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Bay Area Transportation Needs Grow as Funding Remains Uncertain
By Cecily O’Connor
A BART extension, commuter connector project, and Caltrain electrification are among a list of projects contributing to holes in Bay Area transportation budgets as lawmakers seek a sustainable state funding solution.
The California legislature assembled a transportation infrastructure conference committee in late September to approve a funding plan after failing to do so during a special summer session. The committee is slated to begin initial hearings in October, and proceed through the end of the year with hearings across the state.
It needs to address the state’s $59 billion backlog of deferred maintenance to roads and bridges. Transportation advocates and lawmakers have devised a slew of potential financial fixes. Yet there’s gridlock about the payment approach, even though most agree revenue will be essential to restoring streets to good condition.
“Funding demand is outpacing the existing resources,” said Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities. The nonprofit association of California city officials is a member of the Fix Our Roads Coalition, which supported Governor Jerry Brown’s recent $3.6 billion transportation funding proposal (although the coalition previously advocated for $6 billion in funding).
Overall, the Bay Area’s average pavement condition index score is 66, nearing the point at which pavement starts to decline and repair costs grow, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission report. This comes as more drivers, pedestrians, bike riders, and others are using local streets and highways — the Bay Area population has jumped 270,000 since 2010, reaching 7.4 million in 2014, according to the California Department of Finance.
But road upgrades are only one part of what’s necessary to accommodate the growing region, based on interviews with county officials and priority lists released by some agencies in September. The combined input reveals how extensive — and expensive — infrastructure, maintenance, and expansion is becoming.
For example, the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC) received more than 300 applications during a recent call for projects. Over the next 25 years, plans aimed at transit, roads, bicyclists, pedestrians, transit-oriented development, and goods movement projects comprise nearly $25 billion in total costs (exclusive of some major transit capital replacement and maintenance needs) and represent almost $20 billion in funding requests, said Tess Lengyel, ACTC deputy director of planning and policy.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) recently received 630 proposals (some of which were in duplication) from South Bay agencies totaling $50 billion, also on a 25-year horizon. Many of the requests called for transit upgrades.
VTA will pare down its list to a “number we can manage,” said Brandi Childress, a public information officer with the agency. It collects an average $400 million annually from various local sales taxes and vehicle registration fees that are largely dedicated to current operations and construction projects.
VTA’s focus is on several big priorities, including a planned four-station, six-mile BART extension through downtown San Jose at an estimated $4.7 billion. The agency also wants to make bus rapid transit service improvements on busy roadways such as El Camino Real, an endeavor that could run as much as $223 million if a dedicated bus lane is added.
Both projects could be aided, in part, by federal funding through matched grants. It also might be necessary to seek local support through a ballot measure in 2016 for these and other next-generation needs.
“We’re still working that out,” Childress said. “At this point, a half-cent sales tax is most likely the target because of the need over an extended period of time.”
Funding uncertainty also presents unique challenges in San Mateo County, where Caltrain is preparing for a $1.5 billion electrification program. However, the agency does not have a permanent, dedicated funding source for rail operations.
Electrification is a capital program and nearly completely funded, but Caltrain still lacks $430 million from the $1.5 billion total. It did get a recent $20 million grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and continues to seek financing. The reason? Electrified rail car costs have risen past previous estimates, due in part to expenses for customized features like bike boarding. The previous estimate also was done in 2009, so inflation is a factor.
“We are in talks about the remaining shortfall,” said Jayme Ackemann, communications manager for the San Mateo County Transit District, which operates bus service along the Peninsula and serves as the administrative body for both Caltrain and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. “We’re hoping to have this all nailed down by next month,” she told the Monitor in mid-September.
Potential funding sources include a Federal Core Capacity Grant, high-speed rail funding through the state’s cap-and-trade program, and increased contributions from agency partners on Caltrain’s own Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, she said.
Even when the electrification program is running by 2020, there are other needs in the neighborhood of $1 billion to consider. Caltrain wants to increase service capacity, add more grade separations along the corridor, purchase additional electrified cars, raise platform height for level boarding, and add more wayside bike facility storage.
Marin County is another area seeking rail funding. It needs $65 million to extend Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit to Larkspur from San Rafael, but suffered a recent setback because of federal “Small Starts” grant program cuts.
“We are chagrined the federal and state government can’t give us a continual, reliable source of funds,” said Dianne Steinhauser, executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin. “We have to rely on ourselves.”
The agency receives an average $33.5 million in funding annually — $25 million from a local half-cent sales tax, $2 million from car registration fees, $4 million from the state, and $2.5 million from federal sources. However, the latter two are subject to availability of funds.
The total amount collected annually is a fifth of what’s needed for a $150 million Highway 101/580 connector project. It’s a third of what’s needed to finish the Highway 101 “Marin-Sonoma Narrows” widening project between northern Novato and Petaluma, estimated at $90 million.
“We have to build these projects with dribbles and drabbles and sniff out the funding opportunities,” Steinhauser said.
The needs are just as critical in Alameda County. For example, the combined goods movement projects total $1.2 billion, with a funding request of $997 million for a series of improvements at the Port of Oakland that support both international and domestic plans. Many of these projects could take trucks off Highway 580 and put more goods on rails, as well as create jobs and advance technology at the port, ACTC’s Lengyel said.
“We need to make sure we continue to invest here to remain competitive, support local jobs and innovation, and support the local community,” Lengyel said.
In the meantime, some new transportation approaches are giving county officials something to think about. Anecdotally, several sources interviewed noted how private business is contributing to creative solutions like employee shuttles. Even car-ride services are helping take care of that “last mile” struggle between a public transit station and home.
Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.