First, A Few Numbers (and Acronyms)
Regular readers may recall our previous discussion of Transportation 2035, the latest update to MTC’s ongoing efforts on the Regional Transportation Plan. Earlier this year, we wrote a special feature that describes the multifaceted plan, fleshing out how MTC has proposed to allocate $226 billion of local, state, and federal transportation funding that was expected to become available to the Bay Area over the next quarter century. However, changes in the economy and funding climate have necessitated that MTC revise a few aspects of the RTP. The State of California yanked away STA money that funds transit operations; in the Bay Area, this means that local transit operators will lose access to over $55 million that they were relying upon for the remainder of this fiscal year, and no STA funding at all will be provided in upcoming years. Assuming that the state reinstates STA funding in five years, the Bay Area will have lost $1.2 billion of STA and spillover funds in the interim; MTC also projected a $4.5 billion loss in TDA revenue over the 25-year RTP timeline. Another change is VTA’s recent announcement that it can only afford to build the BART extension to San Jose as far as Berryessa Station, postponing the construction of the downtown subway alignment. This, in turn, is connected to the issue of declining transportation sales tax revenue; this is potentially problematic throughout the region, not just in Santa Clara County, although it is not yet clear just how problematic. Considering the new forecasts for transit revenue, the region’s transit operation shortfall will increase from $3.2 to $8.5 billion. This includes a $283 million shortfall for AC Transit, a $442 million shortfall for Golden Gate Transit, a $1.6 billion shortfall for SamTrans, a $1.9 billion shortfall for Muni, and a whopping $3.2 billion shortfall for VTA, which is the worst operation shortfall in the region. Meanwhile, the transit capital shortfall will increase from $16.1 to $17.1 billion. It also takes into consideration that the cost of the BART extension to San Jose has increased from $6.1 billion to $7.6 billion (year of expenditure). Overall, the $226 billion plan has been reduced in size to a $218 billion plan. The plan adds $1.3 billion of revenue: about $280 million in connection with AC Transit’s Measure VV parcel tax, and $1 billion of VTA joint development revenue. It also anticipates $3 billion of funds for high-speed rail, with half coming from Proposition 1A, and the other half coming from the federal stimulus package’s $8 billion allocation to high-speed rail.
Update: For more details about the MTC meeting at which these numbers were revealed, please also see SF Streetsblog’s great write-up.
When Is Transit Service Redundant?
The numbers are grim, and they confirm that properly funding transit in the Bay Area will be a serious issue in the future, as operators struggle to produce a balanced budget each year. But looking beyond the latest set of numbers, the revised RTP does not constitute a substantial change in methodology. It does include a few new recommendations, but we believe that these recommendations — like many aspects of the RTP itself — fall short. In light of the regional shortfalls, MTC says we must investigate “transit sustainability,” carrying the implication that transit service must be cut until it attains a level that is “sustainable.” MTC suggests that such trimming is most natural in places that already enjoy “redundant” transit service. The Bay Area’s approach to transit operation and management has resulted in certain service inefficiencies on the regional level, in that each operator resembles an independent kingdom that cooperates only occasionally and reluctantly with neighboring kingdoms. Some areas receive too little service, while other areas receive more robust service than is arguably necessary. Sometimes, transit services do not quite connect; other times, they awkwardly overlap. At first blush, the idea of regarding the Bay Area’s many transit agencies as components of a larger network, in order to promote efficiency throughout the region, has underlying merit — particularly if it addresses uncoordinated fare policies. Then again, if MTC is so interested in investing money efficiently, then how are we to explain the agency’s longstanding commitment to projects like BART to San Jose and the Oakland Airport Connector? And if MTC is so interested in avoiding redundancy, perhaps it could also have guided us toward a superior regional vision in the first place, instead of scrambling to correct mistakes after the fact when the redundant infrastructure has already been built.
MTC has provided little in the way of precise detail about its regional study — but it did suggest a few initial examples of “redundant” inefficient transit service that it intends to scrutinize. The corridors that the agency has chosen as exemplars of “redundant” service are themselves a cause for concern, in that they either overlook or misunderstand the different roles fulfilled by various transit services. For example, MTC suggests that the Peninsula currently enjoys “redundant” service because SamTrans, Caltrain, and BART all operate in this area. BART and Caltrain between Millbrae and San Francisco do not serve identical corridors, but if you were going to make a redundancy argument on the Peninsula, that would be the place to start. But the purpose and reach of SamTrans bus service should not be perceived as being redundant to BART and Caltrain, which both function as commuter rail on the Peninsula. Even long-distance bus routes that parallel the rail corridors and feed into rail stations carry short haul trips that give those routes a fundamentally different purpose and ridership than the rail corridor they ostensibly duplicate.
