Plan Bay Area 2040: More Theatre or Genuine Outreach?

Plan Bay Area 2040: More Theatre or Genuine Outreach?

[Originally published in the Marin Post on June 1st 2016]

This Saturday, June 4, starting at 8:30am an Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s public workshop will review an update to Plan Bay Area – called Plan Bay Area 2040. The venue is Corte Madera Community Center at 498 Tamalpais Drive.

This time around ABAG/MTC are presenting us with three scenarios to choose from:

  1. Main Streets Scenario places future population and employment growth in the downtowns in all Bay Area cities. This scenario would expand high-occupancy toll lanes and increase highway widenings. It would also assume some development on land that is currently undeveloped.
  2. Connected Neighborhoods Scenario places future population and employment growth in medium-sized cities and provides increased access to the region’s major rail services, such as BART and Caltrain. It would place most of the growth in areas that cities determine as having room for growth, with some additional growth in the biggest cities. There would be no development on open spaces outside the urban footprint.
  3. Big Cities Scenario concentrates future population and employment growth within the Bay Area’s three largest cities: San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Transportation investments would go to the transit and freeways serving these cities. There would be no development on open spaces outside the urban footprint.

When you want to control the outcomes a great method is to limit the choices. All three likely pack in the same number of new residents (this is not yet clear). There may be some redemption in scenario 3 for Marin, but the growth still gets packed in the region somehow…

Here’s an assessment of the way things are shaping up…

(1) The Scenarios Appear to be a Way to Control the Conversation, Again: The Plan Bay Area update’s approach looks like an attempt to control and limit an open dialog. The Plan Bay Area update has all the hallmarks of the choreographed path that Plan Bay Area followed – a plan that was seen as little more than theater to capture token public approval before rubber stamp approval.

This said simplifying a complex outreach process around a shortlist does make what will surely be a challenging job a little easier for ABAG/MTC.

(2) Scenarios: Of the three scenarios, the third “Big Cities” which concentrates growth into the cities would have the least impact on Marin. But this may inflict unacceptable growth on the residents San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose – is that what those residents want?

The plan seems to be pushed by special and corporate interests desire to grow to make a larger working population accessible, at the cost of quality of life to new and existing residents. Who is this plan really serving?

(3) Keeping Population Growth Aligned With Infrastructure Capacity:

The approach should be “How much needs to be spent on road infrastructure to absorb the planned growth while maintaining traffic congestion at current levels?” Most Marinites feel that current traffic congestion is unacceptable. The increased burden on roads is somehow wished away as if the new residents will take preferred transportation modes such as transit and biking – yet US Census figures show this is not the trend.

(4) Planners Seem Divorced from Reality, Pursuing an Unattainable Utopia:

We seem to have a major divergence, between planning and reality. Plan Bay Area plans for significant population growth, awarding neighborhoods designated as Priority Development Areas (PDAs) absorbing this growth a share of $57 billion in grants.

Many Marin neighborhoods were volunteered to be PDAs without any consultation by elected officials. It took citizens needless months of effort to rescind these unwanted designations. The money offered was paltry compared to what was needed to handle the growth – for instance San Rafael’s Mayor Phillips estimated that at best Civic Center would receive $650,000 for being a PDA; yet the growth would likely require expanding the capacity of Freitas’ 101 interchange at a cost in 2006 dollars of over $22m. The disconnect could not be more stark.

(5) We are Facing a Crisis Maintaining, Let Alone Expanding Road Capacity:

Last month, on May 12th, State Senator Mike McGuire hosted a Transportation Forum in Petaluma where the Director of Caltrans, Malcolm Dougherty and Executive Director Susan Bransen, explained that all funding for road capacity expansion programs has been cut (limiting expenditure to maintenance). There is a shortfall of $1.5 billion for the STIP program. Consequently the Sonoma Narrows project has been defunded:

(6) Flawed Fixation on the Wrong Modes of Transportation, While Ignoring New Emerging Modes:

Finally planners continue to obsess that commuting trends will somehow reverse – so that while transit usage has dropped in Marin since 1990 (Source: US Census Explorer, Commuting Edition) there is an expectation that usage will reverse and grow. SMART instead of reducing congestion will take at best 0.2% of traffic off 101 – a rounding error. Instead it is a catalyst for growth causing PDAs to spring up all along its’ tracks.

Immense amounts are being invested in bike paths, yet bike commuting in Marin remains only 1.6% (US Census). Meanwhile road funding languishes – and roads are and will remain for a long time the transportation infrastructure used by the majority. Despite planners wishes people continue to drive – in Marin and suburban/rural locations transit just isn’t sufficiently convenient or practical. It works well in cities. It’s as if planners intent is to make the roads so insufferable to use that we will all be forced to switch to transit or biking to get around.

(7) Planners Ignore the Inevitable Coming of Autonomous Cars:

The big coming change is the introduction of autonomous cars – fleets of self driving cars that can operate like Uber Pool or Zipcar. Lyft has promised to pilot a service in a US city within a year. According to the OECD, autonomous cars operated as fleets will nearly eliminate entirely the need for parking, and reduce traffic congestion:

These autonomous cars will use roads – roads that are being underfunded. Autonomous cars will work together in conjunction with transit, serving lower volume routes with higher quality door to door service.

Despite the fact we are in the leading tech region in the world Plan Bay Area planners are not planning for maintaining and expanding the roads to accommodate autonomous cars. This seems remarkably short sighted.

Attend the Forum – Have Your Say

It’s vital that as many regular Marin residents as possible attend Saturday’s Plan Bay Area forum. Typically these events are dominated by special interet groups who are then taken to be representative of the public. We need Marin to really have it’s say. The question is – are the planners really listening this time?