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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San Francisco’s Central Subway Opens

The SF Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) says its 1.3 mile long Central Subway (originally called the Chinatown Subway) is scheduled to begin commercial operations on January 7, 3023.

The project is now officially four years late and $400 million over budget. (In 2003 San Franciscans voted for a Chinatown Subway project that was to cost $647 million and be completed by 2009. In 2012 the price was raised to an FTA-approved total of $1.578 billion, with a new completion date of December, 2018 established. Since 2012 the projected cost of the project, now four years behind the 2018 completion date, has risen to over $2 billion. In the process the MTA’s effect on Muni operating costs has gone from the promised $23.9 million a year saved to “$25 million a year added”.*

The fact that the project has massively overrun its budget is no longer a secret. What still seems unknown is exactly how the $400 million debt is to get paid off. No matter what the answer turns out to be, it’s the San Francisco taxpayer who going to get burned.

*Source:  Western Observer, December 6, 2022

Coordinating Across County Lines

The pace of planning, designing and building new public transit projects has slowed down to a creep. Most of the wasted time occurs before construction ever starts. Once in construction things tend to pick up because, while having zero inclination to police themselves, the agencies often hold suppliers and construction contractors to high standards of quality and schedule adherence.

 A case in Point:  Waiting for MTC to eventually come up with an all encompassing plan for solving the Region’s connectivity ills is an exercise in futility. Most of what needs to be done could be accomplished better and certainly faster through cooperation and coordination between and among the affected transit agencies, with support from the impacted cities and counties. It bears repeating that riders don’t care a whit about the color of their bus or train, they just want to get there.

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The Winners Don’t Always Win

When it comes to approving ballot measures designed to advance Bay Area transportation capital improvements, voters used have reasonable confidence that for the most part the funds raised would be spent on projects of merit and public usefulness. Unfortunately, that confidence has ebbed away.

A Case in Point:  The 1.3-mile extension of Caltrain has merit because the project would complete the popular and successful 78-mile Caltrain commuter and intercity rail line. This extension into the waiting Salesforce Transit Center would bring together four BART lines, six Muni subway lines, the California cable car line and Caltrain, as well as Muni’s Market Street F streetcar line and roughly 40 bus lines, all in a major employment center that now includes 19 close-by new highrises and tens of thousands of new transit-oriented housing units. For these reasons it should be getting top billing, but it’s not.

What it lacks is a committed, determined and persuasive advocacy by the local and regional officials, and by the influential public and private organizations that could give it the push needed to stay in competition with lesser but more effectively-backed projects.

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Eulogy for Ezra Rapport

Ezra Rapport served with distinction as ABAG’s Executive Director from 2010 to 2016.

Mr. Rapport passed away on October 6, 2022 after a long illness. In its tribute ABAG noted that during his years at ABAG, Mr. Rapport “spearheaded development of the regional planning framework that culminated in the 2013 adoption of the original Plan Bay Area and oversaw the ABAG units working on energy efficiency, clean water supply, climate adaptation and disaster resilience, risk management, local finance, trail management, open space and economic development.”.

ABAG’s tribute to him put it well when they noted “…Mr. Rapport is remembered by friends as a determined iconoclast who was unafraid to ruffle bureaucratic feathers with his bold ideas and strongly held beliefs. His integrity, good heart and commitment to public service were unquestioned, even by those he sometimes rankled. Mr. Rapport is survived by his wife Andrea and their three children.”

Before joining the ABAG staff, Mr. Rapport had many productive years, in part as an assistant to former state Senate Pro Tempore Don Perata. During that time he helped create and organize the Bay Area’s regional ferry system.

After his retirement from ABAG in 2016 Ezra became a member and regular participant in BATWG meetings until his health no longer permitted it. During those meetings he was consistently a strong and steady presence. As one member put it, “I got to appreciate and respect his focus, vast knowledge and commitment to the betterment of the Bay Area”

Link 21: Proceeding on Auto-Pilot?

On September 20, 2022, BART Link 21 team members updated BATWG on the status of their project. We learned a lot. We learned about the strenuous and costly efforts that the BART team and its five consultants under the leadership of BART Project Director Sadie Graham have made to try to explain their project to stakeholders around the Region. And we also learned about the difficulty they were having in trying to make sense of a new and unpredictable set of circumstances brought on by COVID and its aftermath.

Link21’s Current Status

The Link 21 team is clearly struggling to pin down the nature and effect of the oncoming changes in employment, housing and commute practices on general travel patterns, and how these changes would affect Link21’s plans for an ambitious new regional rail system.

Yet without resolving these issues, by October 2022 the Link21 planners had already gone through a total of $60 million, including a mind-boggling $24 million spent on “program management, project controls, consultant management & strategic advice” and another $10 million spent on outreach. Despite September 20th’s thorough and effective presentation, the results of the Link21 effort to date remain cloudy and it remains difficult to understand how and why so much money has been spent and where the project is headed.

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