MTC also considered the Bay Bridge/Transbay corridor, pointing out that BART, AC Transit’s Transbay buses, and ferries all provide redundant service between San Francisco and the inner East Bay. The Transbay corridor is the highest demand transit corridor in the Bay Area, capturing transit share that well exceeds the regional average. This is not surprising, in light of short headways, and the fact that BART’s Transbay Tube is one of very few places in the Bay Area where a transit trip is legitimately faster than its equivalent trip by automobile. The high demand means that “redundant” service is actually advantageous. We should remark that BART and the Transbay buses are not precisely duplicative, because AC Transit serves many East Bay neighborhoods that are distant from any BART station, thus allowing residents of those neighborhoods to travel to and from San Francisco via transit without driving and without suffering the time and fare penalty associated with transferring to BART. To the extent that BART and AC Transit actually do provide duplicate service in the literal Bay Bridge corridor, the duplicate service is an advantage. AC Transit provides additional seats that supplement BART’s strained capacity at peak commute hours, and many riders actually prefer the bus over BART for its comfort and wireless Internet connection. The services are complementary, rather than competitive. Particularly because the design of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge precludes reintroducing surface rail on the bridge itself, the portfolio of Transbay bus service is one that we would ideally grow, or at least maintain at its current levels — not cut, based on a cursory perception that the service it provides is redundant to BART.
The BART to San Jose Fund
In this sense, MTC’s standard methodology, which prioritizes big-ticket suburban BART extensions above more cost-effective solutions, has not changed. MTC posits that the Bay Area must trim “redundant” transit service. This almost certainly refers to bus routes, which are crucial lifelines for the the transit-dependent — rather than, for instance, underutilized midday BART runs to Pittsburg/Bay Point and Millbrae. One of the great ironies of MTC’s redundancy analysis is that the revised RTP is in part geared toward providing additional funding for BART to San Jose — a project that itself involves constructing grade-separated BART infrastructure that directly duplicates miles of existing standard gauge track through Fremont, Milpitas, and San Jose. Santa Clara County projects a $2 billion shortfall in 2000 Measure A funds. How should this shortfall be filled? The proposal is to use $2 billion of revenue gathered from MTC’s planned network of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes (click here and scroll down to read more about the HOT network). This is a problematic suggestion on its face, because it is unclear that the HOT lanes will even generate the revenue that MTC has alleged.
Furthermore, applying HOT revenue to fill the Measure A shortfall would constitute a rather startling reversal of policy. MTC itself has articulated an equitable principle that should guide funding choices for HOT revenue: the money that comes from toll lanes in a given corridor should be applied toward transit and other related improvements within that same corridor. For instance, HOT revenues could potentially fund better transit or bicycle/street improvements parallel to the freeway corridor from which those revenues were collected. It could also fill the transit operating shortfalls, which MTC has suggested could be reduced by cutting redundant service. However, many of the HOT lanes planned for Santa Clara County are not in the corridor of the proposed BART extension — for example, the lanes on Highways 85, 87, and 101 (south of Interstate 280 and Downtown San Jose). So there is a danger that HOT lane tolls collected on freeways that are distant from the BART alignment will nonetheless be appropriated in order to deliver the $2 billion necessary to fill the Measure A shortfall, which VTA has devoted primarily to BART. It is not enough, then, that VTA plans to either downscale or indefinitely delay on its promises to construct a full portfolio of transit improvements, all in the name of bringing BART to the South Bay. Now, even HOT revenues — which could nicely supplement efforts to remake the greater Valley into a more transit-oriented place, by investing in local transit and streetscape improvements — have now instead been proposed to shore up Measure A and the BART extension.
MTC has given the public a two-week window in which to comment on its proposed revisions to the Transportation 2035 plan. Comments will be received until 4:00 pm on Thursday, April 8, 2009. You can send a comment via mail to 101 Eighth Street, Oakland, CA 94607, Attn: Public Information; via E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; or via fax to 510.817.5848, Attn: Public Information.