Air Quality & Emissions, CEQA / NEPA Issues, Freeways, Regional Transportation Plan, Transit Funding

Can MTC Take the Heat?

We have discussed here before, or at least introduced, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Transportation 2035 Plan, which is the latest update to the Regional Transportation Plan. The RTP provides a strategy for how to use the $223 billion of transportation funding that MTC expects will become available to the Bay Area over the next 25 years. Of that money, $191 billion is “committed,” leaving $32 billion of discretionary funding. The vast majority of this money (in the 80-90% range, depending on how the discretionary money is allocated) is earmarked for maintaining current road and transit infrastructure, and in fact, the bulk of the system expansion funds (about 80%) are to be applied to transit, not to roads. But not even all of the transit expansion projects are maximally intelligent, and there are still a lot of roadway expansion projects. I have already expressed dissatisfaction with MTC’s insistence at allocating funds for freeway expansion and then protecting them into perpetuity by sticking them into the “committed” status lockbox. But the last time we picked up this story, the Advisory Council offered several suggestions, one of which was to re-evaluate even the “committed” projects in light of AB 32, the bill which requires that California greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by the year 2020.

Unsurprisingly, MTC chose to ignore this suggestion by the time of last week’s July 23 meeting. The Chron duly reported on the Commission’s approval to move forward with a regional network of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, which I plan to discuss more in a future post. But the Chron neglected to point out the other part of the story — namely, that the financially constrained portion of the Transportation 2035 Plan was also approved, and, pursuant to Resolution 3869, the Plan and four alternatives will move onto the EIR phase that will occupy the next several months. MTC is required by law to undergo environmental review of both the Plan and a range of feasible alternatives that could mitigate environmental impacts of the Plan. With the exception of the required “No Project” alternative, all other alternatives offer different perspectives on how to spend the $32 billion of discretionary funds, but they maintain the same base of “committed” projects — and it is here that the freeway expansion monies lie. Many of the freeway expansion projects are relatively small, and others still are planned as part of the HOT lane network, where they are at least partially justifiable. But not all the money is earmarked for HOT lanes, and the total still amounts to some $6 billion to be spent on expanding the reach of Bay Area pavement.

But times change. Global warming is not only an environmental issue — it is increasingly a legal issue, as well, and a valid ground on which to challenge the adequacy of a governmental agency’s efforts at environmental review. Governing bodies can no longer sweep this issue under the rug. Even the current U.S. Supreme Court, in last year’s landmark case Massachusetts v. EPA, managed to recognize the importance of legal recourse as a means of addressing the climate change crisis. Meanwhile, also just last year, here in California, current Attorney General and former California Governor & Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown filed a challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) against Inland Empire San Bernardino County’s updated General Plan, asserting that it did not adequately address greenhouse gas emissions in light of the County’s projected growth — although the plan did discuss measures to reduce emissions and traffic. The case settled quickly, but it sent a clear signal to California governments and agencies that they may not ignore greenhouse gas emissions when studying the environmental impacts that result from new projects and plans. Both this and AB 32 are more recent developments that MTC did not have to contend with the last time it prepared an update to the RTP.

Studies on induced demand indicate that building new freeways does not ease congestion in the long-term; the widened freeway will fill to the brim once again, and congestion and air quality will deteriorate further. If a freeway is widened but then once again becomes congested, this implies an increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). This, in turn, means a setback in the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — of which a full 50% are due to transportation here in the Bay Area. What’s more is that even the monies that MTC has committed to transit expansion are not always wisely allocated. The San Jose BART extension, which will require at least $6 billion to construct, will likely not meet its extremely high ridership projections. Would $6 billion of non-BART transit projects generate more riders — that is, take more drivers off of freeways — than a $6 billion BART extension would actually generate (as distinct from the riders it is projected to generate)? That would depend on the projects — but, yes, quite possibly. Instead of 16 miles of BART with merely a half dozen stations, $6 billion could fund the construction of at least a few dozen miles of light rail and at least one station per mile, with money to spare, thereby providing far greater transit reach and access than a single BART line with widely spaced stations could provide. Therefore, not only is MTC opting to fund freeway projects that will increase VMT — it is also opting to fund expensive transit projects that may fall short when it comes to decreasing VMT. This does not put the Bay Area in a good position if we intend to comply with AB 32’s emission reduction requirements. Admittedly, many of the proposed freeway projects are quite small, but not all — and there are just so many of them. Even if we assume momentarily that each individual project does not increase VMT significantly, what would the cumulative impact to the region be if we built them all as proposed? Particularly in light of Jerry Brown’s action against San Bernardino County from last year, if the EIR for MTC’s Transportation 2035 Plan misleadingly understates the cumulative impact — or if the EIR insists that allocating about $6 billion for planned freeway expansion is irrelevant to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming — MTC will surely face a CEQA challenge. Can MTC take the heat? (So to speak.)

