Brain Trust Preps Bay Area Transportation Mega Measure

Hoping to emulate Seattle and Los Angeles, Bay Area thought leaders convene in Oakland to figure out solutions to Bay Area transportation woes

Image: Seamless Bay Area
Image: Seamless Bay Area

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Holding yesterday’s “Building a Transportation Measure for the Bay Area in 2020” forum in Oakland was a no-brainer, even though one of its three sponsors, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), is based in Mountain View. “It’s too hard for everyone to get there by transit,” said Erica Wood, the SVCF’s Executive VP for Community Impact.

Wood, who kicked off the meeting, used that fact to illustrate the situation for too many residents of the Bay Area–it’s just too complicated, too expensive, and way too time-consuming to get around by transit. “We have a public transit system that doesn’t work for the people who need it most,” she added.

But it can be fixed. It’ll just take some money–say, $100 billion?

Derecka Mehrens, Shefali Ranganathan, Elizabeth Ortega-Toro, Therese McMillan, Thea Selby and Gloria Ohland. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Derecka Mehrens, Shefali Ranganathan, Elizabeth Ortega-Toro, Therese McMillan, Thea Selby, and Gloria Ohland. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

From TransForm’s web page, which, along with the SVCF and Urban Habitat, is working on a ‘Green New Deal for the Bay Area,’ or a tax to raise that money:

Bay Area leaders and advocates are preparing to put a massive funding measure on the ballot in either 2020 or 2022 to raise funds regionally for transportation, housing, or both at a scale never before imagined. TransForm is coordinating with a wide range of partners and allies to ensure the mega measure will have strong equity provisions, and moves us towards our climate goals by reducing driving and greenhouse gas emissions.

It is critical to elevate community voices early in the process, and ensure the development of the measure and its projects and priorities is transparent. We’re convening public and private conversations and events for stakeholders and voters to learn about the opportunities a mega measure can create, and weigh in on the process.

Is it realistic to hope to get two-thirds of voters to approve such an expensive measure? Yes, the Bay Area managed to pass Measure RR, the BART bond, in 2016–but that was for a measly $3.5 billion.

Los Angeles passed a $40 billion sales tax funding Measure R in 2008, and then its successor, Measure M, in 2016. That one extended the sales tax and will result in $120 billion for transportation over the coming decades. And Seattle approved a $54 billion tax for Sound Transit 3 light rail expansion, as well as another measure that invests in sidewalks, transit, and other transportation improvements.

That’s why the organizers of the mega-measure panel invited Gloria Ohland of Move LA to talk about M and R. “Now we have $120 billion for fifty major projects and we have got so much borrowing power,” she told the audience of some eighty advocates and city and regional officials. But that success comes with a warning for the Bay Area: LA can access lots of matching funds from Washington D.C. “We’re going to beat you guys and get all the money from the feds. Unless you step up, we’re going to take it all,” said Ohland.

The transbay train station under the transit cetner sits fallow. Although the forum didn't discuss specific project, the downtown connector is an obvious thing to fund in any new mega-measure
The train station under the Transbay Transit Center sits fallow. Although the forum didn’t discuss specific projects, the downtown connector is an obvious thing to fund in any new mega-measure. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

“It always seems impossible until it’s done… in Seattle we called it the moonshot.,” added Shefali Ranganathan, a Deputy Mayor for the City of Seattle. “And we went through this in 2015 and 2016. The key to making this plan a reality is to really root it in a coalition.” She said the Bay Area’s time has come:  “With this mix of terrible congestion and growth you have a public that’s ready for bold action.”

In fact, the high cost of housing was repeatedly cited by the panel as both the driver for a transportation measure and a necessary component of it. “It’s the critical issue,” said the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Therese McMillan. She said the public, overburdened by housing costs, is only likely to vote ‘yes’ in sufficient numbers if they see it as a way to access affordable homes. “It’s fine to talk about congestion, but what are you going to do about my housing?” is what they’ll ask, she said.

“The housing crisis is real,” said Elizabeth Ortega-Toro of the Alameda Labor Council, who was also on the panel. “I represent the workers in this community who need to get to work, whose kids need to get to school.”

The panelists and those in the audience seemed to agree that any bond measure will have to be coupled with legislation that will open the door to housing development around rail stations, such as Senate Bill 2923, which allows BART to build housing on the land it owns around stations. But given the fate of the last generalized transit-housing bill, S.B. 50, getting a funding measure that’s connected to transit-oriented housing could be complicated.

To win against such challenges is going to take a clearly defined and realistic vision, said Thea Selby of the San Francisco Transit Riders. No doubt remembering the failure of San Francisco’s Prop. K sales tax adjustment, Selby said that it’s important to have a clear, ambitious and bold vision, but to keep expectations realistic. Without that, “…what ends up happening is we don’t get good outcomes and it’s not winnable. We want to win this measure.”

One thing that wasn’t mentioned by the panel: unlike LA and Seattle before their measures passed, the Bay Area has the bones of a good transit network already in place. With BART, Caltrain, SMART, Muni, VTA, Amtrak, ACE, and the ongoing construction of high-speed rail, the region is starting from a better place than other West Coast cities.

