Union City advances plan to grab regional transit/bike/ped funds for a stroad

On Tuesday night, Union City City Council voted unanimously to repurpose $163M in funding for Dumbarton Corridor transit, bicycle, pedestrian, and transit-oriented development investments for a 4-6 lane roadway expansion, and to take full responsibility for potential cost over-runs, despite a roomful of comments unanimous in expressing concern.  The next step will come before the Alameda County Transportation Commission on March 12.

The cannibalization of regional corridor transit funding to expand a roadway has the potential to erode voter confidence in upcoming votes for new funding, including the Regional Measure 3 bridge tolls, the battle to defeat a recall effort against the SB1 gas tax,  and the efforts to pass a San Mateo County transportation tax.

Read on for more of the news and what you can do to help, wherever you are in the Bay Area.

Citizens and SamTrans seek driving alternatives to relieve traffic

At Union City City Hall, many speakers commented that increasing roadway capacity has been shown not to relieve congestion, and the city should use the money the way the voters intended, to improve transit and active transportation.

Several, including your blogger, recommended incorporating features from the SamTrans Dumbarton Corridor study to speed buses, such as signal synchronization, transit priority, queue jump lanes, so more commuters would choose the speedier buses.

A SamTrans boardmember called Mayor Dutra-Vernaci, she reported from the dais, urging Union City to update the project incorporate the recommendations of the SamTrans Dumbarton study.

But the Mayor’s response was a non-sequitur – she expressed pride at continuing support for Dumbarton Rail, and having successfully pursued seats on MTC and ACTC to advance the Rail project.  Which is welcome and good, but does not respond to citizen and transit agency pleas for short to medium term express bus improvements that could be implemented to help take cars off the road sooner than rail.

But Council members support roadway expansions for traffic relief

Council member Lorin Ellis thought that the roadway was essential for people to make first-mile connections to the BART station (although BART’s goal is to reduce the share of riders driving to stations from 27% to 16% by 2025; the share of driving alone is already down from 34% in 2008.)

bart wants fewer cars to access stations

Supporting the roadway, Council member Gacoscos felt it was was needed to keep up with the city’s expanding population, which has grown from ~55,000 in 1990 to 75,000.

Fiscal disaster or fiscal savior?

Also, speakers raised concerns about fiscal responsibility.  The same night, the City Council deferred a decision to declare a state of fiscal emergency, because the city has been dipping into pension funds to balance the budget.    The project would require the city to accept responsibility for all cost overruns, and the staff report said it was highly likely that the project would cost more than the current $320 million estimate.

Staff and city council rebuffed these concerns, expressing beliefs that roadway expansion was essential for the success of a 1.2 million square foot office development proposed near the BART station and the office development was essential for the city’s fiscal health.  Mayor Dutra Vernaci asserted that “nobody will build at the BART station without this roadway.”

Only Council Member Duncan acknowledged some of the concerns, wanting to see Fremont share in the financial risk of the project.

union city bart offices

Voters will save us from transit funding drawdowns and cost over-runs

In response to concerns about drawing down the transit and intermodal station funding, staff provided reassurances that the Alameda County Transportation Commission would replace the station funding from Senate Bill 1, the gas tax extension that is fighting a recall ballot measure in November.

Staff assured Council that missing transit funding was likely be replaced by other sources (logically including the Regional Measure 3 Bridge Tolls being on the ballot in June, including $130 Million for Dumbarton transit, and the San Mateo County transportation ballot measure, whose expenditure plan is is expected to include notable funding for Dumbarton Corridor transit.)

West Bay voters may be especially skeptical, since the last round of Dumbarton Rail funding was borrowed to pay for the BART Warm Springs extension.  And then the “loan” was forgiven, at a time that Dumbarton Rail seemed moribund.  So the new Dumbarton money is going to replace earlier money that was drained away.

Take Action: Tell decision-makers they risk losing the voters’ trust

Asking voters to pay for new funds pay for transit, when the last transit money was used to build a roadway, is risking voters’ trust.  We are being asked to pour new money into a bucket for transit funding to take cars off the road.  But at the same time, money is being drained out of the bucket a roadway project expected to increase the number of cars on the road.

  • As a Bay Area voter, are you eager to see funds you vote for in the Regional Measure 3 expenditure plan used to backfill transit money taken for a roadway expansion?   How do you feel about voting to defend SB1 from a recall effort if new transit funding is being used to backfill transit money used for a road expansion?
  • If you are a San Mateo County voter, contact the Board of Supervisors and SamTrans board and tell them you want new Dumbarton funds to build on existing funds. Urge them to work with East Bay peers to use transit funds to implement Dumbarton corridor transit improvements instead of backfilling money used for roadways

This is why we can’t have nice things

Your voice is needed, because political leaders tend to be deferential to their colleagues in other cities making their own local decisions.

But the Dumbarton Corridor is one corridor – East and West are connected with a single traffic jam.  The corridor needs a coordinated strategy, with cities and agencies working together to speed bus service, carpools in the short term, while working to reinstate rail.

Treating a corridor transit system as a collection of independent fiefdoms is a recipe for underperformance.  It’s a big reason why we in the Bay Area don’t have good transit.  So write or call your representatives and demand that transit/bike/ped funds be used as you intended as a voter, and work together on fixing the Dumbarton corridor traffic jam by getting people good options to avoid driving in traffic.