$100,000,000,000 to Fix Bay Area Transportation?

Matthew Lituchy, Chief Investment Officer of a major Bay Area development company, was recently asked how he felt about placing large commercial and residential projects adjacent to transit. Here are excerpts from his response as printed in the San Jose Mercury on July 7, 2019: “Traditional methods of commuting have gotten over-stressed. Our freeways are impossibly clogged with traffic. Commute durations are at all-time highs. People are looking to commute by alternative methods. Trains, light rail, Caltrain, bus, BART are the alternatives. Being in a place where you can easily move around the Bay Area, and both live and work close to these modes of transportation is important”.

Mr. Lituchy’s concerns are shared by millions of other Bay Area residents.

On May 30, 2019, at the Alameda County Transportation Commission retreat, a new plan to raise up to $100 billion to address the Bay Area’s ever worsening transportation condition was unveiled. The Plan, which has apparently been under discussion in private circles for some time, was presented and explained by Bay Council CEO John Grubb; Council Senior VP, Linda Lynn Litvak; Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) VP Jason Baker, and former Transform Executive Director Stuart Cohen.

Problem.pngSince the Plan is still in its earliest stages, the presentation was limited mostly to a description of the Region’s existing transportation problems and the Plan’s strategic, outreach and funding goals and objectives. As Mr. Baker of the SVLG put it, “…..we think the time is ripe to work for a world class, more integrated transit system that is faster, more reliable, more affordable and more equitable for the Bay Area”.

Problem2Noble objectives all….but the framers of this hugely expensive new campaign will definitely have their work cut out for them.

During the past four decades, local and regional Bay Area public agencies have spent over $100 billion in State, federal and Bridge toll funds on various transportation projects. These projects were virtually always preceded by rosy promises that they would result in better transit and reduced congestion. The results of these bogus promises are now known to all. What mystifies people is how so much tax money could have been spent with so little to show for it.

The fact is that most of the $100 billion was wasted on parochial projects of small consequence and traffic-inducing highway expansions.  As a result the sponsors of the current plan are confronted by a highly skeptical Bay Area population that is well aware of the need for improvement , but possessed of little or no confidence that anything  will change.

To overcome this legacy of distrust, the sponsors of the “Megaplan” outlined on May 30th will have to convince people that this time things will be different. The past practice of “pork-spreading” to satisfy special interests and pick up votes would, this time, need to be supplanted with a credible program designed to actually improve the Region’s disjointed and otherwise defective network of trains and buses. And this time it would also be necessary to convince voters that there would be ironclad safeguards in place to prevent voter-approved projects from being by sidelined by public officials with other agendas.   The inconvenient truth is that in the Bay Area at least, powerful parochial and special interests have a long history of undermining regional plans.

Problem3To counter these doubts, it will be necessary for the sponsors of the Megaplan to engage in a massive outreach campaign to make certain the voters understand the seriousness of the Region’s transportation condition, precisely what it will take to improve things and how the usual pre-election manipulation and post-election chicanery will be prevented.

And finally, the method of raising the necessary funding must be seen as fair. An increase in a sales tax for instance, hits some people much harder than it does others. A creative way of “evening out” the contributions must be devised.

What is being attempted by the sponsors of the “Megaproject” is important. When things are a little farther along, BATWG will have more to say on the subject.

This article was featured in Newsletter Issue 15. Click here to go back to the newsletter.