Massive Counter-Attack Ends Brief Spring at MTC

In a blow to the very heart of the region’s transportation planning process, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission voted today to preserve the longstanding dominance of local politics in the allocation of funds for transportation projects in the Bay Area. The shortage of funds due to the economic crisis had led MTC staff to propose a revision to the Commission’s Committed Projects Policy, so as to enable the MTC’s Regional Transportation Plan to be more effective. In the past, the policy essentially cemented in previous project selections, so that those decisions would never be reconsidered. Because MTC’s RTP process has been to staple together the wish lists of the various counties of the region, this has meant that project selection was primarily occurring at the local or county level.

The problem with this is that local solutions do not work when aggregated together at the regional scale. Local transportation plans assume that their residents will travel largely by automobile. However, when these residents leave their respective counties, it has not been possible to facilitate their travel with adequate regional infrastructure. The extremely high cost of widening existing highways, along with the lack of physical space to do so without condemnation of existing residences and businesses, has resulted in massive congestion throughout the region. The simple truth is that the future of inter-county travel is going to depend on transit. This is all the more true because of the State’s commitment to reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, of which motor vehicles are the largest source.

This in turn means that effective transportation planning for the region will require the selection of projects that will benefit regional travel. The pet projects of local jurisdictions were developed to serve local needs--and local politics--not regional needs. So there is a big mismatch between the projects that MTC has selected in the past, and the ones it knows it will need to fund in the future. The Committed Projects Policy is where this mismatch would have been at least partially resolved, had the Resolution that had narrowly been approved by MTC’s Planning Committee been adopted by the full Commission. But that was not to be...

Instead, all the big guns turned out to insist that the Commission pull back, and minimize the number of projects that could be reconsidered. Testifying were representatives from business: Bay Area Council, Bay Planning Coalition, Contra Costa Council, and East Bay Economic Development Association; and from many labor unions and labor organizations. They all urged that the completion of environmental review should be all the analysis needed, studiously ignoring the conflict between local and regional priorities.

MTC had previously been forced by the Legislature to institute a process of evaluating the performance of proposed projects against the region’s adopted goals. The whole purpose of the Committed Projects Policy is to identify those projects that do
not get evaluated. So the subtext of these advocates of the status quo was that they fear that the projects they support will not compete well in the accomplishment of regional goals. (It was especially hypocritical of the business representatives to object to public projects being evaluated for cost-effectiveness, when the strict control of costs is central to business operations.)

What went on today laid bare the political economy of transportation in the Bay Area: Elected officials get appointed to the MTC, and use their positions to jockey for projects sought by their respective counties or by their campaign contributors, or as monuments to their egos. Major transportation projects are used by politicians to demonstrate their power. Quentin Kopp was heavily identified with the BART extension to SFO, while Ron Gonzales was the father of the BART to San Jose concept.

This system, heavily supported by the business and labor communities, is a form of corruption, in that the projects that get selected are not the most cost-effective solutions to regional needs, thereby wasting public funds. That is because the genesis of these projects comes from politicians, not transportation professionals. (Such professionals are brought in later, to develop documents to justify these projects. However, these professionals are willing to give their clients what they want to hear, throwing objectivity aside.) The region’s greatest “accomplishment” to-date, the SFO BART Extension, has been a miserable failure in terms of ridership and cost overruns. Transit advocates, including TRANSDEF, had complained bitterly about the flaws in the environmental review, and were later proven correct. (The tremendously over-budget Bay Bridge is not yet an “accomplishment.”)

At today’s hearing, TRANSDEF pointed out how the public has long been clamoring for MTC to review its list of committed projects, to see if they are relevant to today’s regional goals.
The public’s request for the reevaluation of past commitments was a primary message received in electronic polling at the June 14, 2003 Transportation 2030 Summit (Public Outreach & Involvement Program, Apppendix IV, p. 10):

“We should use performance criteria to judge
every transit and roadway project, not just new ones. Poor-performing projects should be dropped even if they are “committed.” (84% agreed either somewhat or strongly. Emphasis in original.)

“Our traffic and transit problems are getting worse for all communities, and old approaches don’t seem to be working. Therefore, we must critically examine all of our policies, programs and projects.” (89% agreed either somewhat or strongly.)

Committed projects were the most contentious issue raised by the public in the 2009 RTP. The Commission then voted down a modest motion to study the committed projects, despite a resolution passed by MTC’s Advisory Council
calling for the reevaluation of all committed projects in the light of AB 32, and recommending not adopting the then-proposed Committed Projects policy. By ignoring the long history of public input calling for the reevaluation of committed projects, and ignoring the many public interest community speakers today who continued that call, the majority of MTC Commissioners sent a very clear message that their priority is to preserve the prerogatives of elective office. For them, the effectiveness of MTC’s expenditures in solving regional problems was of only secondary importance, and public opinion an irrelevance.