Swimming Through Seaweed

Automobile use has risen to pre-COVID levels. But transit ridership has remained at roughly half of what it was pre-COVID. Moreover, it is far from certain that the lavish State and federal largess of the last two years will continue.

For these reasons, now would be a good time for the Bay Area’s Transportation Establishment to think about tightening its belt and putting every available dollar to maximum public benefit. To maintain its economic viability the Bay Area continues to need to put a high priority on mobility. People need ways of getting around and it can’t all be by automobile.

But things are not going that way, in part because of the inefficient and counter-productive policies and practices of the Region’s large and entrenched bureaucracies, for whom spending the tax payer’s money often seems to have become an end unto itself. Here are some of the unacceptable results of the current system:

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MTC:  There some talented individuals on MTC’s professional staff who are trying hard, with some success, to make things better. But viewed from the perspective of MTC’s half century reign over Regional transportation, things are not pretty. Instead of consistently-improving transit services sparked by well thought out and cost effective infrastructure projects, what we see could at best be described as “spotty”:  To many, MTC reads as a large bureaucracy hopelessly embroiled in producing a seemingly endless parade of plans, programs, studies, reports and presentations outlining future Bay Area transportation improvements which are then shepherded through seven standing committees, 20 affiliated inter-agency committees, MTC’s Policy Advisory Council and finally the MTC Board itself. It will come as no surprise that what emerges from this bureaucratic/political morass often appears to be too little, too late and of little consequence. If you think MTC is in tune with the current economic realities, consider the characterization in its recently released Plan 2050 that “it lays out a $1.4 trillion vision for a more equitable and resilient future for Bay Area residents”. A trillion here and a trillion there and pretty soon you get into real money.

BART: Second in line is BART. In 2019 BART launched its massive Link21 project. Having already gone through roughly $100 million in planning money with virtually nothing of consequence to show for it, BART is envisioning multiple passenger rail improvements throughout Northern California including a $30 billion second Bay Rail Crossing between Oakland and San Francisco. Given the way things are going, the total cost of Link 21 could easily top $70 billion and take four or five decades to complete.

The VTA:  Thanks to its slow speeds and exasperating zig zags through downtown San Jose, the VTA’s light rail system suffers from a dearth of riders that has given it the unenviable distinction of being one of the most heavily-subsidized transit systems in the country. (To be fair, part of the reason for this was San Jose’s ever-determined traffic engineers for whom the eternally free-flowing of the automobile trumped all other considerations.) Unfortunately, inept and short-sighted transportation decision-making persists in the South Bay to this day. With its 6.3-mile BART Phase II extension from the Berryessa Station through 4.7 miles of downtown subway to Caltrain’s Santa Clara Station, the VTA has outdone itself. To appease a small but noisy cabal of businessmen fearful of temporary construction effects around “their” station, the VTA has allowed itself to be backed into the position of putting the entire subway in tunnel. The problem with this approach is that to make the hole big enough to incorporate the station, it was necessary to specify a gigantic 54-foot diameter tunnel, as large as a five-story building. With the conventional cut and cover approach, two much smaller and cheaper tunnels could be built much closer to street grade at much lower cost. And so it goes, until the money tree dries up.

Here are some common-sense steps that the agencies could take that would both speed things up and improve results:

  • Stop fixating on “leveraging” small local donations with much bigger State and federal subventions and stick to defining and advancing cost-effective projects that would actually make things better.
  • Be ethical and professional in deciding what to do. Get the politics and the special interests the hell out of things!
  • Top managers should be doers, not planners.
  • Put everything on a tight, detailed and vigorously enforced CPM schedule as early as possible.
  • Bring in carefully-evaluated professionals when and as needed. End the extraordinarily destructive and wasteful practice of attempting to “tough it out” without having the required disciplines and expertise in place.
  • Hold people accountable and take action to correct bad situations quickly and decisively.
  • Stop treating studies, reports and power point presentations as end points. While sometimes useful, they are not bringing high quality new structures and improved or new systems online as soon as possible. A captain of industry who diminishes his or her company by foolish and short-sighted decisions will likely soon be shown the door. It is necessary for the large public transportation agencies to start functioning more like private industry. Until that happens nothing much is likely to improve.

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