Bay Area at a Crossroads

It’s no secret that because of disconnected transit systems and ever-increasing traffic backups, the Bay Area is becoming more and more constricted…..and that helps no one. This increasingly obvious regional problem has recently been reaffirmed by a panel of business interests proposing to raise and spend $100 billion to create a “Faster Bay Area”. While they’ve correctly identified the long neglected problems in need of attention, the FBA group has yet to set forth a fair and equitable way of raising the necessary capital. Moreover the group continues to struggle with the problem of how to implement a bonafide regional program without its being sabotaged by local and special interests intent upon obtaining new funding for their parochial and special interest projects.

The Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is clearly expecting to gain control over this vast amount of new transportation funding, which would come on top of its recent takeover of ABAG and continuing attempts to assume control over the region’s housing crisis. Is MTC up to the job? During the last four and one half decades, despite acquiring and spending well over $100 billion, MTC has had little if any effect on either strengthening Bay Area transit or reducing Bay Area traffic. So the answer has to be a clear NO.

There are several reasons for this.

To begin with MTC’s 18 voting commissioners are usually appointed by local politicians preoccupied with acquiring MTC funding for local projects. The problem with parochial and special interest projects is that they seldom address the broad region-wide issues that are steadily slowing things down across the entire Bay Area. Constructing highway truck scales, encouraging more driving and lavishing funding on the pet and parochial projects might address worthy local causes and keep the region’s 28 separate transit properties happy, but they don’t do a thing for its most pressing transportation need, which is to improve the rail and bus systems so as to give more people an opportunity to drive less. Here and there we see well-conceived projects, but in the Bay Area they are rare.

Incoming commissioners are further handicapped when assuming their powerful new responsibilities by having little or no familiarity of what it would take to resolve the crisis. After a brief orientation they are put to work grappling with thick packets detailing the multitude of projects ongoing throughout the region. Being spread too thin without adequate knowledge and understanding of the region’s overall transportation needs and being subjected to constant reminders from their home constituencies about local needs, the Commissioners soon become dependent upon staff recommendations.

Which would be ok if Staff behaved in a professional manner.

But it doesn’t.

Having long ago concluded that obtaining approval of a bonafide regional transportation plan was no easy sell, MTC’s staff leadership opted for the less controversial and less taxing approach of using the billions of dollars that pass through their hands every year to satisfy the demands of influential local political cabals. These MTCs actions have contributed greatly to the Bay Area’s dismal reputation of remaining the second most congested metropolitan area in the entire country. Instead of providing the transportation leadership the Region has needed, the MTC staff cobbles together a collection of local and pet projects arranged to look like a regional plan after which, with the backing of all the benefiting local jurisdictions, it duly submits for State and federal authority approval and funding. Instead of directly facing regional transportation needs, MTC has allowed itself to become little more than a funding pipeline and broker among competing local interests.

Despite this regional agency’s failure to make a difference, the Faster Bay Area Group appears to be considering granting it the authority to spend another $100 billion in transportation capitol on fixing the very problems  it has failed to address for decades.