The Folly of Adding Lanes

“Why Adding Highway Lanes in the Bay Area NEVER Reduces Congestion”

On November 17, 2022 MTC made a video presentation of highways and their future relevance in the Bay Area.

During the presentation MTC planner Alex Eisenhart, using many interesting photos and video clips, carefully explained the problem in an unusually clear and forthright manner. His main point was that adding lanes to roadways does not reduce congestion. The presentation is well worth a look and we recommend it.

Caltrans has a long and storied history of adding lanes to solve traffic problems. In a dynamic and densely built-up area such as the Bay Area, this has never worked for more than a short period of time, but which did and still does do is keep thousands of highway planners and engineers happily engaged in carrying out their “mission”.  However, it wasn’t long before the folly of Caltrans’ approach began to be recognized.

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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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Another State Attempt to Grab Control over Local Zoning

It’s deja vu all over again…

SB4 initiates yet another inept attack by State Senator Scott Wiener on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in order to promote “Affordable Housing”, this time using “churches, synagogues, and mosques” (not Buddhist temples?) and non-profit colleges as his current “feel good” set of honey traps.

Opinions and warnings about the disastrous shortage of housing in California abound. Here’s what the U.S. Census Bureau has to say on the subject:  As of July 1, 2021 California had a population of 39,237,836 and contained 14,512,281 housing units, occupied by 13,217,586 households with 2.92 persons per household. On the face of it, that does not read as a State housing shortage.

But here’s the rub. There aren’t enough houses located where people want to live. A few decades ago, if you couldn’t afford to live somewhere, you found digs elsewhere. But that’s all changed. Now the clamor seems to be: “if I want to live there, I should be able to live there!”

Senator Wiener is at the forefront of all this. In previous years, Wiener has tried to legitimize his obsession with cramming in new residential units wherever possible by latching onto such nice-sounding catch phrases as “protecting the environment” and “transit-oriented housing”. It is necessary to remind the Senator that cramming excessive density into a well established and well-functioning community does NOT help the environment of the neighborhood.

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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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