The Contra Costa Transportation Authority, CCTA, has a problem: traffic congestion keeps getting worse. Their Countywide Comprehensive Transportation Plan, adopted in 2017, identifies $8 billion of projects and programs the agency wants to implement. However, the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Plan indicates that the net result of that large amount of spending is only that traffic would be less bad than if nothing was done. That’s not an acceptable result for such a huge expenditure. Vehicle hours of delay, a measure of congestion, is 166% higher than 2013. Highway and arterial speeds are lower in 2040 than 2013. And particulate matter, a major cause of respiratory and cardiac disease, is significantly worse in 2040. Why is that?
The problem is that, with a 27% increase in population, the overall amount of driving (Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT) in the county goes from 22 million miles to 28 million miles. Because the per capita VMT remains static over that time period, that indicates that effectively all those new residents continue to drive alone. While 69% of county residents drove alone in 2013, that drops slightly to 68% of residents in 2040. This indicates that the massive Plan investment has had essentially no impact on travel habits in the county.
Contra Costa County adopted a groundbreaking Growth Management Program in 2009. However, that program is now obsolete: it has done nothing to curb the spread of suburban sprawl, where the only convenient way to travel is driving alone. Every new suburban home will result in multiple household members driving alone. The cumulative impact of this kind of development is congested roadways. With the financial and environmental costs of providing adequate roadways for all the new residents out of reach, Contra Costa County is trapped in a cul-de-sac of its own making. It will either change how it grows in the future, or drown in gridlock.
TRANSDEF has actively participated in CCTA’s transportation planning. We filed comments on the Draft 2014 Countywide Transportation Plan which are still highly relevant today. An excerpt:
Contra Costa residents and their elected officials seem driven by a naive faith that suburbia can somehow be made to work. That faith blocks them from recognizing the obvious reality that traffic keeps getting worse… CCTA’s core problem is that it is driven by the politics of mass fantasy [believing in the traffic fairy] to spend its resources on projects that its staff knows are only short-term fixes.
Our comments on the Draft 2014 EIR resulted in the shelving of an update of the Countywide Plan at that time: “The DSEIR is the most legally inadequate CEQA document TRANSDEF has ever seen.” We participated in the Expenditure Plan Advisory Committee, which had been convened to develop the sales tax that became 2016’s Measure X. As part of the environmental caucus, we developed a Vision Plan. The full caucus developed a consensus Community Vision. The CCTA Board was dissatisfied with the Committee’s progress, and ended up writing Measure X itself. When TRANSDEF’s environmental colleagues decided to be neutral on Measure X, TRANSDEF filed ballot arguments that helped defeat the passage of the sales tax increase.
The draft CTP is a great missed opportunity. Instead of looking the county’s severe transportation problems squarely in the face, CCTA blinked. This CTP, overdue after the failure of Measure X, is an extended exercise in indecisive dithering about the traffic congestion that is choking mobility in the county.
TRANSDEF asserted that the Final EIR failed to deal with the climate change issues TRANSDEF raised.
It would be entirely fair to conclude that CCTA has willfully ignored the implications of its own studies: Unless the County commits to a more compact urban form for its future land development, thereby greatly reducing new residents’ need to drive alone, the future will be ever-increasing congestion, resulting in eventual gridlock.
Development based on the familiar suburban subdivision reached the limits of roadway capacity decades ago, as indicated by the steady growth in highway congestion since then. No one in government has been courageous enough to acknowledge that profound change in land use practices is inevitable. TRANSDEF recognizes that it is uncomfortable for suburbanites to contemplate a future different from the present. Nonetheless, that is the reality of where we are in 2020.