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Plan Bay Area Passes in a Room Full of Paranoid Conservative Activists

Plan Bay Area, the 25-year regional development and transportation funding strategy, was approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments last night. The commissions passed a plan that includes some highway expansions and won’t meet the region’s own goals for sustainable transportation, according to projections, but which nevertheless represents a step forward for smart growth.

The meeting ran past midnight after about five hours of public comment. Some spoke in support of the plan, while others urged commissioners to approve an alternative draft that would take stronger measures to encourage transit-oriented, affordable housing.

Most commenters, however, decried the plan as a fundamentally “totalitarian” imposition on property rights, defending the status quo of car-dependent suburban development patterns as “organically grown” communities. As the Greenbelt Alliance and the Marin Independent Journal have reported, some conservative groups rented buses to haul in folks to rail against the plan. Much of their rhetoric smacked of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories.

Georgine Scott kicked off the public comments by reading off a notice she had drafted, declaring that she could seize the assets of the MTC because Plan Bay Area is a violation of the constitution.

“This committee, as subservants and foreign agents, give your allegiance to the foreign corporation of the United States,” Scott said. “I thus accept your ABAG/MTC actions, as said agents making rules ordinances and hearing decisions against the mandates of said constitution, as concerns property, as acts of treason, sedition, collusion, and money laundering. I may seize your respective properties as one of the people of the state of California following this notice, hereafter agreement.”

Scott’s reading elicited a roar of applause from a segment of the crowd, as did this comment from Richard Coleman of Orinda: “If we’re going to have unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats impose high density, high-rise housing on us, then all of the officers, directors and employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments must surrender their drivers licenses, ditch their cars, and move into stack-and-pack housing.”

Not everyone held the belief that planning for a less car-dependent future constituted a conspiracy to deprive people of their property rights.

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Wider Highways? Bay Area’s Smart Growth Plan Has Some Glaring Mistakes

Population growth in the Bay Area doesn’t have to mean more traffic and more suburban sprawl, if it’s planned for in a sustainable way. To that end, regional planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently released a draft of Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated blueprint for focusing housing growth over the next 25 years near transit hubs, where new residents are less likely to need a car to get around.

A high-occupancy toll lane on Highway 680. Photo: Laura Oda, Bay Area News Group

Sustainable planning advocates say the plan is mostly headed in the right direction, but it still falls short in some areas. One glaring mistake is that the plan calls for spending billions to widen highways to create high-occupancy toll lanes — carpool lanes that single-occupancy drivers can pay to use. Those lanes should instead be created by converting existing highway lanes, says TransForm, an Oakland-based group that advocates for better walking, biking, and transit policies on a regional and state level.

“MTC’s plan follows a 1970s-era Caltrans practice that limits Express Lanes to new construction only, without even studying the option of optimizing existing lanes,” wrote TransForm Deputy Director Jeff Hobson in a blog post. “This kind of outdated thinking is hardly the best approach to solving 21st century transportation problems – and would completely exclude some of the most congested stretches of highway from the plan.”

Because most of the revenue from HOT lanes will be soaked up to pay for the highway widenings, instead of just charging single-occupancy drivers to alleviate congestion in existing lanes, SPUR has pointed out that they will generate little money for transit improvements. Meanwhile, the new lanes will induce more demand for driving and do nothing to reduce existing congestion.

Shown in pink: Priority development areas, where housing growth will be focused over the next 25 years under Plan Bay Area. Image: MTC

“MTC’s plan continues the cycle of ‘build more lanes, attract more drivers’ by creating new options for solo drivers, but no new transportation choices,” wrote Hobson. ”Over the long term, this strategy is virtually guaranteed to land us back at square one: gridlock on heavily-traveled highways.”

The MTC’s draft plan also fails to include enough new transit-oriented affordable housing to reduce the projected costs of housing and transportation, TransForm says. While the MTC set a goal of reducing those costs from an estimated 66 percent of household income for low-income families region-wide to 56 percent, the agency actually projects those costs to increase to 73 percent of household income. That means living in a walkable community would be less affordable than it already is.

