We just saw community people rise up and have a green, equitable impact on the recovery — right here in Green For All's backyard. The issue: how the Bay Area will spend the recovery money it will get for public transit. I got the skinny from Richard Marcantonio of Public Advocates, one of the groups leading the charge.
It starts with the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), "the transportation planning, coordinating and financing agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area." MYC gets to call the shots on which public transit agencies to prioritize.
For instance, MTC gets to decide where regional money goes — to BART, the regional rail system, or to local bus systems like AC Transit, which serves Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. At first glance, investing in rail might seem like a good, green move. But look a little closer. This isn't the New York subway, which goes everywhere, serves everyone, and is affordable. With just a handful of lines, BART hardly goes anywhere. BART's ridership is small — and much whiter and wealthier than those of the local bus systems. And it's terribly expensive.
So when MTC announced it was planning to use recovery funds to expand BART instead of maintain local bus lines, community people and environmentalists stood up. Led by Public Advocates, Urban Habitat and Genesis, more than 100 people flooded the MTC hearing. They testified about how important AC Transit is to them in getting to work, school, the hospital, even just to buy groceries for their kids.
Public Advocates also prepared a detailed letter on behalf of Urban Habitat and Genesis laying out why the proposed rail expansions were not just misguided, but discriminatory against people who took the buses instead of the trains — overwhelmingly low-income people of color.
All of this generated some good media buzz. The community got its message across: don't spend millions building new train lines — which only a few, mostly affluent people will use — when we need that money to keep the buses — which everybody uses — running.
MTC took notice, and it shows in the results: a vastly better spending plan for the $340 million in new transit formula funds from the Recovery Act.
MTC abandoned plans to use that money to expand rail service in downtown San Francisco, since money for that expansion could come from elsewhere. That means the new formula money can go where it's needed: to help keep bus lines running. In fact, 80% of the $340 million will go to transit operators to maintain service, including $26 million for AC Transit. That's more than twice as much as MTC staff initially proposed.
MTC didn't get it all right. They still approved $70 million to expand BART to the Oakland Airport — even though perfectly good bus and shuttle service already handles that need. But even that $70 million is conditional. If MTC can't find the rest of the money it needs for that expansion by June 30 ¬— no easy proposition — that money goes back to the transit operators.
Finally, this debate broke MTC out of what has been a long tradition of rubber-stamping capital expansion at the expense of transit operations. The discussion with the public and within the commission was vigorous, and ultimately led to one heroic commissioner — Tom Bates of Alameda County — to break with his colleagues and vote against the BART expansion. This bodes well for future community involvement in regional transit decisions — an important development in light of the upcoming reauthorization of the federal transportation bill.
So stay tuned. We could have even better stories out of the Bay Area soon.