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MTC Approves Sweeping Regional Plan, Debates New Toll Lanes

Bus_and_bike.jpgPhoto by bvohra via Flickr

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) yesterday approved its 25-year "Change In Motion" Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), after more than two years of work coordinating with the 26 regional transportation operators, the public, and the many authorities under its control. A slew of bicycle and transportation advocates lined up to thank the MTC for the more than $1 billion it has committed to completing the regional bicycle network and increased funding for Safe Routes to School (SRTS) and Safe Routes to Transit (SRTT) programs.

Andrew Casteel, Executive Director of the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition, urged commissioners to start funding SRTS, SRTT and bicycle network improvements within the first two years of the RTP.  Citing climate action plans in Portland, Oregon, to realize 20 percent of all trips in the city by bicycle by 2030, Casteel said, "The more available infrastructure for bikes, the more people will shift into bikes as a mode of transportation.  The investment in bicycling can be done quickly.  Completing out that network has a lasting effect after it's put there.  It does continue to create that mode shift."

Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Christine Culver echoed praise for increasing funding for the regional bicycle network and for SRTS and SRTT funding, explaining how she traveled by bicycle to Golden Gate Transit from Marin into San Francisco, then took BART to Oakland.  "I like Safe Routes to Transit; this rocks!"

While most of the public comment was laudatory, some expressed concern the RTP fails to make meaningful inroads in meeting climate change goals set out in AB 32 and SB 375.  Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm, called it a "test run," and said the commission needs to reevaluate the way it plans RTPs and should think outside the box.

"Our objectives used to be congestion relief and mobility, and now it's saving our planet and some pretty imperative stuff," said Cohen. "There's a lot of discussion about how far regions can go in really addressing vehicle miles traveled. What is becoming clear is that if any region is going to lead the way, it's going to be ours.  There's not a lot of innovation that I'm seeing coming out of the other MPOs."

Bob Allen, Executive Director of Urban Habitat, said that the RTP falls short of taking important steps that would make the MTC a leader in the country and globally on climate change.

Your own analysis shows that this plan is not enough.  We can all agree that infrastructure spending in an infrastructure plan is not going to be enough.  You're going to need to get the authority for future congestion pricing, for changes in land use patterns.  You're also going to have to invest the money you do have in your infrastructure plan more efficiently and more equitably.  That's going to mean things like seriously taking a look at what committed projects mean, what happens when you have serious cost overruns on projects that are not meeting your goals.

The most contentious part of the meeting centered around the MTC's commitment of $2.1 billion for future High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane money to Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), or roughly one-third of the total expected revenue from the lanes, to make up for revenue shortfalls from a floundering economy and over $1 billion in cost overruns for BART to San Jose.

Advocates claimed that committing the money to one county before there was even legislation granting authority to establish HOT lanes was putting the cart before the horse and thwarting the process that they said should be open and transparent.

MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger acknowledged the commission was moving ahead before they had legislation, but saw no problem with it. "I would consider the issue that is before you today in the plan and the placement of the $2B as a placeholder, which is subject to change and probably will change. I will acknowledge that we are jumping the gun to some extent. But I think that's a reasonable planning assumption to make and I don't think it has to prejudice this process.  We need to make some kind of commitments now, at least on a provisional basis."

MTC Commissioner Dean Chu of Santa Clara County defended the commitment of the money, explaining that legislation authorizing HOT lane funds would grant 95 percent of revenues collected in a corridor to go back to the same corridor for discretionary spending and that $2.1 billion was commensurate with the revenue expected to be generated by Santa Clara County drivers.

MTC Communications Director Randy Rentschler confirmed to Streetsblog that HOT lane studies estimated that Santa Clara County would generate $2.6 billion of the expected regional revenues of $6 billion over 25 years and indicated that the share the commission was committing was actually less than the 95 percent the legislation would grant.

The MTC passed the RTP with the provision committing HOT lane money to the VTA, though commissioners and staff agreed that the decision was open to review and most advocates preferred to focus on the positive benefits for bicycling.

"While much of the RTP is still fairly lame, and HOT lanes for
submarines will soon be the vogue, this is a very big victory for
regional bike advocacy," said SFBC Program Director Andy Thornley.

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