The Bay Area misses a huge opportunity in rushing a flawed express lane plan

On Friday, Sept 9, the MTC Planning Committee will be asked to approve a multi-billion-dollar express lane network that fails to reach its potential to increase the quality of life for all Bay Area residents.

The Bay Area could have a regional roadway network with transit and high-occupancy vehicle lanes seamlessly connecting the region’s jobs centers, providing convenient and swift transit connections through the Bay Area. Planned as a transit system, one that sells excess system capacity to solo-drivers, like the plans in Los Angeles, we could meet our regional environmental goals, the SCS targets while providing new transportation choices.

Express Lanes, particularly through the conversion of existing HOV and all-purpose highway lanes, may be a good step towards equitable road pricing. However there is a lot of devil in the details. We will need to be satisfied on a range of equity, transportation and transportation funding issues before we could support a final project.

Since the last Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) was adopted in 2009, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) staff and consultants have been developing a Bay Area Express Lane Network . After a year of closed-door planning, MTC staff is unveiling their proposal for a network that includes the beginnings of this regional system.

FLAWED PROPOSAL

MTC’s current proposal falls far short of what the Bay Area needs to meet the targets set for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering transportation costs for Bay Area households.

Past proposals were self-financed through toll-collection and even generated over $6 Billion in net revenue that could be used to support transit and other needed services. The latest proposal instead requires a minimum of $500 million infusion of funding from local and regional sources. In fact, since the projections are based on optimistic revenue projections and construction costs, this amount will likely be higher. Further, there is no expected “net revenue” prior to 2030 in their financial model that can be used for transit operations, or offsetting transportation costs for low-income households because all revenues are used to build a larger network based on highway expansion instead of creating transportation options.

TransForm is disappointed with the proposal released on Friday (link here). It includes network extensions that our allies have been trying to stop for years, almost half of the network comes from highway expansion instead of conversion of existing lanes, has no plan to fund transit lines, and explicitly claims that as a mode "choice" there is no need for providing access to low-income individuals.

The Process from here

The project will have its first public discussion next Friday, September 9, when MTC staff will be asking the MTC Planning Committee to recommend asking the California Transportation Commission (CTC) for the authority to build the network. The staff and committee recommendation will then go to the full Commission at their September 28 meeting. MTC has put themselves under a serious time constraint because CTC's ability to bestow this authority runs out at the end of the year. State law requires that MTC submit the application for CTC’s October meeting, or the project will need to go to the State Legislature for approval, a significantly higher hurdle.

Of our many concerns, a significant one is that MTC is proposing a two-track planning process. Track one is the CTC application, but track two is the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) process, which will likely result in a completely different Express Lane recommendation. If the CTC application is successful, MTC would have the authority to build the CTC network but would be required to return to the State Legislature to request permission to change the network to match the RTP proposal. Why rush one network if you’re planning to build another?

This has happened because MTC staff has left only a month of discussion before they must submit an application to CTC before the state’s authority expires at the end of the year. Commissioners will be in the unfortunate position of having to make significant policy decisions with little room to have an expanded conversation or to ask for important changes to the proposal. This is not a process designed for success. Rushed processes for multi-billion-dollar projects do not lead to solid planning decisions.

What the Commission must do to

These are some of the reasons TransForm believes this proposal is fundamentally flawed. We would prefer that MTC hold off on proposing this network, waiting until the RTP process can identify a network that has solid support across the region.

If, however, Commissioners decide to move forward with a proposal this fall, they must, at a bare minimum, do the following in order to protect the validity of the RTP process:

  1. Remove the I-80 extension from I-505 (Vacaville) to the Yolo county line. This is the only part of the network that was not also listed in the RTP’s proposed core-transit network which was just released two weeks ago. The Commission should not prioritize segments that are already seen as unsupportive of the climate protection goals. If Commissioners are committed to this segment, they should discuss it during the RTP along with all the other segments that are not included in this application.
  1. Include I-880 from I-80 to Hegenberger as Express Lanes in the application. The current application leaves this as a major gap in the network. The proposed network should not include a significant gap around Downtown Oakland, and it certainly shouldn’t cover up the gap by calling for “Operational gap closure” which is only a continuation of current plans for ramp metering, etc. Make it an actual express lane.
  2. Include in the resolution approving the application a statement that MTC intends to create an Express Lanes project that helps the region meet the SCS targets, with special attention to the following SCS Targets:
    1. Reduce per-capita CO2 Emissions from cars and light-duty trucks by 15% by 2035 (Target #1),
    2. Decrease by 10% the share of low-income and lower-middle-income residents' household income consumed by transportation and housing (Target #7),
    3. Decrease automobile vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita by 10% (Target #9)
  3. While the  RTP process will conduct scenario-level equity analysis, in the resolution approving the application, the Commission should also commit to a project-level equity analysis of the proposed multi-billion-dollar network, including:
    1. Impacts by income and race
    2. Impact low-income household transportation and housing costs
    3. Proposed mitigations

The Express Lane project will be one of the largest projects in MTC's Regional Transportation Plan when it is completed in two years. While these changes will not fix the fundamental problems with this proposal, they will help the Commission to be consistent with their sustainable-communities planning efforts and honor the upcoming RTP process by making it clear that this application is a part of the overall planning process, not a $3.6-10 billion project that is outside of all the long-term planning.

We look forward to discussions at MTC on September 9th and will post new analyses after that meeting.

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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.