Frustrating vote lets poor transportation projects live in Bay Area transportation plan

Anyone who thinks American public process is dead should have come out for today’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting. 

The Commission today voted on the Planning Committee’s recommendation for the Committed Projects Policy for the transportation component of Plan Bay Area (the once every-four-years $200+ billion planning and budgeting exercise for the nine-county Bay Area, also known as the “Regional Transportation Plan”).  The decision at hand was to decide at what phase in a project’s life does a project become “committed” or exempt from the Plan Bay Area performance analysis.

Over 25 people gave sometimes passionate public comment, from a broad spectrum of constituents:  labor to equity, health to business.

The result? In an unusual split vote, MTC voted 10-6 to approve a motion by Commissioner Haggerty to exempt a larger number of projects from analysis. Unfortunately, three Commissioners (Rubin, Liccardo, Tissier) who had previously voted for the more ambitious version of the policy in the Planning Committee (referred to as “Option 2”), changed their vote to endorse the more conservative approach (“Option 1”).

Today’s vote means that all projects submitted to MTC that have completed environmental review and a full funding plan by May 1, 2011 will be exempt from performance and cost/benefit analysis and will be automatically included into Plan Bay Area without any further discussion.

TransForm has argued (see previous blog posts: April 11 & April 5) that in this era of scarce transportation dollars, huge needs, and expensive projects that balloon with cost overruns well after environmental review, we need to have as much information as possible to make sure our investments are as strategic and aligned with the mandates of current legislation (e.g. SB375) as possible. We supported “Option 2”, which would only have exempted from analysis projects that were already under construction. We believe the Commission should decide whether to invest in transportation projects based on those projects’ performance.

Option 1 supporters carried the day with arguments on two main issues. They expressed concerns about reviewing projects after significant sunk costs such as environmental review and right-of-way acquisition, and they raised fears that poorly performing projects could be cancelled and endanger construction jobs.

Several representatives of the construction trades turned out to express concerns that delays or potential cancellation of projects would harm their membership, citing high unemployment in the recession. 

Responding to this concern, MTC’s Executive Director Steve Heminger explained, “One thing I do want to make clear is that you are not making a decision about what projects end up in the plan.”  MTC staff framed this debate as a discussion of policy and not one about specific projects, but ultimately the majority of Commissioners seemed to have a hard time holding this regional perspective.

The Commission’s newest member, Supervisor David Campos from San Francisco, added “When I look at Option 2, the best thing you can do for workers in the Bay Area is to get the best bang for your buck.” Nevertheless, fears of job losses and project delays appeared to resonate with several Commissioners.

While this outcome is not as good as we had hoped, it is still a step forward from past regional transportation plans, where a much larger number of projects were considered “committed.” The performance assessment will still be important. This choice simply means that MTC will have to work that much harder to craft a set of projects, policies, and programs that will be able to meet the region’s greenhouse gas reduction, housing, health, economic, and equity targets.

TransForm appreciates the vision of Commissioners Tom Bates (Cities of Alameda County), Steve Kinsey (Marin County), Anne Halsted (BCDC), Jake Mackenzie (Sonoma County), David Campos (San Francisco), and Kevin Mullin (Cities of San Mateo County), in their support for Option 2.

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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.