The damaged rail bridge that is part of the 20-mile Dumbarton Corridor.
The damaged rail bridge that is part of the twenty-mile Dumbarton Corridor. This relatively short and simple broken link severely handicaps the region’s transit possibilities. Wikimedia Commons

Major projects are needed, such as a subway under Geary, a second Transbay crossing, and of course, the extension of Caltrain and high-speed rail to downtown San Francisco. But the Bay Area can also make huge improvements by investing in relatively short connections to stitch existing systems together: think of the defunct Dumbarton bridge, pictured above, which could solve Wood’s problem of getting between Oakland and Palo Alto by transit. Moreover, for any of these investments, large or small, to work, the Bay Area simply must develop a universal, integrated fare structure and coordinated schedules, so riders can actually transfer from system to system to get around the Bay Area.

The audience at Monday afternoons forum. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
The audience at Monday afternoon’s forum. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

In fact, getting on track to coordinating the Bay Area’s existing transit systems might be key to getting public buy-in for a huge regional measure, by making transit feel like a unified, regional system. “We want the rider to be in the center,” said the Transit Riders’ Selby.

The group, meanwhile, has put together a Vision Statement for the Bay Area’s Regional Transportation Measure that specifies system coordination, as well as climate goals, social equity, and fair funding streams, among other things.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to creating a mega-measure? And what projects do you think need to be on the funding list? Post your comments below.

  • david vartanoff

    No doubt we have a few good routes to start from, but the Balkanization–both lack of convenient transfers,and outrageous fares, hobble all of us trying to get around without driving. The Dumbarton bridge connection has been discussed for over two decades with the only money supposedly made available “re-programmed” to cover cost overruns on a poorly executed project. While I can ride rail-bus-rail from North Oakland to Santa Rosa to meet up w/ friends, the three different agencies each waste money on a general manager, differing color uniforms, different logos on buses/trains, poorly coordinated schedules etc. I listened to a 45 min+ discussion at an AC Transit BOD mtg. of what colors to paint the new buses for the BRT lite project–who cares what the colors are? What we want is reliable, convenient, fast transport from A to x, y, or z. Our regional MPO backed a 4th tunnel encouraging auto commuting on State Route 24, and the amusement park ride to the Oakland Airport parking lot (but not to the actual terminals) , burning nearly a billion $$ between these two mistakes,yet asks us to trust them to hand out funding for projects we actually need and want. Worse yet,s former exec of the MPO is now on the SFMTA board overseeing Muni.

  • JustJake

    Given that MTC is involved, the matter of public trust looms as a large hurdle.

  • mx

    This is about where I am too. I ride transit daily, I read Streetsblog daily, I see the need for new infrastructure and investment every day. And I like and value government; I’m not a transit-hating small government conservative. But I have no trust in the MTC and the region’s transit agencies right now, so even as a daily transit rider, I don’t know how I can support a bond this large.

    What I’d like to see is a show of good faith from the Bay Area’s transit agencies for the vast majority of our necessary improvements that cost basically nothing. A second transbay crossing inherently costs billions of dollars, but compared to $100B, unified transit branding, fare integration, schedule coordination, dedicated bus lanes, other parts of the Seamless Bay Area, this stuff costs comparatively little. If local leadership wants my trust for a bond measure, they can demonstrate their commitment to improving the rider experience today by working to get this stuff done, and that’s just not happening.

    There also needs to be a broader discussion about capital and operating expenses. Capital expenses are through the roof, with projects costing vastly more than they do in, say, France, a country known for its strong labor protections. And then after we spend billions on capital expansion projects, we starve them of operating funds, resulting in subways that run less frequently than the bus lines they replace and a signature rail corridor with 90 minute headways on the weekends. A bond measure needs to start with broad commitments for fast and frequent service (the 30×30 plan is a good example in SF) and explain how the funds will achieve those goals.

    Finally, I propose a one-line addition to the bond measure to help ensure the money is spent effectively: “not one penny of these funds may go to a company in any way affiliated with Ron Tutor.”

  • thielges

    Right, a unified transit system can be created by coordinating the assets we already have. While we shouldn’t minimize the political and administrative challenges to unification, this can be done without any expensive physical capital investments. No concrete need be poured, vehicles purchased, or rails laid. Just leverage what we have to create a more useful and efficient transit system.

  • I cosign the Tutor Clause!

  • nodolra

    I listened to a 45 min+ discussion at an AC Transit BOD mtg. of what colors to paint the new buses for the BRT lite project

    That’s the most textbook example of bikeshedding I have ever heard of.

  • We’re working to bring hovercraft transportation to the Bay Area with a non profit Transportation Management Association (TMA) called the Bay Area Hovercraft Alliance.
    Unlike massive rail projects, hovercraft are incredibly cost effective when infrastructure is taken into account. They’ll also allow access to more areas around the bay area than ferries can. We’re looking for more supporters – ask us anything.

  • A little comparison between the Seattle and Los Angeles Mega-transportation ballot measures:
    “Unlike the other big transit winner on election day which called for a new half-cent sales tax and the extension of an existing half-cent sales tax, the Seattle area Proposition 1 was not based solely on regressive sales taxes. In addition to a half-cent sales tax, Prop 1 called for approval of:
    *A property tax of $25 a year per $100,000 of assessed value
    *A 0.8% motor-vehicle excise tax or ‘car tab’ ($80 annually on a $10,000 vehicle)”