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April/May 2015

Bay Area Monitor History, Part IV

By Leslie Stewart

The decade between 1995 and 2005 included the dot-com bubble, 9/11, and the birth of social media. And in the Bay Area, as seen through articles in the Bay Area Monitor, these years also included hydrogen fuel cell buses, Caltrain’s “Baby Bullet,” and the first push to address climate change.

Several themes dominated Monitor coverage during that period: environmental protection, infrastructure (from transportation to water supply), and integrated regional planning. Articles in 1995 discussed air toxics, earthquake preparation, and the linkages between land use, transportation, and air quality. The themes may not have changed, but the strategies did. By 2005, some of the topics were regulating idling vehicles, intelligent transportation systems, and the health impacts of development patterns.

Two decades after the country began paying significant attention to environmental protection, agencies in the mid 1990s were reducing water pollution from construction runoff, monitoring pollutants in the Bay, and changing treatment for drinking water. Military bases and old industrial sites were targeted for cleanup and re-use. The region continued to have problems meeting its ozone reduction goals, but a new statewide plan to increase the number of “clean vehicles” was being implemented, and the terms EV (electric vehicle), LEV (light electric vehicle), and ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) entered the acronym list for the Monitor. Reformulated gasoline was another solution, although the additive MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) proved to have its own environmental side effects.

Air particulates drew increased attention, and in 1998, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District passed a resolution establishing a model wood smoke ordinance that local governments could adopt to protect their residents. To combat particulates from diesel exhaust, Air District grants enabled purchases of cleaner freight trucks and buses (both for schools and mass transit). In 1999, the Monitor first wrote about air pollution as an environmental justice issue. By the early 2000s, the Air District began regulating refinery flares, a high priority for environmental justice advocates, and in 2005, the agency introduced its Community Air Risk Evaluation (CARE) program for highly impacted communities.

Monitor articles began covering a range of environmental issues: invasive species (both plants and aquatic “critters” in ballast water), endangered species in parks, and the impact on wildlife from public access to waterfront areas. The energy crunch in 2001 was a topic, as well as plans for desalination projects in 2004 and a regional water planning group in 2005.

Environmental protection faced new challenges brought on by regional growth. Aided by funding from local voter-approved “self-help” transportation sales tax measures and bridge tolls (including Regional Measure 2 in 2004, which assigned bridge toll money to regional projects), new infrastructure projects were hitting the drawing boards in the hope they would offset traffic congestion and accompanying pollution. Caltrain introduced the “Baby Bullet” express trains; the first plans for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) system were approved, as well as the schedule for replacing the Transbay Terminal. Carpool lanes were expanded, and the first toll lanes were approved for the South Bay. In 2002, as the result of its two-year Bay Crossings Study, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) concluded that constructing a new bridge connecting the East Bay and the Peninsula would be impractical. One possible alternative, ferries, received coverage in many Monitor articles over this period. At the end of 2003, the ultimate infrastructure project, high-speed rail, was added to the mix.

Meanwhile, existing infrastructure benefited from preservation efforts, as engineers implemented seismic retrofits and upgrades to the Golden Gate Bridge and at water facilities and pipelines throughout the region. The East Bay Municipal Utility District constructed its Southern Loop Pipeline starting in 1998, followed by a reconstruction of the Claremont Tunnel through the East Bay Hills, and in 2002 the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission approved the Hetch Hetchy Water System Improvement Program.

These seismic projects, together with the planning for the replacement of the Bay Bridge, were a constant reminder of the impacts of the 1989 earthquake, and new regional disaster plans were a regular topic in the Monitor — earthquake planning for transportation in 1999, for airports in 2001, water agency pipeline interties in 2003, and post-quake water supplies in 2004. A more general regional disaster plan was created by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) in 2004, incorporating lessons from the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Transportation agencies and the Port of Oakland also did security plans after 9/11.

Disaster plans and an airport plan update were small compared to two regional plans developed during this period. In 2001, five regional agencies had established the Bay Area Smart Growth Strategy, and by 2003, Transportation 2030, a 25-year transportation plan, was underway. The Monitor covered workshops around the region for both plans, following earlier coverage of “livable communities” and regional planning. Related articles later examined the relationship between water and land use, balancing smart growth and social equity, access to health care for non-drivers, mobility for seniors, and planning for pedestrians.

Smart growth plans depended on reducing single-occupancy vehicle use. A regional bicycle plan was completed in 2002, and that same year, car-sharing was introduced to the region. Transit “connectivity” — improving the transfer points between systems — was an important issue for both MTC and League of Women Voters groups around the region in 2004. David Schonbrunn, a Bay Area transportation activist, recently commented, “One of the best things the League has done was [LWVBA President] Eva Bansner’s research and advocacy on transit hubs. It was a great project and should have gotten more attention.” Transportation improvements were planned specifically along corridors, integrating concepts like bus rapid transit, and there was an increasing emphasis on “transit-oriented development,” including a push for station-area planning to guarantee ridership to new rail stations.

After several years of debate over merging MTC and ABAG, the agencies’ partnership on the smart growth plan smoothed the creation of a Joint Policy Committee in 2005. The new coordinating group, initially focused on smart growth and sustainability, also included the Air District.

Between 1995 and 2005, the region’s growth was funded increasingly by local sources: user fees, tolls (Regional Measure 2), parcel taxes (by park districts), and sales taxes for transportation. Concerns about pollution were transformed into a push for healthy, sustainable communities. The Monitor covered more regional and sub-regional agencies than ever before. Topics ranging from regional impacts of casinos to urban agriculture kept things lively for the editorial staff, but the editor’s favorite feature was probably the annual roundup of “bright ideas” from a multitude of sources. Like climate protection, which made its debut in the Monitor in 2005, these ideas were often the beginning of something new and important.

Leslie Stewart is the most recent former editor of the Bay Area Monitor. In commemoration of its 40th anniversary year, she has been writing a series of articles about the publication’s history, from its launch in 1975 to track the region’s progress in meeting federal Clean Air Act standards (Part I), to its first decade covering air quality and transportation issues (Part II), and on to its second decade expanding to a wider range of topics (Part III). This May, the Monitor will officially turn 40 years old.

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