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Proposition 1B would make state more accountable with transit funds
Oct 04, 2006
Publisher: San Jose Mercury News

San Jose Mercury News

The state is poised to spend an additional $19.9 billion in transit, highway and port infrastructure if Proposition 1B on the November ballot is enacted. This bond holds promise of significantly improving mobility in the state, if we can avoid the mistakes of the state's past transportation investment.

These mistakes are several: the halting uses of technology, the failure to discourage trip-making, the lack of any sensible pricing mechanism. By far, though, the most costly mistake has been the state's support of land development that has been both too auto-oriented and simply far too extensive.

State government, dating back to the flawed transportation planning of Gov. Pat Brown, has approached transportation investment as designed to support projected population growth. Each year the state finance department projected millions of new state residents in the upcoming decade. Each year this projection was followed by calls from government officials and legislators for denser and higher residential and commercial buildings and accompanying infrastructure to meet the projection.

This is upside-down planning, and it has resulted in overdevelopment, undermining our transportation investment. Illustration can be drawn from the Bay Area. In 1960, the nine-county Bay Area population stood at 3.6 million, and car ownership among this population was 1.62 million. By 2000, the population had nearly doubled to 6.7 million, and car ownership more than doubled to 4.3 million.

Even more telling, vehicle miles traveled, first studied for the region in 1970, increased from 53 million in 1970 to 127 million in 2000. During the 40-year period from 1960 to 2000, the region did build highways as well as impressive rail-transit systems. However, the building could not keep pace with the explosions in population, auto ownership and auto travel.

This overdevelopment need not continue under Proposition 1B, and there are signs on the local level that it won't. In the past decade, local officials have taken up community-based planning, by which neighborhood residents are able to shape the densities and designs of new development. As a result, housing and commercial projects are being built in California that fit into existing neighborhoods and with transportation investments.

Examples in the Bay Area include new housing built or in advanced planning on the Hercules waterfront, in downtown Richmond, in south Hayward, in San Carlos. In each of these areas, the views of residents on scale and density were respected, not dismissed as NIMBY or selfish. In each, the city's goal was not to cram into the space as many new residents as possible, but to achieve the elements of quality communities: neighborhood scale, safety and security, walkability, mixes of uses, open space, links to buses, rail and other transit.

In the city of Hercules, planning began in the late 1990s for development of the 250-acre waterfront area, the site of the former Hercules dynamite plant. A series of well-attended charettes was held by which residents were able to examine densities, designs and open space. The result was not high-rise housing or dense new development, but rather housing in line with the character of Hercules (10-12 units per acre), integrated with retail and commercial uses, and tied to a new intermodal transit center, consisting of bus, rail and ferry service.

Proposition 1B itself is crafted to emphasize accountability in transportation funding. Transportation projects are to go through a vetting process on several levels, and to show discernible impacts in reducing congestion in a corridor. Still, local officials and neighborhood groups will want to be closely involved in project design and in the appropriate scale of any new corridor building.

California squandered a good part of its past transportation investment since 1958. But it's not too late to get it right. Starting with the passage of Proposition 1B, and following examples such as the city of Hercules, we can build communities of neighborhood scale that are linked to transit, and start to turn the tide on gridlock.

Michael Bernick is a former director of the state Employment Development Department (EDD) and former board member of BART. He is a senior fellow with the Milken Institute.