The problems endemic in Bay Area transportation

Posted on our sister website is a large body of work that speaks to the problems endemic in the world of transportation:

1. The politicization of the distribution of funding. Public agencies are heavily influenced by self-interested entities that do not care about the effectiveness of projects for the larger public. Even though MTC spends massive amounts of money, it is so poorly spent (think the Bay Bridge East Span) that the public gets relatively little benefit out of it. The process most definitely does not function to maximize public benefits. Cost-effectiveness is not even among MTC’s top10 considerations.

The ability to steer transportation funding is perhaps the most tangible perk available to politicians. Changing the culture of elected officials to ensure that they are scrutinized for benefitting the greater good is therefore huge and fundamental. Without change here, no overall change will be possible.

a. Some politicians consciously build their political careers on the promotion of a transportation project. Mayor Gonzales and the BART extension to San Jose is the most expensive example of this. (Much less expensive projects would have given residents far more mobility than the selected project.) Consultant firms that produce glowing justifications for projects that objectively produce sub-par public benefits are essential facilitators of the allocation of public dollars for such projects. TRANSDEF advocates for this consultant conduct to be criminalized, and firms found guilty of having faked their analysis be barred from public contracting.

b. Some projects advance because they benefit a developer or landowner that is a contributor to an elected official.  

c. Some projects advance because they benefit contractors and consultants that contribute to elected officials. The construction of BART projects is very lucrative. Throughout its history, MTC has generously funded BART extensions, which have been enormously wasteful, costing far more than the value of the services provided. One of the shocking realities is that the total regional ridership of transit hasn’t increased since 1982, despite the many billions spent, much of which was on BART. This is scandalous mismanagement of resources by MTC.

d. Some projects are straight-up moneymakers for their proponents–the alleged public benefits are fictitious. TRANSDEF has spent 15 years litigating against California’s high-speed rail project. During that time, contractors and consultants have billed billions, with no rail service to show for it. As advocates for HSR, we don’t want to see billions of dollars spent on a project that will never provide rail service.

e. Unions tend to be highly partisan towards big construction projects, supporting projects despite legitimate questions as to their benefits. Historically, unions have tended to support any promise of jobs, without concerns about the benefits to the public.

2. Local plans, which are based on solo driving (except for San Francisco) cannot be scaled up to meet a larger region’s needs. Too many inter-county solo drivers overwhelm the region’s roadways during commute periods. Therefore, a regional plan that staples together what each locality wants (MTC’s M.O.) will fail to have the regional focus needed to address the problem of excessive solo drivers.

Because MTC’s Commissioners are local elected officials, MTC tends to focus on relieving localized congestion. It seemingly has no understanding of how a regional system operates. MTC merely gives locals what they want (or what the Commissioner’s campaign contributors want). This doesn’t work for a region.

3. MTC’s unaccountability. There is a clear need for balance between local control and not harming the interests of the region. The only way there can be an acceptable regional countervailing force to local control is if it is accountable. TRANSDEF advocates for elected full-time MTC commissioners. We need leaders with the resources (staff time, for example) to develop ideas and policies of their own, so they can properly direct staff. Because we haven’t been willing to pay for that, we get staff-driven agencies that don’t serve the public.

4. Mistaken policy. Most transportation professionals still hold to the obsolete concept that the proper way to deal with congestion is to widen the highway. Induced demand is the concept that widening highways leads to increased utilization, which returns congestion back to the original level. Instead of adding supply, current best practices call for reducing demand for solo driving. That can happen by offering free-flowing carpool lanes, making it possible to travel far faster when carrying a passenger, or by placing a congestion price on all commute period solo drivers.

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