“Without stronger policies in place to prevent that from happening, folks will end up living farther and farther away from places like San Francisco, and we will then encroach on our precious farmland and open space that we’re so fortunate to have in the Bay Area,” TransForm Community Planner Joél Ramos told MTC commissioners at a recent public meeting.

The MTC does expect the plan to meet its goals in six areas, including providing enough housing for all of the Bay Area’s projected new residents without any expansion of sprawl; exceeding the state-mandated 15 percent reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions (the projected improvement is 18 percent); and reducing residents’ exposure to dangerous fine particulate pollution, which largely comes from trucks, by 71 percent. MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger also said that the spending plan for transit improvements focuses primarily on fixing existing systems first before embarking on expansions.

Yet Plan Bay Area falls short in addressing other major problems [PDF], with some even expected to get worse:

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SFMTA Board’s Final Vote Expected to Grant Free Muni for Low-Income Youth

With backing from the Board of Supervisors yesterday, free Muni for low-income youth may finally come to fruition if approved by the SF Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors on December 4.

Favor from the SFMTA board seems likely, since it already approved the agency’s share of the funds for the program in its two-year budget in April, and SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin proposed a plan to a Board of Supervisors committee on Monday that would pay for a 12-month pilot program and help fund Muni vehicle maintenance.

The SFMTA’s original funding allocation was contingent upon matching regional funds from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which initially rejected a $4 million grant for the program, but recently voted again to award the SFMTA a $6.7 million grant.

From there, the debate at the Board of Supervisors has centered on whether or not those funds would be better used for under-funded Muni vehicle maintenance. The board voted 7-4 yesterday to approve a resolution favoring youth passes, with the opposition led by Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has stood out as a transit advocate on the board. On this issue, he has ardently called for prioritizing vehicle maintenance above free youth passes.

From the SF Examiner today:

Supervisor Scott Wiener failed in his effort to derail the pilot program. Wiener argued, along with supervisors Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, that all of the funding should go toward Muni service, which has suffered through decades of neglect…

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MTC Votes to Reject Funding for Free Muni for Low-Income Youth

In a 7-8 vote, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission today rejected $4 million in funding for the free Muni for low-income youth pilot program.

After the vote, proponents chanted “shame on you” to the commission, according to the SF Chronicle.

“We were definitely very disappointed, especially with the kind of resources the MTC has and the other allocations they’ve been able to make without this level of struggle,” said Jaron Browne, an organizer for POWER, which is leading the Free Muni for Youth campaign. “But there’s no way we’re stopping at this point.”

Although Browne said “we hold everybody who voted against this accountable,” the deciding vote seemed to come down to Commissioner Steve Kinsey of Marin County, who voted against the proposal despite previously indicating his support to organizers. Browne said Kinsey may have been confused about what the proposal entailed, though he didn’t speak publicly at the meeting.

Update: Read more coverage from the SF Chronicle and SF Examiner.

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Big Ferry Subsidies for Tech Firms Before Free Muni for Low-Income Youth?

Free Muni for low-income youth is just within reach, which would be the culmination of a hard-fought advocacy campaign that urged the SF Municipal Transportation Agency and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to set aside a total of $9.4 million to improve transit access for students in need.

A coalition of advocates calls for free Muni passes for youth last year. Photo: Bryan Goebel

However, campaign organizers are remarking on the stark contrast between their uphill battle and the MTC’s quick decision to fund a new, far less cost-effective ferry from Alameda to South San Francisco to serve a burgeoning tech cluster. While the free passes are probably not in jeopardy, the full-speed-ahead ferry subsidies speak volumes about the priorities of the region’s transportation agencies.

Organizers for the low-income youth campaign Leah LaCroix and Bahar Ostadan pointed out in an op-ed in the Chronicle this week that there’s been much less debate and scrutiny surrounding the MTC’s recently-approved $18.6 million subsidy for the new Alameda-South City ferry, which on a per-ride basis will cost almost ten times as much as Muni’s low-income youth program, going by the writers’ calculations — $26.60 per ride (not including startup costs) compared to $2.86 per ride.

