The plan provides a strategy for how to spend $223 billion of funding that MTC expects will become available over the next twenty-five years from a myriad of local, state, and federal sources. But $191 billion has already been committed, leaving just $32 billion of discretionary funds. MTC has initially proposed to use 42% of the discretionary funds to maintain the current system, including roads — and ideally, the remaining money in the discretionary pot should be applied exclusively toward causes in the realm of sustainable development, including transit efficiency and expansion projects, and funding smart growth programs for cities across the region.
And what about the rest of the $223 billion? Of the $191 billion of revenue reserved for “committed” projects, a whopping 85% will also be applied towards operating and maintaining the Bay Area’s current network of transit and road infrastructure. But some of the projects MTC has planned for the remaining 15%, forwarded along from previous iterations of the RTP, are problematic because they involve expanding roadways beyond their current capacity, rather than simply maintaining existing roads. Transit expansion accounts for the lion’s share of funds applied toward system expansion, but freeway expansion money represents several billion dollars that we will not be spending on transit — and even though the Bay Area’s road network is rather complete and comprehensive, its transit network still has large holes that need to be filled. The methodology of roadway expansion — though perhaps better suited to the 1950’s, or even to the more recent days of $2/gallon gas — now runs contrary to the needs of a region faced with rising gas prices and a pressing need to decrease VMT and reduce transportation emissions.
A moratorium on roadway expansion is an important step, but if we are serious about reducing emissions, we need to turn solo drivers into carpoolers, and we need to turn drivers who have a viable transit option into transit riders. Rising gas prices are already doing some of this work for us, but we can do better — and maintaining static freeway capacity will not be enough. The strategy needs to be two-pronged, involving not only a “negative” incentive (no relief from freeway traffic congestion), but also a “positive” incentive (better transit). There needs to be useful, well-aligned, reasonably fast transit that people will actually want to take; and there needs to be enough of it to ensure both sufficient capacity and reach, so that service is convenient for the greatest number of people. An excellent way to determine what will be effective is to compare what service has already worked to attract riders, e.g. the 2004 implementation of Caltrain’s Baby Bullet rush hour express service — and what has not worked as well, e.g. BART’s 2003 Peninsula extension to Millbrae/SFO. This suggests that pursuing a varied portfolio of focused, incremental programs across the region could well be a more effective approach than dumping the mother load of funds into a couple extremely expensive projects whose long-term benefits are disproportionate to their cost. Some of the transit expansion projects that the MTC has marked as “committed,” like Caltrain electrification, are very good, important projects. Others are more like the BART extension to San Jose, which will eat up billions of dollars and yet promises to fall short of exaggerated ridership projections. Thus, even for the money that MTC has allocated to transit, one can rightly question whether MTC’s suggested use of funds for “committed” projects is optimal.
There may yet be a ray of hope. Within just the past few weeks, the MTC Advisory Council has advised the Commission about key priority areas, and the agenda lines up more closely with that pushed by transit advocates and environmentalists — groups that have historically outpaced MTC when it comes to recognizing the benefits of transit-oriented land use and the need to reduce transportation emissions. This time the message originates from within MTC, rather than from without. Notably, the Advisory Council advised MTC to reevaluate projects with “committed” status (which has served as a sort of lockbox for a collection of freeway and transit expansion projects both good and bad) in light of AB 32 requirements. The recommendations also include decreasing funds for the Freeway Performance Initiative corridor studies; decreasing Regional Bicycle Network funds to re-funnel them into a pedestrian safety program; increase funding for the Climate Action Program; funding the Safe Routes to School and Safe Routes to Transit programs; and increasing funds for programs that would expand mobility options for senior residents as well as low-income residents, through the Lifeline Transportation Program. It remains to be seen how seriously MTC will consider the Advisory Council’s advice, but we are hoping perhaps against hope that the EIR for the Transportation 2035 Plan will honestly assess the extent to which roadway expansion will degrade the Bay Area’s attempt to comply with AB 32.
I am hoping to write a follow-up post later this week to provide an overview of some of the major roadway expansion projects that have been included in the Regional Transportation Plan, so be sure to check back for that.