Gearing up to prepare the next update to the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has been evaluating a new policy framework to determine when a transportation project is considered to be a regional commitment. Projects that are committed will be included in the next RTP. Projects that are not committed could be included, but they would first be subject to a benefit-cost analysis and would have to be approved separately by the Commission.
At what point is a project far enough along in the process to be “committed”? We looked before at the two policy choices that were being considered. There is more detail in that previous post, but the brief recap is that with “Option 1,” a project is committed if it has been environmentally cleared, e.g. the project has an EIR certified under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). With “Option 2,” a project is not committed until dirt has turned and construction is underway. Of these two options, I supported Option 2 because it would expose commissioners to a benefit-cost analysis for more projects, thereby empowering them with greater discretion to decide whether even older projects are still worthy of pursuit. The Planning Committee also supported Option 2 and voted to move it forward to the full Commission.
At its April 27 meeting, however, the Commission unfortunately retreated from the committee recommendation, voting in favor of the less rigorous Option 1.
Part of what made this vote disappointing was that some committee members who supported Option 2 a few weeks ago changed their minds and voted for Option 1. These fickle commissioners include the now-ousted Jon Rubin (who frankly surprised me when he supported Option 2 in the first place, but ultimately opted to cast a less-than-stellar vote as his final vote on the Commission) and Sam Liccardo (a San Jose councilmember whom I suspect was concerned about placing too many obstacles in front of the full BART extension). Had these committee members continued to support Option 2, the vote would have tilted the other way.
Other commissioners, albeit too few in number to change the vote, recognized that projects should be included based on their intrinsic merit and ability to satisfy performance targets. These commissioners include San Francisco supervisor David Campos (who, despite being newly appointed, honed in on the issue quickly, or at least picked up on the right cues), and BCDC commissioner Anne Halsted (who was willing to engage and grasped the value of Option 2 in the climate target discussion).
Over the past few years certain high-profile projects, like Warm Springs and the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore, have moved forward into construction phase and are deemed committed no matter what. The practical implications of choosing one option over the other will emerge as the next project cycle takes shape. As a matter of principle, though, the Commission’s vote demonstrates an unwillingness to take responsibility for ensuring that taxpayer dollars are invested wisely, and a reluctance to engage in true planning, as opposed to mere assembly of a to-do list.
Although this is disheartening, it is not surprising. Even when sitting on a regional board, commissioners are still elected local officials at heart, interested in moving projects forward with a minimum of delay and controversy. Whether a particular local project is the best and most cost-effective way to meet identified regional performance targets is a different and sometimes even conflicting question, however, and it is precisely the question that commissioners would have confronted more robustly had Option 2 moved forward. Although Option 1 is an improvement on previous policy, even Option 1 does not go far enough. Under Option 1, projects that have been environmentally cleared are insulated, and it is true that environmental clearance is itself a major milestone that is reached only after a project has been subjected to significant public comment. But environmental laws like CEQA are designed primarily to disclose a project’s impacts to the physical environment. They are not designed to effectively engage the issues that are central to deciding whether a region should commit funding to a particular transportation project. Having that latter discussion requires an additional layer of regional oversight, which Option 2 would have provided. Moreover, as the Oakland Airport Connector demonstrates, projects can change significantly in cost and scope if they are left in limbo for years after being cleared. Yet Option 1 shields those changes from scrutiny.
Option 2 would also have put MTC in a better position to meet the Bay Area’s obligations under Senate Bill 375. One of the principal takeaways from the Initial Vision Scenario is that meeting the regional target of 15 percent per capita reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is more than simply a matter of concentrating growth in the right places — for despite its optimistic assumptions, even that scenario fell short of achieving the 15 percent target. MTC will need to bring to bear more tools in order to craft an RTP and Sustainable Communities Strategy that does meet the target, and one critically important tool is the Commission’s role in selecting the projects that will be included in the next RTP. Option 2 would have subjected more projects to a performance assessment, thereby empowering the Commission with greater discretion to approve or reject projects. That decision would take into account the project’s benefits and costs; the extent to which the project meets the Bay Area’s growth, mobility, equity, air quality, and health goals; and a consideration of whether the project moves us closer to or further from achieving the SB 375 target.
But it is Option 1 that has moved forward. More projects will be spared that exacting level of discretionary review, and we may need to rely more on other strategies to meet the target.