Trains, Buses Part of Costly California Plan to Relieve Bay Area Traffic

A multi-billion-dollar plan could change the way commuters get around the densely populated region.

by Erin Baldassari, East Bay Times / December 18, 2017

(TNS) — Imagine a Bay Area with highways that flow instead of grind to a halt. With trains that ring the bay, some running 24 hours a day. With ferries that stop at more than a handful of terminals and autonomous buses cruising in their own lanes, blasting past cars on the freeway.

If that sounds like a fantasy, just wait. The dream may be closer to reality than you think.

A coalition of Bay Area business leaders represented by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area Council, along with the urban planning think tank SPUR, say that dream is the answer to traffic congestion on Bay Area roads, which grew 84 percent between 2010 and 2016. The average commuter now spends more than 29 hours a year slogging through highways at speeds of 35 mph or slower.

“People are wasting hours of their life in traffic,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the president and CEO of SPUR. “Conversations started all over the Bay Area asking the question, can we do something at a bigger scale than we have done before? Big enough to actually solve the problem? Big enough to actually get us a different regional transportation system than we have today?”

Securing passage of Regional Measure 3, the proposed $3 toll increase on most bay bridges, is the first step, Metcalf said. But it’s a small one paving the way for a much bigger ask: A “mega measure” to fix traffic in the Bay Area for good — or at least for the foreseeable future.

For Oakland resident Lynn Hall, relief can’t come soon enough. She commutes to Redwood City and said it’s becoming impossible to get around.

“It’s crazy,” Hall said. “It feels like there are just too many people here. Our roads just can’t handle the capacity of the traffic we have.”

It’s too early to specify what transformative projects Bay Area residents can expect as part of this mega measure, said Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. However, early conversations have shed some light on the direction it might take.

The plan would almost certainly include a major expansion of train service for BART and Caltrain, said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council. First on the list is a second tube, or bridge, for BART, which would allow 24-hour service, minimize the impact from a massive earthquake wiping out the existing Transbay Tube, and provide relief for trains bottle-necking in West Oakland. That tube could include Caltrain, or there could also be a new bay crossing, likely a bridge, to carry Caltrain, high-speed rail, or both, along with cars, Metcalf said.

There could be a vast network of toll lanes ringing the bay and radiating to the north, east and south, he said. They would run parallel to or even share lanes with buses. In turn, those buses, which will one day likely be autonomous, would cruise along at much faster speeds because they would be separated from single-occupancy cars, Metcalf said.

There could be dramatically expanded ferry service, and better access to the North Bay, he said.

“It’s really important to connect to the North Bay,” Metcalf said, “whether that means expanded ferry service or connecting to the SMART train. It seems like a good opportunity.”

It won’t be cheap.

There’s no price tag, at least not yet, but early estimates indicate it could be in the ballpark of $100 billion. To put that in perspective, the state’s gas tax is estimated to generate $130 billion over 25 years. And the proposed $3 toll hike is expected to generate between $4 billion and $5 billion over the same time period.

It won’t be easy, either.

Bay Area residents have been asked repeatedly in recent years to fund maintenance and expansion projects. Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties all have existing half-cent sales taxes for transportation improvements. Beginning Nov. 1, drivers started paying 12 cents more at the pump and will soon be paying more to register their cars. And then there are the special assessments for BART and AC Transit in the East Bay, along with a new proposed 1/8th-cent sales tax for Caltrain in San Francisco and the South Bay.

There’s a threshold for how much people are willing to pay, said Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord. He’s a proponent of expanding the Bay Area’s transportation network and recently joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein in calling for a new bridge across the bay for cars and BART, but he said safeguards should be put in place to ensure any new tunnel, bridge or toll lane project is rooted in data documenting what will move the most people.

“Historically in this country, too many projects have been based on political relationships,” DeSaulnier said. “That part of the system is failing us.”

The Bay Area Council, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and SPUR have already hired SCN Strategies, Gov. Jerry Brown’s campaign firm, for what they expect will be a lengthy public outreach period. They promise no decisions will be made until there’s strong analysis backing any proposed project.

“It takes a lot of public will and the resources to do this,” Guardino said. “This is nine counties, 101 cities, 33 or 34 different transit districts.”

It’s also 7 million people, including suburban and semi-rural residents who take only occasional trips to San Francisco and aren’t particularly interested in 24-hour BART service or ferries far from their inland homes.

But it’s not completely without precedent. Bay Area voters came together in 2016 to approve passage of a $12 parcel tax to fund wetlands restoration in the bay. It was the first regional tax of its kind in the Bay Area. But, Guardino said the measure sought a relatively small amount of money, an estimated $500 million over 20 years.

What SPUR and the two business organizations are contemplating is much larger, he said.

For that, Wunderman cited two recent successes in major West Coast cities as inspiration for the Bay Area’s own mega measure: Los Angeles voters approved a half-cent sales tax to drum up an estimated $120 billion over four decades for a dramatic expansion of the county’s light rail system, bus and rail operations, ongoing maintenance and fare subsidies. And Seattle voters agreed to a mix of sales, property and motor vehicle excise taxes to generate approximately $27 billion over more than 20 years to help pay for a nearly $54 billion expansion of the region’s light rail, bus rapid transit and train network, including a new transit tunnel below downtown Seattle and ongoing maintenance.

Central to both measures was a unified vision and a relatively small number of very large projects. They also both included future maintenance needs as part of the cost of building new infrastructure.

The last time the Bay Area did anything that big was the creation of BART, said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s transportation planning agency. Then, like now, it was the business community leading the charge, he said.

Jeff Heller, a prominent local architect who sits on the Bay Area Council’s transportation committee, acknowledged convincing the paying public will be the largest hurdle.

“The voting public has got to connect the dots that if they want the transportation issues solved, if they want access to housing solved, they’ve got to do this,” he said. “And they should want to do it, and they should even be excited about it.”

©2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.