It’s normal for transit to rely on subsidies, and ferries are a great way to move people across the bay. But as Phil Matier and Andrew Ross recently wrote in their Chronicle column, the tax support needed for the South City line is off the charts compared to two existing ferry lines to SF, even when projected out for two decades.

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Mapping a Fully Transit-Connected Bay Area

Brian Stokle's map envisions how the Bay Area region could possibly be connected by future transit projects -- some planned, some only envisioned -- including high-speed rail, BART extensions, and BRT lines. Image via The Atlantic Cities

Imagine the freedom of being able to hop on a nearby train or bus to reach virtually any place in the Bay Area (and beyond) on an integrated network of reliable transit.

That’s the vision cartographer Brian Stokle sought to lay out in a map featured in the latest issue of SPUR‘s monthly magazine, The Urbanist. In a recent article in The Atlantic Cities, Urbanist editor Allison Arieff says that the map, along with another map of existing regional transit that Stokle created, “have generated a lot of conversation (and some controversy) — which is exactly what they were meant to do”:

The majority of the projects, routes, and modes shown in Stokle’s proposed “Future” map (or some might argue, “Utopian”) reflect current Bay Area planning. However in some cases, the mode or route has been changed. In other instances, some new routes have been suggested. For example, BART to Livermore and Dumbarton Rail are two projects that are not included in this map. Instead, access to Livermore from BART is provided by bus rapid transit, and the Dumbarton corridor is served by rapid bus service. New projects that are not currently part of planning, or are in their early phases include projects like the Oakland Emeryville streetcar down Broadway, Capitol Corridor crossing at Vallejo, and 101 Rapid in the Peninsula.

Some ideas are old, some more novel. In San Francisco, the controversial Central Subway (now under construction) is shown extending all the way to Lombard and Van Ness to meet the coming BRT line, which is also extended to connect the Transbay Terminal to Marin County via the Golden Gate Bridge (where a BART line was fought off in the 60′s).

What would it take to bring a comprehensive vision like this into reality, and which projects could be feasibly built? Regional planners are currently figuring that out as they develop the Bay Area’s 25-year Sustainable Communities Strategy and Regional Transportation Plan. Next month, staff from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transportation financing agency, will present a list of the transit projects they determine to be the most beneficial and cost-effective to build in the coming years. Stay tuned to Streetsblog for more on that.

In the meantime, check out Stokle’s map of the existing regional transit network — one of SPUR’s ideas for saving transit – after the break.

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House Transportation Bill: What’s at Stake for the Bay Area

Reliable transit and safer streets in San Francisco and the Bay Area could be crippled by what U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has called ”the worst transportation bill [he's] ever seen” making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives.

As Streetsblog Capitol Hill has been reporting, H.R. 7, the federal transportation bill being pushed by House Republicans, would be disastrous for transit riders and crippling for programs that fund pedestrian and bicycle safety.

In the Bay Area, the damage would be especially severe: “California receives a huge share of the federal funding for public transportation because of our extensive systems, and the House bill could end up zeroing out federal support for transit,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a Bay Area transit advocacy group that lobbies at the state and federal level. Instead, transit “would have to battle in the ever-shrinking general fund.”

Transportation for America spokesperson David Goldberg told the San Francisco Examiner today that about $638 million annually could be withheld to Bay Area transit agencies, which “could ultimately lead to service cuts, fare increases and deferred maintenance on vehicles.”

Yesterday, Bay Area mayors Ed Lee of San Francisco, Jean Quan of Oakland, and Chuck Reed of San Jose expressed their opposition to the bill in an op-ed in the Examiner, calling on Congress to protect their cities’ transportation funding:

While roads and bridges are a critical component of California’s infrastructure, diverting vital funding for sustainable modes of travel is unwise. If this wrongheaded approach moves forward in the House, the nation’s transportation network will take a giant step backward to a “roads only” policy for dedicated funding…

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Engineers Unveil Designs for Bike/Ped Path on Bay Bridge West Span

The long-sought addition of bicycle and pedestrian access across the length of the San Francisco Bay Bridge is one step closer to fruition. Last night, engineers presented the first design proposals for a pathway for bicyclists, pedestrians and maintenance crews to the west span, but they say the funding and technical challenges that lie ahead mean the project is still in its infancy.

