Published Friday, August 30, 2002, in the San Francisco Business Times
The danger zones
Bay Area planners struggle to escape transportation traps
By Ron Leuty
By 2020, Alameda County's population is expected to swell by more than
30 percent. Residents are also pouring into Contra Costa and Solano
counties, where relatively affordable homes fill the gap between the
Bay Area and Sacramento.
And you think traffic at the merging of interstates 80, 580 and 880 is
But Bay Area transportation planners, who have struggled to keep pace
with the sprawling growth of the past 40 years, believe they have a
long-range, region-wide sociopolitical solution to housing and
transit. Their plan would:
* Seek to reward local governments for providing housing instead of
* Reform construction law, specifically narrow the current 10-year
window that homeowners have to sue a contractor for construction
* Offer more grants to local governments for improving infrastructure,
from sewers to parking garages to rail lines.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of suggestions incorporated in a
plan adopted this month by participants in a series of "smart growth"
workshops sponsored by the Association of Bay Area Governments.
The workshops included manufacturers, winemakers, contractors,
environmentalists, politicians and union leaders.
It's all hypothetical, planners admit, but something must be
done. Twenty-year housing projections for the nine-county Bay Area
fall short by 250,000 people, according to the Association of Bay Area
Governments, and yet the region's scarce open land can't support all
of that housing.
"We're clogging the freeways. We're eating up open space. We're adding
to the ridiculous cost of housing in the Bay Area," says Victoria
Eisen, a regional planner with ABAG.
The question is priorities, planners say: Are Bay Area residents
willing to provide the incentives to lure housing development back to
the urban core as well as foot the tax bill to build and maintain
roads, bridges, tunnels and public transit systems? Or will they
continue to make two-hour commutes and complain about the traffic?
"The investment ability isn't there," says Randy Rentschler,
legislation and public affairs manager with the Metropolitan
Transportation Commission. "We are essentially just trying to catch up
with (development) decisions from years ago."
When the Bay Bridge opened in 1937, for example, the toll was
$1. Today it's $2.
Fuel taxes, Rentschler says, are relatively low compared to the 1950s
and 1960s, which saw the last big boom in building of schools, parks,
water and electricity capacity.
"The consensus politically hasn't been there," Rentschler says. "If
people want a serious effort to address congestion, to add
infrastructure overall -- I mean everything: water, power, electricity,
roads -- that's the real issue."
Transportation hotspots continue to pop up as housing development
moves northeast into Fairfield and the rest of Solano County. The
intersection of interstates 80 and 680 with state highway 12 is just
Solano County leaders expect to put a half-cent sales tax measure on
the November ballot that would raise $900 million to $1 billion over
the next 20 years. That money would go largely to realigning the
80-680-12 interchange at Cordelia, says Charlie Jones, director of the
Solano County Transportation Department.
The remainder of the funds would flow to Fairfield, Vallejo and
Vacaville, as well as the county, and some would be earmarked for
transit and light rail.
"Let's forget the growth issue for the time being -- that's the
800-pound gorilla. The growth agenda just makes the question more
apparent," the MTC's Rentschler says. "The question is: Is the
solution more transit, more train stations, more highways? It's really
going to have to be 'd' -- all of the above."
Ron Leuty covers transportation for the San Francisco Business Times.