Instead of going through this cumbersome process, it would be preferable for MTC to not only refuse to apply any of the $32 billion of discretionary funds to roadway expansion, but also to re-evaluate projects that fall under the “committed” $191 billion of funding — which is exactly the course of action that the Advisory Council suggested to MTC just a few weeks ago. MTC should clearly continue to fund maintenance of the current network, so that roads remain in good working condition. Projects that are currently under construction may also be completed. But any roadway expansion project that is only in the planning stage should be fair game to have its funding cut, and no further expansion should be planned. Adoption of such a policy would demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to greenhouse gas reduction and would comply with both CEQA and AB 32.

Naturally, MTC has given no indication that it intends to follow such a path. Indeed, its actions of the past week suggest the exact opposite, because all of the substantive alternatives that will be analyzed in the EIR assume the same problematic base of “committed” projects. But this is not really a surprise; in fact, one might even say that it is par for the course. Recall that MTC is the same body that until just a few years ago did not officially acknowledge the common sense connection that exists between transit and land use. (For the record, it was common sense both now and then, at least to some of us.)

MTC spokesperson John Goodwin has stated that we “cannot build our way out of congestion.” Good words, and a nice thought, but there is a gap between the words and the action. For MTC, “build it and they will come” is perhaps closer to the truth, at least for the roads. Even though this blog is primarily about public transit, the Bay Area’s freeways are the flip side of the coin that we cannot afford to ignore. After all, most Bay Area citizens go about their daily activities in a car, rather than on transit — a situation that will be difficult to change unless a commitment to restricting roadway expansion is integrated into a multi-pronged regional solution. I know I have already promised this once before, but I really will post a piece in the near future that will provide an overview of some of the major freeway projects included in the Regional Transportation Plan. If only there were fewer projects, the post would take less time to write. Unfortunately, we are not quite that lucky.



6 thoughts on “Can MTC Take the Heat?

  1. MTC, bringing us.the ‘fourth bore’ disaster, translink perhaps this decade perhaps not, delaying Caltrain to downtown in vain hope of BART down the peninsula,
    And NO effort at land use policy iniatives to reduce sprawl.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 29 July 2008, 5:16 pm
  2. David, whatever could you be talking about? Translink was rolled out on July 15! Didn’t you notice? ;-)

    Yeah, the fourth bore is definitely going to use up a chunk of the freeway overview post. And I would rather not get started on Translink and land use.

    Posted by Eric | 29 July 2008, 6:31 pm
  3. The MTC has also failed in its commitment to fully fund the Lifeline Transportation Network and treat it on an equal footing with the Regional Transportation Expansion Plans. What this means is that many of the new projects that are funded in the RTP provide a minimal benefit for choice riders – while vital improvements that could help low-income and other transit-dependent populations are overlooked.

    I’m not arguing that there isn’t a benefit to attracting new transit riders, but we cannot forget that there are serious equity concerns when we are talking about public transit systems and funding. Why is it that the MTC prefers to support expensive new rail projects (like BART to SJ) while paying lip service to providing round-the-clock access to low-income neighborhoods and the jobs and services they cannot access except on public transit?

    Posted by rzu | 1 August 2008, 3:51 pm
  4. Hi rzu, I hope I didn’t give the impression that the content of this post is a complete summary of issues with MTC — far from it. Equitable distribution of resources is another topic very worthy of discussion, and it does actually connect to the rider increase point. One part of the equity discussion is obviously allocating sufficient resources to non-glamorous-but-awfully-useful transit (buses). But transit expansion is not mutually exclusive from improving service to transit-dependent populations. It depends largely on what system is being expanded. While BART serves CBDs very well (see: downtown San Francisco and Oakland) and connects wealthier suburbs to those CBDs, it skirts by and speeds through low-income and transit-dependent neighborhoods (see: the vast majority of East Oakland), essentially by treating them as equivalent to the suburbs whose stops must be minimized so as to make a BART commute competitive time-wise with a freeway commute. But adding and improving service where it’s needed — i.e. better geographic coverage with additional lines, is already a step up in that respect. And so much the better if they do not cost several billion dollars apiece to build.

    One main reason why I focus on the environmental slant here is it happens to be something in which I am especially interested, but also because I think it provides a useful tool by which MTC can be held accountable.

    Posted by Eric | 2 August 2008, 12:50 pm


  1. Pingback: Can MTC Take the Heat? Redux « Transbay Blog - 6 October 2008

  2. Pingback: When commitment isn’t a virtue « Transbay Blog - 13 April 2011

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