Images: MTC

For more than 15 years, bicycle advocates in San Francisco and the East Bay have pushed for a west span path to connect bike commuters to the east span path expected to open between Oakland to Yerba Buena Island by 2014.

“We’re very encouraged that Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) have come up with a design that works for the west span and the touchdown on either end,” said Dave Campbell, the program director for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

“This new study not only affirms the feasibility and benefits of the pathway, it also puts this important project in line for funding,” said San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum. “Now, the city and the region are showing their commitment to connect not only the East Bay and San Francisco, but also San Francisco’s own neighborhoods, which is critical as Treasure Island is developed. This is an exciting step for a much-needed bridge between communities.”

The project would still take up to ten years to plan and construct once the estimated $500 to $550 million in funding is secured, said John Goodwin, spokesperson for the MTC, which manages regional transportation funding. Last night’s presentation of the project study report, funded by toll revenue, was just one step in developing the project initiation document, expected to be completed next summer, which will allow agencies to begin the funding search. After that, roughly five years of planning and five years of construction lie ahead.

The study report “shows that the project is possible, but not that it’s affordable,” said Goodwin.

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Supervisors Scott Wiener and David Campos Set to Serve on MTC

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Dennis Hearne Photography

For the last 16 years, Jon Rubin has served as the Mayor’s appointee on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s regional transportation planning and funding body, originally appointed by Frank Jordan in 1995. Last week, Rubin was forced to resign and turn over the seat to Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose four-year term begins May 1.

While it’s true the Mayor was looking to strike a compromise because the Board of Supervisors was deadlocked over its appointment between Wiener and Supervisor David Campos, as reported by the Chronicle, sources told Streetsblog that a behind-the-scenes effort has been underway for some time to get Rubin replaced. Some advocates and City Hall insiders who didn’t want to be identified said they were disappointed with Rubin’s record on the commission, and felt he hasn’t been aggressive enough on San Francisco’s behalf.

Rubin, the president and CEO of the Peninsula Coalition, did not respond to requests from Streetsblog for an interview.

In a letter [pdf] to the MTC dated April 13, Mayor Ed Lee said he was appointing Wiener for “his special familiarity with the problems and issues in the field of transportation.” Wiener currently sits on the plans and programs committee of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board, and is a regular Muni rider. As we’ve written, he holds great promise on sustainable transportation issues, and hired transit advocate Gillian Gillett as one of his staffers.

Wiener told Streetsblog that he wants to make sure San Francisco “is getting the funding and priority we deserve for transit projects that don’t just benefit the city, but the entire region, whether it’s Transbay, or Caltrain, which we depend on.”

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Bay Area Governments Begin Developing Regional Smart Growth Plan

Image: OneBayArea

Local governments in the Bay Area have begun a coordinated regional effort to shift toward more sustainable urban planning mandated by the state’s landmark anti-sprawl bill, SB 375, which set ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and called for better integration of land use and transportation planning.

Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) released its Initial Vision Scenario, which lays out preliminary strategies to accommodate population growth in the region over the next 25 years while achieving a 15 percent GHG reduction.

“The Initial Vision Scenario is a tool to advance dialogue among the Bay Area’s regional agencies,” said Ezra Rapport, executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). “Through this collaborative planning effort to strengthen the character and qualities of our neighborhoods and communities, we can tackle the region’s population growth with a mix of housing, while preserving open spaces, protecting our economy, and getting residents where they need to go.”

The overview marks the first stepping stone in developing a Sustainable Communities Strategy, also known as Plan Bay Area, aimed at mitigating the impacts of a potential regional increase of 2 million residents. By directing new housing and job development into walkable, transit-accessible areas, the Initial Vision Scenario projects 97 percent of development could be absorbed within the current urban footprint but would still fall 3 percent short of the mandated 15 percent target.

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