$100,000,000,000 to Fix Bay Area Transportation? (updated Sept 10, 2019)

On May 30th, the San Francisco Bay Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG), assisted by transportation consultant Stuart Cohen, presented a plan they call “Faster Bay Area”, to raise up to $100 billion for the purpose of moving the Bay Area beyond the current transportation morass.

As SVLG VP Jason Baker put it…”we think the time is ripe to work for a world class, integrated transit system that is faster, more reliable, more affordable and more equitable…”

Matthew Lituchy, Chief Investment Officer of the Jay Paul Development Company echoed these thoughts by noting (San Jose Mercury July 7th) that “The 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”.

To make the alternatives to solo driving sufficiently appealing to cause a major change in travel habits would indeed require a major effort, including significant improvements to the Bay Area’s transit systems, a strong new emphasis on carpooling and other measures designed to unclog the Region’s thoroughfares.

If wisely spent there is no doubt that $100 billion could do a lot of good, but getting this ambitious program past a skeptical electorate would be not be easy. For starters the sponsors of Faster Bay Area would have to demonstrate that this time it wouldn’t be just more of the same.

During the past four decades, over 120 billion dollars in State, Federal and Bridge Toll transportation capital have passed through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s (MTC’s) hands and subsequently been spent by the Region’s transportation agencies, always with rosy promises of improved regional transit and reduced regional congestion. But things have just gotten got worse. The mystery is, how could so much tax money have been spent with so little positive effect on regional transportation?

Could things be different this time? Of course. Here are four prerequisites to a successful program:
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Does the BART Board protect the Riders?

How do most BART riders feel about the fare evasion and bad and often illegal behavior that is frequently experienced on BART trains and in and around BART stations? It appears that certain members of BART’s Board of Directors members are convinced that most BART riders don’t mind. Unfortunately there is still no definitive data on the subject. However, from talking to friends, family members and other BART riders we’ve found that many people who would like to ride BART and who should be riding BART are responding to these adverse conditions by turning to less efficient and less environmentally-benign forms of travel.

The brand of disruptive chaos that often mars BART travel is seldom seen in privately-owned establishments, or even in public ones for that matter. Walk into any City Hall. Except for the occasional protest, things tend to be calm and orderly.
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A Fresh New Approach at samTrans

Over the last 30 years, much of what has been ballyhooed in the Bay Area as transportation capital improvement has turned out to be special-interest/ pet parochial projects of small consequence and highway expansions accommodating increased Bay Area traffic.

For this reason, when something positive occurs it deserves recognition. On November 6, 2018, the voters of San Mateo County approved Measure W which, through a ½ % county sales tax increase, will provide about $40 million a year to pay for various for improvements to the San Mateo County Transportation Agency (SamTrans).  Along with Caltrain, SamTrans buses provide transit service throughout the Peninsula as well as north-south connections between Santa Clara County, San Mateo County and San Francisco County.

On August 23, 2019 SF Examiner reporter Joe Rodriquez summarized some interesting new steps that SanTrans is taking to make its service more visible and more relevant to riders and would-be riders in the West Bay.

SamTrans’s actions are focused on meeting six simple but practical objectives; namely:

            Provide Mobility Options for Regional Trips
            Increase Market Share in Corridor
            Develop a Cost-Effective System
            Improve Transportation Equity
            Enhance Access to Jobs and Population Centers
            Support Sustainable Land Use and Transportation Policies

As part of its program for increasing market share, SamTrans is seeking to attract both more reverse direction riders during peak commute hours, and more off-peak riders.

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How Municipal Agencies get in Each Other’s Way

Ever wonder why it takes so long to get anything done in San Francisco? Read on:

Six years ago the San Francisco Planning Department and the Ed Lee Administration fixated on accelerating the “full-build-out” of Mission Bay. So they initiated the Rail Alignment and Benefits Study (RAB).
In RAB’s early days the RAB planners were floundering. In an attempt to appear useful they focused on finding as much fault with the Caltrain Downtown Extension project (DTX) as possible. In fact, based on what may have come from the blogosphere, the planners managed to convince themselves that the DTX tracks were wrong, the station layout was wrong, the train turnaround arrangement was wrong, the terminal was too small, the tunnels were too big, the construction approach was wrong and the train storage yard was in the wrong place. As the years rolled by, virtually all of RAB’s criticisms were quietly withdrawn, never to be heard of again. By RAB’s last year it was clear that the only residuals of this singularly wasteful and useless “Study” was a.) a proposed relocation of the rail yard to free up the site for more development (an idea unlikely to leave the starting gate) and b.) a proposed $2 to $3 billion subway under Pennsylvania Street (unlikely to be needed for many years if ever). Given these meager results it appears that the one and only lasting impact of the RAB study was the four year hiatus it imposed on the DTX project.
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More Trouble Ahead for SF City Hall’s Central Subway

Project Management Oversight Consultants (PMOC’s) are retained by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to keep track of major projects paid for in part by FTA grants.  In the case of the Central Subway its PMOC has been warning of staffing, scheduling and other difficulties for years, warnings that the SFMTA has consistently ignored or downplayed, and was still doing as recently as two months ago.

Howard Wong, San Francisco architect and strong long time advocate for better transportation sums up the situation well:  “Anyone reading Federal PMOC Reports, over the last year(s), would have seen ominous construction conditions—masked by rosy SFMTA forecasts. Remember that the recent testing/commissioning of the new LRV’s & BART cars involved long delays.  And the Central Subway requires testing/commissioning/training for complex systems: stations, trains, operations, maintenance and more.”  Continue reading