Is regionalization the salve that would ease the Bay Area’s transportation woes?
It’s a question that’s been debated for half a century. Transportation advocates are taking it up again now because they believe progress needs to be made to manage traffic, reduce public transit crowding, and address the disconnect between where people live and work.
The region’s strong and vibrant economy has resulted in traffic congestion and a tight housing market that’s hurting residents’ quality of life. People feel frustrated about navigating a network with over two dozen transit operators. They want affordable, reliable transit service with seamless fares and connections.
“We hear it all the time: ‘Why can’t this just feel like one system? Why can’t I just pay one [fare]?’,” said Ratna Amin, transportation policy director for SPUR, a civic planning nonprofit.
The Bay Area’s economy has flourished in recent years, but the rise in commuters is straining public transit and freeways. Local governments and transit agencies wrestle with competition for funding sources to help meet transit demands and pay for infrastructure maintenance. BART and Muni are both experiencing record crowding and overdue service improvements. Meanwhile, for people who live far from transit hubs and opt to drive, traffic congestion is up 80 percent from 2010, according to Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) data.
That’s why transportation advocates like Amin are asking transit operators, cities, and regional agencies to develop new ways of working together, and to prioritize housing, land use, air quality, and the environment when planning for transportation.
Recent staff consolidation of the region’s land use and transportation planning agencies — respectively, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and MTC — is an opportunity for broader thinking and action about solutions to problems the Bay Area faces, said Egon Terplan, regional planning director at SPUR.
“It’s the beginning of a conversation on the role and function and working of the agency,” Terplan said.
The MTC/ABAG partnership brings together 290 staff (including an integrated planning department) to discuss common challenges like access to jobs, highway congestion, and housing affordability.
“You’re getting quite a bit of change on these first steps, a coherent staff interaction with two boards that are often covering the same subject — and that’s a good thing,” said Randy Rentschler, MTC’s director of legislation and public affairs.
“These two boards and their full identities continue to exist, they are just being served by consolidated staff,” Rentschler said. “That will be the extent of it in the near term.”
The pair has until July 1, 2018 to direct and jointly fund the consolidated staff to begin gathering information on governance structures of regional planning agencies, according to a statement of mutual understanding. Meanwhile, MTC and ABAG have until July 1, 2019 to begin discussions about whether to restructure the governing boards, which could affect future work of the integrated staff.
Data show Bay Area residents’ growing unrest. They are ready for coordinated measures across the nine counties, and show willingness to fork over money for transportation improvements. According to a 2017 Bay Area Council poll, 83 percent of voters surveyed said they “want traffic treated ‘like an emergency’” and “want Bay Area leaders to ‘work together’ on solutions to be implanted in the next few years,” as opposed to “a county or city-by-city approach.” Seventy percent said the Bay Area needs a major regional investment in transportation, even if it means raising taxes to fund it.
Some funding decisions could be made on ballots as early as next June, when voters might be asked to consider Regional Measure 3. It would raise bridge tolls as much as $3 to generate up to $4.5 billion for traffic relief and transportation projects.
All these recent developments follow several failed attempts at restructuring regional governance. An MTC staff memo from 16 years ago offers some perspective.
“The notion of merging some or all of the Bay Area’s regional agencies has been debated since the creation of ABAG and MTC in the 1960s and 1970s,” wrote Steve Heminger, MTC’s executive director, in a 2001 memo. “The most recent effort (Bay Vision 2020) involved a proposed merger of MTC, ABAG, and the Air District and culminated in the failure of state enabling legislation in the early 1990s.”
The push-pull path toward eventual staff consolidation even includes 2015’s Assembly Bill X1-24 (Levine) to rename MTC and turn the agency into an elected board. The bill, however, died.
Despite the history, collaboration isn’t entirely new for MTC and ABAG. They jointly produce Plan Bay Area, the region’s housing and transportation roadmap. The latest iteration shed light on the shared priority of housing affordability. MTC’s emphasis has been on making transportation investments that incentivize housing production. But Plan Bay Area 2040 lacked tools to address the housing problem, so MTC and ABAG helped convene the Committee to House the Bay Area (CASA) at the request of local organizations.
CASA represents a collaboration of its own, made up of 50 people from advocacy groups and businesses. The focus is on identifying steps to leverage transit dollars to finance development and build housing near stations, said Leslye Corsiglia, CASA co-chair and executive director of the South Bay nonprofit SV@Home.
This approach has become increasingly common, and can be observed in regional multi-modal projects like San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center. When it commences bus operations this spring, it’s expected to further public transit effectiveness due to close proximity to housing, some of which will be subsidized and priced at below-market rates. And eventually, the center will link up with California’s high-speed rail system, whose presence along the Peninsula will require all the more coordination between Bay Area transit operators.
In the meantime, transportation advocates are keen to see how MTC and ABAG’s integrated planning efforts evolve. SPUR wants to see a clear, regional transit vision that defines how the systems fit together, as well as strategies for tying in local policy work.
Whether the staff partnership triggers more consolidation among the region’s operators is uncertain. One challenge is how to coordinate with more than 100 cities spread across the geography of nine Bay Area counties. Other factors are the willingness of each agency to integrate, whether the move makes financial sense, and how to unite without compromising existing local service.
“The Bay Area is so vast, and different operators have specific local needs, so it would almost be counterproductive if you brought every transit operator together,” said Ron Downing, planning director at Golden Gate Transit.
There are even cases when transit operations have fragmented. More than 40 years ago, the Western Contra Costa Transit Authority (WestCAT) split from AC Transit to better focus on meeting the local transportation needs of riders in Hercules, Pinole, and Contra Costa County, said Charlie Anderson, WestCAT’s general manager.
However, even with a local emphasis, it provides services that offer regional benefits, like congestion relief on the Interstate 80 Corridor and the Bay Bridge. One route between Hercules and San Francisco has experienced double-digit ridership growth annually since being introduced 12 years ago. WestCAT also is planning to offer new bus service to Hercules’ recently developed Waterfront neighborhood.
Regardless of each agency’s structure, getting people on public transit and out of cars is a common and critical goal. It could be a conversation starter when stakeholders are ready to redefine transit integration. Integration could take different forms, too, with the potential to think about fare policy and other supportive policies for investments or infrastructure.
Said SPUR’s Amin: “If it were easy, it would have been done by now, because it’s not for lack of interest.”
Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.