Guest Commentary: MTC’s Upside Down Approach to Regional Planning

Image: Seamless Bay Area
Image: Seamless Bay Area

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Back in June, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) announced a “Request for Transformative Projects,” inviting anyone from the San Francisco Bay Area to submit a proposal for a transportation project for potential evaluation as part of Plan Bay Area, the region’s long-range transportation plan. MTC defines “transformational” as including nearly any transit or highway project with a price tag of over $1 billion, projects that address infrastructure resiliency, or projects that could have a transformational impact on operations.

MTC’s intent is to pick 5–10 of the top projects submitted to be evaluated as part of Plan Bay Area 2050, meaning they could be eligible for future funding. Whereas in previous cycles of Plan Bay Area, only public agencies have been able to submit projects for evaluation, this current initiative offers anyone – including individuals, non-profit groups, private companies, or public institutions – the same opportunity.

We at Seamless Bay Area believe it is a step in the right direction to allow entities other than public agencies to develop project ideas. At the same time, the process highlights a fundamentally flawed, backward approach to regional planning and illustrates how MTC ducks its responsibility for regional leadership. Rather than developing a bold vision for transit connectivity, mobility, and customer service across the Bay Area, and using that vision to identify projects that would provide the greatest possible impact, Plan Bay Area starts with projects, and lets those projects dictate the vision.

Think about it this way: If a family were trying to build a house, they would start by hiring an architect. That architect would work with the family to define what’s important to them, and then design a plan for a completed house to address the family’s needs and make them as comfortable as possible. The family would then hire a builder and various contractors to construct the house. If there were not enough money to do the whole house all at once, the architect and family would prioritize building what was most critical, leaving less critical parts until a future phase.

But the way the Bay Area does Regional Transportation planning, it’s as though the family skips the step of hiring an architect and coming up with an overall design vision for the completed house. Instead the family would just put out a call for proposals to various contractors and builders, asking them what they think it is important to build, and then somehow prioritize the projects with the greatest cost/benefit ratio. The result would be a partially complete, illogical house, with a little bit of plumbing here, a little bit of electrical work there; corridors leading to nowhere that may never get used; exposed beams and foundations that are expensive to maintain and erode quickly over time.

Plan Bay Area 2040 includes maps like this, showing a sprinkling of isolated “high-performing” projects across the region, but no map or vision of regional network connectivity.
Plan Bay Area 2040 includes maps like this, showing a sprinkling of isolated “high-performing” projects across the region, but no map or vision of regional network connectivity.

By inviting local and sub-regional entities to populate the universe of projects that could be funded for implementation, the Bay Area’s regional “plan” ends up as a grab-bag of disparate, unconnected initiatives that often primarily serve local or sub-regional goals. Potentially more cost-effective, impactful projects that would benefit more people are often not even identified for evaluation. Large, transformational projects often cross multiple jurisdictional and transit agency boundaries, and therefore are not squarely within the mandate of any existing transportation institutions to analyze or propose.

While the Request for Transformational Projects may be intended to address that issue, it’s unclear what quality of projects are going to be submitted through this open call, or how MTC will go about evaluating projects’ feasibility or value. We believe that a professional publicly-funded regional transportation authority with a mandate to deliver seamless mobility would be best positioned to identify truly transformational projects.

Despite our skepticism, Seamless Bay Area submitted a proposal for Fare, Service, and Branding Integration across the 27 transit agencies of the Bay Area to establish a more unified, easy-to-use, customer-focused network. Due to the interdependencies of these three components of public transit – separate brands are necessary so long as fares and services are not integrated – we requested they be evaluated as a single project. The benefits of executing fare, service, and branding integration together greatly outweigh the sum of the benefits of each in isolation.

We are thankful to MTC to have the opportunity to submit this project. At the same time, we feel that this is exactly the type of project that MTC itself, which lists on its website that one of its roles is to “integrate the region’s vast web of rail, bus and ferry lines into a seamless network that’s easy to understand and ride” ought to be proactively spearheading, not leaving it up to outside groups to suggest.

Let’s hope that several truly transformational projects do get studied further as a result of this process — but let’s also pressure MTC to change the way it does regional planning, so that our mobility goals drive projects, and not the other way around.

A version of this post was published on Medium.

  • Well said!

    I think some longer term vision would also help with the funding. I know plenty of people who voted for RR begrudgingly, because often times future goals for our transit agencies are not articulated.

    At the same time, I think fundamental issues of management are perhaps a bigger more tangible issue that we can’t lose sight of. My daily commute is passing multiple delayed and over budget projects between Muni and BART; projects I very much want to see completed. Part of me could less about a long term vision if it meant seeing big projects completed in reasonable ways. The other part of me desperately hopes we can walk and chew gum.

  • Ethan

    I interpreted MTC’s Request as a call for ideas they’ve missed, too quickly dismissed, or that depend on technology which could be ready by 2050 but is still in development and so new implications and implementations are still being thought up. I thought the request was a great idea if they’re willing to keep relatively open minds. Hopefully the submissions contain some brilliant but unconventional thinking. The sort of ideas that might not otherwise occur within an organization like MTC. If MTC folks are used to thinking of handling problems with their existing toolset, they’re less likely to think of using different tools, or their tools in unconventional ways.

  • Michael Escobar

    Yes, we have a tragedy of the commons unfolding as individual localities pursue their own narrow agendas – but is the leadership vacuum attributable solely to an absence of leadership from MTC? What is MTC’s actual mandate? Do they have any authority under statute to develop such a regional vision? People like to complain about how “little” the United Nations does (even though it actually does a lot), but the UN is limited by its charter and the consensuses that can be generated in the General Assembly and Security Council. No mandate = no action.

  • How is building a new $500M+ Richmond San Rafael bridge plus investing $500M+ extending SMART in any way cost effective?

    Was this the committee that judged the finalists?

    MTC seem to be locked into the short sighted thinking that transportation alternatives such as rail and biking are the future. Their own stats and white-papers tell a quite different story:
    – investment of billions in transit is not working
    – working from home has overtaken transit as a commute mode
    – autonomous vehicles are coming and none of the projects here appear to focus on embracing this likely future that is fast approaching in planning and long range investment cycles


A rendering of the bridge bike and ped path. Funding is now available to study turning this into another car lane. Image: MTC/HTNB

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