Unlocking Gridlock

Red brake lights flare as Interstate 880’s evening rush-hour traffic slows. Grimacing as she hits the brakes, high school teacher Sara Leslie, like the thousands ahead of her and the thousands behind, exemplifies the dilemma of how we move from one place to another. Why does Leslie, with a 30-mile round-trip commute, slog through Bay Area traffic every day instead of using public transit?

Leslie readily admits she is “part of the problem” as a single-occupant vehicle driver. But she believes her reasons justify her decision to drive alone: she would need to make a time-wasting detour to reach a BART station, and filling up her gas tank every ten days costs about $35, less than a two-week BART pass. While the traffic along I-880 is never smooth sailing, the chances of Leslie’s converting to public transit aren’t high.

California has the worst traffic congestion in the nation. And you’re right if you think it’s gotten worse—vehicle travel in the state has increased almost 200 percent since the mid-’70s, according to the American Public Transportation Association. But even with the recent spike in oil prices, Bay Area residents won’t abandon their cars.

“People are pretty resilient to increases in the cost of gas,” says Michael Kiesling, director of the Regional Alliance for Transit. “They may complain about it, but the world hasn’t ended.”

“As the cost of gas rises, some people will drive less, but it’s not certain there’s a very heavy response to that,” agrees John Holtzclaw of the Sierra Club’s Transportation Committee. “What is more likely is that people will buy a higher-mileage car. That has certainly happened in Europe, where gas is $4 to $6 per gallon.”

Viewing cars as affordable transportation is a costly illusion, Holtzclaw says. “In this country we heavily subsidize auto use, at a rate of $3 to $7 per gallon of gas—with air pollution, free parking, and other taxes we use to pay for road repair. We’d have to pay $5 per gallon in taxes to eliminate those subsidies, and that’s not likely to happen. So basically we’re paying people to drive.”

Holtzclaw sees a bright future for trains and buses. “Six or ten years ago, we were pioneering with the idea that you can’t build your way out of congestion. Most people didn’t accept that then and kept building freeways. Now most people do believe that if you build more highways there is more traffic, and it does not solve problems of congestion. People are now willing to put more into public transit.”

The passage of Bay Area Regional Measure 2 this March demonstrated that willingness. By raising $125 million annually through the $1 increase on bridge tolls, Measure 2 will fund various projects, including a BART link to Oakland Airport, the first leg in the BART extension to Silicon Valley, increased ferry service on the bay, express and local bus service, and redeveloping San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal.


But even with the passage of local measures, federal funding is still critical to regional public transportation. In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Bill (ISTEA), the first major highway bill to include significant funding for public transportation. ISTEA allows funds accrued from the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax to be used flexibly rather than allotting the entirety to the interstate highway system. Regional agencies like the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) can thus tailor their investments to meet local needs, including public transit, bike paths, and greenways. The federal bill—scheduled for six-year renewals—was extended in 1997. But the latest renewal, dubbed TEA-3, has been stalled in Congress for the past year, with projects kept afloat by short-term funding extensions. Unfortunately, most of our public transit money comes from this bill.

While there is bipartisan support for transit, the sticking point with the latest $299-billion bill is how it will be funded. During Clinton’s presidency, tax money covered the ’97 bill, but with today’s Republican majority refusing to raise taxes—including that federal gas tax—the bill is at an impasse. Even if it makes it to President Bush’s desk, the White House has threatened to veto any measure that includes a tax increase. According to one transit planner, vetoing a costly bill gives Bush an opportunity to look tough on spending in an election year.

Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Bay Area’s MTC, which is responsible for transit planning in nine Bay Area counties, says that although day-to-day operations aren’t affected, long-term projects have been held up by the delay. “There’s a whole lot of uncertainty over what’s going to happen,” he says. “They’ve been extending it for an entire year, on average every two months, which is just not a good way to do business.” Two projects put on ice are the Muni-Metro extension in San Francisco and Measure 2. Both are linked to the bill and cannot be fully implemented until it is passed by Congress.

Trading Options

Deciding where the money for public transit comes from is political, and so is deciding which types of transportation to fund. When people think transit, they usually think trains. But increased bus service, including the Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) is expected to receive increased funding in the bill. BRT has been successful in Los Angeles and debuted in the Bay Area this year with AC Transit in the East Bay; transit planners say it provides better service in rural areas where light rail would not be economically viable. Putting the two together is the challenge.

“We really want all the tools on the table—BRT has had some success, especially when included with rail,” says Kevin McCarty, director for the Surface Transportation Policy Project. “Over time we’d like to build complete transit systems that are about service and choice and options. There are still holes, but it’s getting better.”

Nonetheless, there’s still a fair share of controversy over how California should spend its transit funds. California’s two biggest near-future transit projects are the high-speed rail line — estimated at $35 billion — that will run between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and the proposed $5 billion BART link to San Jose. Michael Kiesling says the high speed rail is a much better deal than a fifteen-mile BART extension. “High speed rail in this state needs to connect all the cities in the Central Valley that have no alternative except driving,” Kiesling says.

California Surface Transportation Policy Project’s Charles Mason Jr. agrees with Kiesling that high speed rail makes the most financial sense but cautions that there are hurdles ahead, primarily in deciding the route before the project breaks ground in 2006. “I look at this as a huge project if it can be done the right way,” says Mason. “If it’s done the best way to keep speeds as high as possible and utilizes the existing urban corridor through the Central Valley to minimize sprawl [that might follow in its wake].”

Even with better regional transit, changing the mindset of individual commuters may prove the most difficult challenge. For generations, part of the American dream has been that everyone could drive wherever he or she wanted: a tough habit—and mindset—to break. A recent Associated Press poll found that 56 percent of Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes towards significant improvements in roads and public transportation in their neighborhoods. The same poll found that only one out of 20 use public transit — suggesting that people are willing to pay for transportation for someone else.

A key piece to the transit puzzle is building communities in a way that makes it easy for people to get out of their cars and onto the train or bus or bikes. Transit hubs need to be within walking distance of housing, with good sidewalks, traffic signals, and safe routes to reach the station. The distance and ease of connection between housing and transit greatly influence people’s car usage.

“You aren’t going to start out with a bunch of green fields,” says Holtzclaw. “What we’re talking about is making the areas around existing stations more transit- and pedestrian-oriented.”

Holtzclaw believes a fundamental shift has begun. “Things are changing, not as fast as I’d like, but in the direction we want,” he says. “We have the momentum now. So we have to keep pushing and demonstrating that it works.”•t

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