The Bay Area deserves a better plan for express lanes

LATE-BREAKING NEWS! Just-released independent analysis is a powerful critique of MTC Express lane application: "we find MTC’s evaluation to be an overly optimistic portrayal of project benefits that ignores climate and equity impacts." See the analysis by Professor Deb Niemeier, from the UC Davis Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Do you ever sit alone in traffic, watching carpools and buses whiz by in the carpool lane, and wish you too could escape the gridlock? Would you like the option to buy into the carpool lane or to have better public transit options so you wouldn’t be stuck in a car in the first place?

“Express lanes” sell available space in carpool lanes to solo drivers and can use the revenues for transportation improvements along the same corridor. But the Bay Area is falling behind other regions of California in providing these new transportation options. Los Angeles will soon open a network of express lanes, using the revenue for new, speedy public transportation options. San Diego will use half its express-lane revenue for buses and vanpools.

Yet our Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) just released a $6.4billion express lanes plan that calls for more lanes … but no new transit or vanpooling options.

How can this be? How could we get a plan like this from the same regional decision-makers who recently set goals to cut transportation costs for low-income residents and reduce the need for us to drive so much?

The problem is that this new plan was developed with no public planning process. Over the past year, MTC spent over a million dollars on consultants, did not hold promised planning meetings, and brought a plan forward after submitting it to the state. Elected officials on the Commission were presented with no alternatives to choose from and no time to consider changes. The result is a network riddled with flaws.

An earlier version of this plan was said to have generated billions for public transportation and other transportation priorities. But with a slower economy and less traffic now predicted, the new plan requires public subsidies on top of the tolls we’d pay. Because the plan does not pursue creative and innovative solutions, such as ones San Mateo County’s planners are considering, it provides few benefits to commuters headed to downtown Oakland, San Francisco, or the Peninsula. And even though the $6.4 billion express lane network would be one of the most expensive transportation projects of our generation, MTC claims there is no need to consider the impacts on low-income residents.

With all these flaws, MTC’s own Policy Advisory Council recommended against the plan. With a looming state deadline and despite its flaws, MTC Commissioners will likely approve a proposal to seek authority for the network at their September 28th meeting. True, this authority will only be an initial step. But given the size and impact of this project and its planning history, the public needs more assurances now that the project will be done right. We don’t deserve a plan that would have us pay more and drive more.

At their meeting, Commissioners need to insist that we design something better. MTC should commit to creating a plan, through a transparent public process, based on best practices from around the country. The plan should fully integrate and expand express buses, vanpools, and carpools to maximize benefits for all of us. We need to understand how low-income commuters in the Bay Area, already burdened by the highest combined costs for transportation and housing in the entire country, can benefit from the network. We need to make sure that this multi-billion dollar transportation project significantly reduces greenhouse gases and the amount we drive.

Planners and elected officials in other regions are doing it right. Why not here in the Bay Area?

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.